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Spice Up Your Life

Opinion | February 28, 2011

The other day, someone I don’t know very well walked into my room, immediately noticed the giant spice rack on my desk, and asked me if I collect spices. My initial thought was “That’s a bizarre question, what kind of weirdo just collects spices?” I then turned toward my 36, alphabetically arranged, neatly labeled, spice-filled mason jars, singling out galangal root and kaffir lime leaves. and realized that even though I do more with spices than just collect them, I’m still that weirdo—regardless of how much more delicious my rice was with galangal root boiled in the water.

I don’t want to launch into some spice sermon about how everybody should use egregiously esoteric ingredients like galangal root in their daily cooking, or sprinkle cardamom into their friends’ Jim Beam while pregaming for Winter Bash or Spring Fling. My message is simple: exploring local spice markets and specialty foods stores will absolutely result in you eating better-tasting food. Here are some of my favorite spices, the stories of how we became acquainted, and some ideas for what to do with them:

CARDAMOM
My dad’s dentist is in a neighborhood of Boston called Jamaica Plain. In this neighborhood there used to be a bakery called “Sweet Finnish” which specialized in, yes, Finnish baked goods. One day, my dad arrived home from an appointment with a warm brown paper bag issuing a sweet and exotic smell. Inside were little Finnish rolls called pulla, flecked with cardamom seeds and topped with crunchy pearl sugar. This is how my relationship with cardamom began; I fell deeply in love after my first pulla. Shortly thereafter, I discovered the Indian rice pudding kheer, which is sweeter and silkier than most rice puddings because its made with condensed milk, and has a vaguely minty, peppery flavor going on—that’s the cardamom. I could bathe in it.

I began experimenting with cardamom in sheepish ways—i.e.  putting it in my Swiss Miss—and quickly learned that I enjoyed a little bit of cardamom sprinkled in most anything. Pancake batter. On top of sliced bananas drizzled with honey. As an ice cream flavor (called khulfi; Toscanini’s in Central Square has a good version). I started incorporating it more into masalas for curries, and into my coffee, as they do in the Middle East. I chewed the whole pods during class. This year, my housemate Quin got me into oatmeal; I instinctively reached for my ground cardamom the first time we made it together. His mastery of oats and my obsession with cardamom combined to make what is probably the best thing you can have for breakfast this winter.

QUIN’S STEEL-CUT OATMEAL WITH CARDAMOM
After trying this, I can’t imagine eating instant oatmeal again. Steel-cut oatmeal changed my life and it will change yours too if you give it a chance.
Serves 1
2 teaspoons butter
2/3 cup oats
2 2/3 cups water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
A drip of honey, plus a little more to drizzle on top
1/2 teaspoon orange blossom water* (optional)

Start the water boiling. In a small saucepan, brown the butter and toast the oatmeal for about three minutes, until it smells nutty and delicious. When the water has boiled, pour over oats and turn the heat up to high. While oats are boiling, add salt, cardamom, and honey. Stir well, and turn down to a simmer. Add in the orange blossom water if using. Cover and let simmer for 15-20 minutes.

*Found at any Middle Eastern market, orWhole Foods-type place. It’s a distillation of orange blossom that tastes like flowers.

CUMIN
I spent last semester abroad in Morocco. I was expecting to be bombarded by spices, both ones I already loved and ones I hadn’t even tasted yet. This turned out, sadly, to not really be true. But what I did encounter was a lot of cumin. Really, really, good cumin. The spicing for most Moroccan dishes relies heavily on cumin, which grows in Southern Morocco, and as the semester went on I realized its full potential. Most people know about and use cumin, and of course I’d been around it plenty in my day (I happen to have a friend who used to pour it on himself as deodorant), but I was never really that enthusiastic about it. Well, I guess cumin and I renewed our vows or something; I brought back bags and bags of it. I’ve been recreating my favorite Moroccan dishes at home this semester, and it’s the cumin that really makes me nostalgic. Dragging a hardboiled egg through tiny mounds of salt and cumin, I have a Proustian moment as I take a bite and remember some of my favorite dishes.

ZA’ALOUK (MOROCCAN-STYLE EGGPLANT)
Serves 4
4 medium-sized eggplants
Olive oil
3 cloves garlic, sliced
~1 cup canned tomatoes + juice (break up the tomatoes in your hands)
~1 teaspoon cumin
A little saffron if you have it
Salt to taste

Over an open flame (at medium-high heat on your stovetop), blacken the eggplants on all sides until soft, the same way you might turn a red bell pepper into a roasted red pepper. This should take about 15 minutes per eggplant. When finished, put into a 400 degree oven on a baking sheet for about ten minutes, or until cooked through. Take them out, and let cool. When cool enough to handle, peel them, and mush up the insides in a bowl using your hands—this should be fun.
In a sauté pan, heat enough olive oil to coat the bottom. Add the sliced garlic, eggplant, and tomatoes, and stir a bit. Then add the cumin, salt, and saffron if using. Let the ingredients get to know each other for a bit—say ten minutes—over medium-high heat, and then serve. Best eaten using bread as a utensil—baguettes and round focaccias work best.

B’SSARA (MOROCCAN FAVA BEAN SOUP)
Serves 6
4 cups dried, split fava beans (soaked at least 4 hours)*
4 cups water
a little olive oil
4 cloves garlic, whole
1 tablespoon cumin
1 cup vegetable stock (you might want more)

In a large soup pot (a Dutch oven is even better, if you have one), heat enough olive oil to coat the bottom. Add the garlic and fava beans and sautee for 5 minutes. Then cover in the water, add the salt and cumin, and bring to a boil. Once it reaches a boil, turn it down to a simmer and leave it for 45 minutes or until the fava beans have totally broken down. This could take an hour, just be patient—it’s worth it. Once the fava beans have absorbed most of the water and it looks like there are mashed potatoes in your pot, put them into a blender with the vegetable stock and blend until smooth. You may need to do this in batches. When smooth (you can add more stock if you want it smoother), return to the pot. Serve with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of cumin and paprika.

*You can usually find these at Middle Eastern or Indian markets. I get mine at a place called Al-Bara Market on Prospect St. in Cambridge just outside Inman Sq. It’s a short walk from the Central Square T station.

PIMENTÓN DE LA VERA
After my semester in Morocco, I traveled to Spain for a week. By this time, I was totally sick of Moroccan food and my first night in Seville, I wilded out, so to speak, and ordered lots of really heavy, homey, fatty Spanish dishes. I started with fried octopus served with homemade thick-cut fries and glistening aioli, sprinkled liberally with a magic red pixie dust that I later realized was pimentón de la vera: Spanish smoked paprika so special that it can only truly be grown in one small area of the country. As the week went on, I experienced this truly intoxicating spice in many ways, on many things, and came home with three different varieties: dulce (sweet), picante (spicy), and agridulce (in between). All three are favorites at my house, and a teaspoon of the agridulce variety in my housemate Clinton’s lentils the other week transported him into a state of rapturous delight. He now asks me for some almost every day. It’s possible to find pimentón de la vera at Christina’s in Inman Square, which also has every other spice you could possibly want. If they don’t have the real Spanish stuff  (though they should) any smoked paprika will work.

SMOKEY LENTIL SALAD
Serves 6
2 cups lentils (French green lentils are best)
4 cups water
Olive oil
Grainy Dijon mustard
Pomegranate molasses*
Pimentón de la vera or other smoked paprika
salt

In a saucepan, cover the lentils in roughly twice their volume of water. Bring to a boil, then when it reaches a boil, turn down to a simmer. Simmer, covered, for about 30-40 minutes, stirring intermittently, until cooked through but not mushy.  Drain, and put in the fridge to chill.

For the vinaigrette dressing: Use about 1 part mustard to about 2.5 parts olive oil. So, on this scale, 1 teaspoon of mustard and 2.5 teaspoons of olive oil. Add about a half a teaspoon of pomegranate molasses. Slowly whisk the olive oil into the mustard until it emulsifies and then add the pomegranate molasses, still stirring.
When the lentils are chilled, combine in a mixing bowl with the vinaigrette, and shower liberally with smoked paprika, about a teaspoon or a teaspoon and a half. It’s best to use the ‘dulce’ variety. This is what makes the dish, don’t forget it. You also need to add salt, and don’t be light-handed. Serve on a bed of lettuce or eat it out of Tupperware the next day .

*Pomegranate molasses is just really concentrated pomegranate juice. You can find it at any Middle Eastern market, or at Whole Foods or Dave’s Fresh Pasta.