Black pepper is underappreciated!

Black pepper is about as ubiquitous as any spice can possibly be.  It would probably be hard to find a kitchen without it.  Sometimes is preground (yuck) and doesn’t really have much except enough heat to make you sneeze.  It’s something many probably pick up in the grocery store without thinking about it.  But, black pepper is black pepper is black pepper is not true.  It is often added as kind of an afterthought amongst other spices and herbs.

Whole Special Extra Bold Indian Black PeppercornsI’ve always been picky about my black pepper–my favorite is from Penzeys.  I’ve been mail-ordering it from there for ages–and have kept on even with the local store since I’ve got my established list of herbs and spices there.

If you peruse the list of black peppers from Penzeys, you’ll find quite a selection:  India Tellicherry, India Malabar (both excellent) and then there’s the Special Extra Bold Indian Black Peppercorns.  True more expensive than either of the others, but worth every penny more.

However, as much as I liked black pepper (over eggs, in mashed potatoes, with strawberries, balsamic, and black pepper), I didn’t really appreciate black pepper as the main seasoning until I made fårikål.  The seasoning is black pepper!  Lots of whole black peppercorns that cook right with the cabbage and the lamb. And should get eaten rather than picked out; after the long cooking they still have some tooth but are soft enough to eat easily and the flavor is just amazing.

Black pepper is worth exploring as something other than an add-on to other herbs and spices.  It should always be bought whole rather than ground or cracked.  While you can spend a small fortune of a pepper mill, you can also get a reasonably inexpensive one.  It will open a whole new world of flavor.  The highly recommended mill from America’s Test Kitchen was from Cole and Mason, and surprisingly, very reasonably priced.

Another tasty dish featuring lots of black pepper that you should make once you have some really good black whole peppercorns to go with you pepper mill is cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper pasta).  But do try it with good ripe strawberries, too.  Or on a lusciously ripe muskmelon or watermelon.

A son gôut!

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Culinary rhizomes: Ginger and turmeric

We’re all familiar with ginger root (from the grocery store or dried whole or powdered) and turmeric (commonly found in curry powder–the bright yellow-orange stuff), and galangal in Southeast Asian cooking, but you can add those to the things you can grow in your kitchen garden–even if it is a container garden.

The ginger family of plants (Zingiberaceae) provides us with a number of “spices” that we use frequently:  ginger (Zingiber officinale), turmeric(Curcuma longa), and galangal (Alpinia officinarum or “lesser galangal), and cardamom seeds (genera Elettaria–green cardamom-and Amomum–black cardamom).

Ginger, turmeric, and galangal are perennial herbaceous plants with specialized horizontal stems (rhizomes) that lie underground, but close to the surface.  While we are most likely to encounter these in the dried form or find the ginger rhizomes in the produce section of the grocery store, you can add the fresh forms of some of these to your culinary repertoire.

All these plants mentioned above have similar requirements for growing: even moisture, well-drained soil, partial to dappled shade, warm temperatures, and high humidity, and protection from cold.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

You can start your ginger by getting the “root stock” (an official technical term here) from the grocery store.   You want rhizomes that are plump, and fresh looking, and that have knobs or nubs growing off the main part of the root.  It’s likely that the ginger root you find in the grocery store will have been treated with something to retard growth/sprouting, so rinse it thoroughly before you plant it.

Bury it about one inch deep in well-drained soil and keep evenly moist.  If you’re planting it in a pot, you should use one that is of 12- to14-inch diameter and about same in depth, but does not need the full depth of most 14 inch pots.

It may take a few weeks before you see shoots appear.  You’ll not want to harvest your ginger heavily the first season, but you can harvest some after about 4 months.  Ginger will not need (or like) full sun–it would prefer part (dappled) shade.  In areas where you get hard freezes, you’ll need to overwinter indoors.  In areas where the winter is mild, it may die back to the ground with the onset of cool weather but should come up again in the spring.  (I’m partial to growing it in large pots).  During the summer it can be put outdoors and moved to shelter to prevent freezing in winter.  It should be fertilized with an all-purpose fertilizer about twice during the growing season.

You harvest by very gently uncovering part of the rhizome, or where it’s seen above the surface towards the edge of the pot–leaving the center portion undisturbed.

The ginger you harvest from your plant will be much less fibrous and less “hot” when compared to the large rhizomes that you purchase in the grocery store.  The leaves/stalks can also be used to brew tea (steep leaves in boiling water for 5 minutes) and you can add to stir-fries or other dishes if you slice the stalks/leaves thinly–it has a mild ginger flavor and maybe a hint of lemon or citrus.

Turmeric ( Curcuma domestica syn Curcuma longa)

Turmeric is touted as an anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant–I’m not touching on those properties here, but rather the culinary uses.  It has been called “poor man’s saffron” and that’s one of my favorite things: add fresh turmeric to rice.  It’s very earthy and warm.  It’s not saffron, but it’s good.

To grow your own, you’ll need the fresh rhizomes–found in Asian, Indian or Latina groceries–probably located close to the ginger, (and maybe the galangal).  You’ll treat it almost as you would ginger:  plant about one to two inches deep in a 12- to 14-inch pot (about 12 inches in depth as well), keep evenly moist but well-drained, and give it part shade to dappled shade.  This is also a tropical perennial so it will need winter protection.  In cool weather, the leaves will die back, but if not frozen the rhizomes should sprout again in the spring.  (I tried keeping some, with the ginger, in the house to overwinter, but neither turmeric nor ginger survived as a plant; the rhizomes did put up shoots again in the spring.)

You can harvest as you would ginger–by carefully cutting off small pieces toward the edges of the pot.  You need to handle with care as it will stain hands and probably counters–it’s used as a dye, too.   Left undisturbed (except for harvesting from the edges) you may see blooms in the second year.

Turmeric is currently appearing in chocolate bars, and being touted as a “superfood”. I just like the earthy flavor, in many things where I would use saffron (but am too cheap to do that).

I hope to add galangal if I can find the fresh rhizome–there is an Asian food store that I keep watching. I suspect I’ll find it there sooner or later.

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A mortar and pestle

I  have a dedicated spice grinder (one of those little “coffee grinders” that doesn’t work on coffee,) but I’ve decided that I need a good mortar and pestle.  I gave away the wooden ones and the porcelain ones that just don’t work either.

Why do I want a mortar and pestle? Well, the spice grinder does not work well for small quantities like I often used when doing single-serving cooking–I do mean literally single-serving cooking. When all I want to grind is six allspice berries and 1/8 teaspoon of cumin seeds–the grinder is overkill, and they really just bounce around in there, so it’s not really efficient and then add cleaning time and effort. (This is kind of like my feeling about food processors versus my chef’s knife–give me simple and effective, along with easy clean-up for small quantities of stuff!)

That doesn’t mean I’m giving up my spice grinder–it’s great when I’m making a huge pot of chili con carne and need to grind larger quantities. But when all I want is a few spices to put into two servings of mujadara I’ll opt for manual labor. Not giving up the food processor either–love it for making large quantities of mirepoix for the freezer.

Given how unhappy I’ve been with all the previous mortars and pestles I’ve had, I went in search of a review of them. From Fine Cooking I found “Equipment Review: Mortars and Pestles” with a discussion of materials, pros, and cons, and even some specific recommendations.

The top rated one was made of granite with granite pestle from ImportFoods.com was one tested. Part of the utility of a mortar is how rough or smooth the inside is. I don’t want to buy one sight unseen from “that place” because I won’t be able to look inside it and feel the interior.

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Spice & herb information

I’ve had a leisurely day–studying about bees in hopes of taking the Journeyman exam at the NC State Beekeepers Association meeting this summer, and as usual when anywhere near access to the internet, doing a little browsing that, inevitably, leads to food or something closely related to it (if not bees or honey).

I found a website that I thought worth sharing on the Kitchn called Spice Intelligence with articles (and recipes using) spices and traditional blends.  There are discussions from asafoetida to za’atar.

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Lamb Stew (Alentejo-style)

My bargain shopping got me a butterflied leg of lamb that was on special. Rather than roast it whole, I decided our chilly, grey, damp weather needed stew.

I cut the lamb leg into 3 cm cubes; I decided that I wanted some variety in my stews so since I had two pounds of lamb so all I needed to do was halve the recipes.Since I’ve not done much Iberian cookery I got out The Food of Spain & Portugal: The Complete Iberian Cuisine by Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz (page 152).  

pimenton-de-la-veraThere are a lot of lamb stew recipes in this book. I finally made a decision based on seasonings that sounded interesting: garlic, parsley, pimenton de la vera (smoked), cayenne, and cloves. (The recipe only said “paprika”–which I’m sure would work fine, but I particularly like the smokiness of the pimenton de la vera, but I used the amount called for.)

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Carneiro à Alentejana

Ingredients

  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
  • salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 900 g (2 pounds), lean, boneless lamb, cut into 3.5 cm/1-1/2 inch pieces
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil or lard
  • 2 medium onions, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon paprika
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 175 mL/ 3/4 cup dry white wine

Preparation

  • Mix garlic, parsley, salt, and pepper. Add the lamb to the garlic mixture and marinate about 2 hours. (I left mine overnight)
  • In a large skillet, heat the oil or lard and brown the lamb pieces all over.
  • Transfer lamb to a flameproof casserole.
  • In the remaining oil and sauté the onion until soft and add to the casserole.
  • Add paprika, cayenne, cloves to the casserole. (I like to “bloom” dry spices in oil before adding liquid so I added the paprika while sautéing the onions)
  • Bring to a simmer on the stovetop.
  • Cover and put in a moderate oven (180ºC/350ºF) and cook until the lamb is tender (about 1-1/2 hours).

The author recommends serving with a light red wine (red Vinho Verde or Dão, and notes that in Portugal meats are usually served with both potatoes and rice.

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I halved the recipe above and used the other pound of lamb to make my favorite lamb and cabbage stew (Fårikål) with the other half. I considered being very energy conscious and making both at the same time; however, my hedonism won and I made them on different days because I love to luxuriate in the aromas of cooking–that’s part of the anticipation and enjoyment of cooking and eating. I just didn’t think I would get to enjoy them in the same way if I were to cook both at the same time. I would have missed some of the pleasure of cooking had I done that. The smell (especially of the pimenton de la vera) was particularly appetizing.

The combination of the pimenton, cayenne, and clove was wonderful. I don’t often use the “sweeter” spices with meats but that little dash of clove has made me wonder why I haven’t used them more with meat. I need to broaden my perspective on the “appropriate” spices to use with meats.

The balance of the seasoning in this recipe (I didn’t change anything) was wonderful–just enough cayenne to give a little “burn” as you eat your way through a serving, but not every getting to the point where you felt as if you had blisters on your taste buds–and the clove didn’t smack you in the face either. All in all a very well-balanced seasoning. I’ll probably try this with lamb shoulder chops–even without cutting them up.

Oh, wine? Well since there was a bottle of my “house wine” already open, I used that–it’s one of the things I like about that wine: it’s very versatile. Rice? Potatoes? Nope–garbanzo beans.

There is one modification I think I’ll make next time–I’ll add more onions they were luscious after cooking with the lamb and seemed just right with the pimenton.

Chile (or chilli or chili) paste for the pantry

I was perusing the list of favorite blogs that I follow on WordPress. When I got to the Chef Mimi blog I found an idea (and a recipe) that I just have to share.

I always have dried chilli peppers around the house, but they mostly just get used when I’m making chilli con carne because they take time and usually some unplanned effort to use.  I’d not thought of making paste out of them! A wonderful thing to have on hand. This will take you to the recipe for Ancho Chile Paste. No matter how you name those peppers they are great to have in the kitchen–and this makes them easier to use.

(I’m not going to give up my ancho chile powder from Penzeys Spices, though.)

A little food history

I do enjoy Facebook! Because my friends have such diverse interests, I get to read articles that I might never have encountered were it not for perusing Facebook posts. In this case, I’ve been overwhelmed with work (love that) which cuts into my skulking about the internet looking for fun stuff.

Here’s a link to an article from NPR on the Eastern and Western use of spices that I just read (no it’s not new–only new to me) and enjoyed.

Holiday time again….

Like it or not the holiday season approaches. I’ve one Christmas gift to order yet, but then I’m through. I thought I’d pass on a few suggestions for gifts for those of you who still have a cooking person on your list to shop for:

  • Volrath French carbon steel skillet: probably my most-used, it has the advantages of cast iron, without the weight.
  • Romertopf clay cooker: a go-to especially for one-dish meals in cold weather.
  • Home espresso machine: Can’t start the morning without my jolt of caffeine either straight espresso or café latte.
  • Clever Coffee Dripper: If I’m not wanting quite the jolt of espresso this gets something more like French press, with the benefit of a filter to eliminate the sediment.
  • Kunh Rincon garlic press: If garlic is a cooking necessity, a garlic press can be a time-saver, or it can be a total nuisance when you have to clean it, so you don’t use it. This is a good one, recommended by Cook’s Illustrated after testing lots of them.*
  • Max Burton Portable Induction cook unit: Live where it’s hot and humid in the summer? You just hate to turn on the stove? Induction cooking is much cooler–though it does require cookware that is either stainless steel or iron.  If a magnet won’t stick on your cookware, then you need the Hob Heat Diffuser that will allow you to use other cookware with the induction unit.
  • Pressure cooker: The Fissler FSSFIS5859 Vitaquick Pressure Cooker was the winner of the Cook’s Illustrated testing* and is pricey.  The runner-up was the Fagor Duo line, less pricey, highly recommended and noted as “best buy”. (This is the one I’ve used.) This cooker does work with induction cook units–a real plus in hot, humid weather when you still want those dried beans cooked.
  • Fasta Pasta Microwave pasta cooker: This is a real gem to have in the kitchen! So much easier than boiling that big pot of water–again great in hot, humid weather, but once you start using it, you’re hooked. Again this is a kitchen “gadget” that was tested by Cook’s Illustrated.*
  • If the cook you’re shopping for is just getting a kitchen set up, there’s always some of the essentials for good cooking: Penzeys herbs and spices, either basic, for bakers or for the cook starting to branch out, a do-it-yourself box of specialty herbs and spices.  If you have someone on your list who has to watch sodium intake, there are lots of salt-free blends. If you buying for a cook pressed for time, seasoning blends can be real time-savers–in my kitchen I don’t want to be without herbes de Provence for that time when I’m just too rushed to think blending my own.
  • For relaxation and enjoyment,  either alone or with company, a selection off teas to have on a leisurely morning, or relaxing afternoon break.  Harney & Sons Master Tea Blenders have a fantastic selection–black, green, herbal, flavored, and all the accessories necessary to make a special occasion. Teas can be ordered individually, or there are collections ready made.  If you’re unsure what tea would please your “giftee” most, then send a selection of samples–for a modest $2 you can send enough to brew a decent pot of many teas. Some very expensive ones–e.g. Black King which rings up at $240.00/pound–the sample may run $5. What a great way to let someone explore fine teas–treat yourself.
  • Like a liqueur to sip while relaxing? If you’re in North Carolina, there are some lovely liqueurs made in Durham by the Brothers Vilgalys: Krupnikas, a spice honey liqueur would be a real treat, or look at the unusual liqueurs they make: Beatmik, Beebop, Zaphod, and Jabberwok.  All are great in cocktails, for just sipping straight, added to hot chocolate or hot cocoa.  If you’re not in North Carolina you may still be able to get these delightful liqueurs through other distributors.

Wishing you and your favorite cook very happy holidays–lots of good food, friends, conversations, as well as wines and spirits!

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*Cook’s Illustrated equipment testing is done without manufacturers knowledge until after publication, and products tested are chosen for consumer benefit. They do not accept requests for testing from manufacturers.

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Spice is a state of mind: cabbage thoran

Good information for all of us who cook using spices.

The Odd Pantry

Cabbage thoran Cabbage thoran

Sometimes spice is just a state of mind. Plants don’t come with Dymo-printed labels that say ‘Spice use recommended’.

Now you might think I’m making an issue out of nothing. Obviously, plants that produce a strong appetizing smell can be used as spices, and others not, right? No mind tricks necessary.

But consider what happens during the process of blooming spices, otherwise known as tempering, or tadka. A sequence of spices are thrown into hot oil. They may be seeds — like cumin or black mustard, dry leaves like the bay, or even bits of bark — like cinnamon.

If the temperature is too low, nothing particular happens, while if the temperature is too high, the spice burns. But if the temperature is just right, two things happen. One, the outer surface of the spice browns. This browning, known as the Maillard reaction, is the perfect state of cooked food…

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