A cheerful heart has a continual feast

Archive for the ‘Spice Rack’ Category

Fennel: Sweet Little Striped Seed

In Spice Rack on November 1, 2012 at 1:44 am

fennel seedsMany people may have tasted fennel only in a link of good Italian sausage. Around the world, it is well loved by cooks from Italy to India to China, even if it is an under-appreciated wallflower here in the States.

Fennel is no wallflower in the garden. Cultivation instructions strictly advise against planting fennel too close to its feathery leafed cousin, dill,  because the two will easily cross-pollinate. Personally, I’m tempted to see what would happen.

You could say that fennel seed has a mild anise flavor and scent, mingled with an earthier, sweet tone that reminds me a little of chamomile. If chewed by themselves, they are surprisingly sweet, due to the fact that they are in fact considerably sweeter than sugar, ounce for ounce.

Native to the Mediterranean, fennel seeds (Foeniculum vulgare) have a long standing reputation as mother’s best friend. Steeped in hot water, fennel tea is believed to increase breast milk. It’s also often included in colic remedies for infants, in blends with the endearingly called “Gripe Water.”

Besides merely dispelling tummy bubbles, fennel seed has been the more serious subject of anti-cancer research. A study conducted at the University of Texas- Austin has recently indicated that one of the primary phytochemicals in fennel, anethole, may possess the impressive ability to shut down the growth of cancer cells. It also appears to protect the liver from toxic exposure to chemicals. Seems like a great reason to toss some of the little striped seeds into your soup.fennel bulb

Fennel has also been grown as a vegetable since the time of the Romans, who especially enjoyed the shoots in springtime. It might be one of those odd things you pass by in the market, because you have no idea what you’d do with it. I had a complete stranger come up and ask me last weekend as I was picking some out in the produce aisle.

White, with swerving lines and a sophisticated, curved shape, fennel usually retains some of its green shoots and feathery leaves after harvest. It has a mild, sweet anise scent. I like to slice them thinly and saute in olive oil with red bell peppers and onions,  to toss on homemade pizza, or braised into a long-simmered ratatouille, where its flavor merges and marries with tomatoes, onions, garlic, eggplant, and peppers.

It makes a nice cream sauce for chicken or fish, and can be diced raw into salads. One of my favorite spots for fennel bulb, however, is in split pea soup. Its presence is subtle, but enhancing, and for those sensitive to beans and peas, fennel makes pea soup more easily digestible.

I almost always find myself doctoring jars of spaghetti sauce with a handful of fennel seeds, where it contributes a much needed lift along with a generous twist of freshly milled black pepper.

Blended with other herbs in hot tea, fennel’s amicable sweetness can make its bitter companions more palatable. Maybe we could all learn to be more like fennel.

Black Licorice Cookies

In Spice Rack on October 26, 2012 at 5:45 am

While genuine licorice root has a long history in herbal medicine and can be found today in natural licorice candies like the Finnish Panda brand, whole licorice extract is one of the stronger acting medicinals and is not appropriate for everyone (pregnant women or people with high blood pressure, for example). Most commercial black licorice is actually flavored with the extract of another herb: anise seed. Its flavor is a bit sharper than licorice root, perhaps more “like licorice” than licorice.

Similar in appearance and texture to a molasses spice cookie, these are soft and chewy, with intense aroma and flavor. Don’t be afraid to use the whole wheat pastry flour. Its fine texture disappears into the cookie, and its retained nutrients help metabolize the carbohydrates a bit (yes, they are sweet, so as tempting as it may be, don’t eat the whole batch in one sitting.)

2 ¼ cups whole wheat pastry flour

2 tsp baking soda

½ tsp sea salt

3/4 cup butter, softened (or ½ cup butter, ¼ cup semi solid flavor neutral coconut oil)

½ cup organic dark brown sugar

¼ cup organic unrefined sugar + additional ¼ cup sugar for topping cookies (Note: do not use turbinado sugar. Its crystal is far too large)

1 large egg

4 tsp anise extract

½ cup blackstrap molasses



Preheat oven to 375.

Mix dry ingredients in a medium size bowl; set aside.

Cream butter (and coconut oil if using it) together with sugars until light and fluffy. Add egg, anise extract, and molasses, mixing well.

Add dry ingredients to butter-sugar mixture and stir just enough to combine.

Place remaining ¼ cup granulated sugar into a shallow dish.

Shape dough into balls, using about 2 tbsp for each one.

Roll balls of dough in sugar and place each one on parchment lined or ungreased cookie sheet. Spacing should be about 2 inches apart.

Bake between 11-12 minutes. Cookies should appear somewhat under-cooked, with the edges looking baked, while the inside is still puffed up and soft to the touch. Let them cool for 3-5 minutes before removing from the cookie sheet with a large spatula to place on a cooling rack.  It is very important NOT to overbake these cookies.  Once they cool, the texture should be cracked and chewy, almost like a brownie.

Have You Ever Really Tasted Cinnamon…?

In Spice Rack on October 19, 2012 at 5:42 am

Cinnamomum veraIf you made a list of the top five spices most likely to be sitting in the average American kitchen, Cinnamon would make the list easily. It would probably even make the top three, next to salt and pepper. You wouldn’t really even need to have a kitchen at all. You can find it at most every cash register, in the form of cinnamon gum and red hot candies. It even wafts through the mall, luring you toward the giant rolls bathed in white frosting that like to take a long ride on your hips.

So I will forgive you for giving me a strange look when I ask whether you’ve ever really tasted cinnamon.

Despite our long-standing relationship, the cinnamon most of us grew up with is actually a spice more properly called cassia. Though from the same family, and similar in appearance, cassia has a more fiery hit on the tongue and a bit of a wooden flavor note when compared with its cousin, Cinnamomum vera, or true cinnamon.  The United States government does not require any differentiation in marketplace labeling between cassia and cinnamon when used as a spice, allowing both to be interchangeable in the marketplace, as “cinnamon.”

True cinnamon has a lighter touch, is a more complex, and has a sweeter taste. Much of it is grown where it is native: in Sri Lanka, an exotic tropical island nation that resembles a tear drop near India’s southern tip.  Once reserved for kings and the tables of the world’s wealthiest, cinnamon, like many spices, was traded by spice merchants who did their best to keep its origins a secret. Cinnamon trees, whose bark and leaves are intensely fragrant, grow in clusters. Their small shoots are trimmed close to the ground in order to harvest young bark, which is laid out in the sun to dry into brittle, curling quills.  Cinnamon bark is notably lighter in color and thinner than cassia quills, which are harvested mainly in China and Viet Nam.

Both types of cinnamon have been studied for potential in treating type 2 diabetes, promoting blood sugar control. Cinnamomum vera has also demonstrated antibacterial activity in the lab, combating antibiotic resistant Staph organisms (staphylococcus aureus). Cinnamon has been used in folk medicines around the world, for digestive discomfort and a host of other complaints, including breathing difficulties, viral infections, psoriasis, impotence, and arthritis.

I keep both cassia and cinnamon in my collection of spices, but I love the sweetness and floral quality of true cinnamon the most. You can generally find it these days in a natural foods cooperative or health food store that carries fresh, bulk herbs and spices. I use it in baking, as well as when hand blending spices for Mexican dishes, where it subtly enhances smoked chiles, cumin, and oregano. To wake up your taste buds, try blending ½ teaspoon of true cinnamon with 1 tablespoon toasted ground flaxmeal  and sprinkle with butter and sea salt over 6 quarts fresh air-popped corn.