A cheerful heart has a continual feast

Archive for October, 2012|Monthly archive page

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.

The Grape Labrusca

In Fruit and Veggies on October 23, 2012 at 4:26 am

Concord GrapesWhen I was a child, a neighbor had a grapevine that tumbled over into our yard. The grapes started out tiny and green. Shielded by broad, sheltering leaves they transformed over the summer, ripening into deep blue clusters that hung from the vine, fat with juice. I still remember being intrigued to find that the sweet-tart skins would slip off, leaving a pale green orb in my hand. They were transparent enough to view the seeds in its center; seeds which made a crunch if I just ate the grape whole. I was disappointed that the grape wasn’t the color of jam all the way through, but that didn’t stop my brother and me from picking and eating all the grapes we could reach.

If you grew up on standard green grapes, or even red table grapes, fresh concord grapes are a completely different experience. That’s because they are completely different. Concord grapes are descended from wild North American grapes, vitus labrusca (fox grape). When we think of “grape flavor,” it is the Concord that smells and tastes that way, not the European grape varieties we use on the table or make into wine. The intense fragrance is what makes eating fresh Concords such a sensory experience.

I usually find them for a short time in late summer or early fall at independent fruit markets, but they’re also easy to grow in the backyard for many North Americans. After all they are uniquely adapted, given their lineage. Their story is a New England original:

Mr. Ephraim Wales Bull has been described by contemporaries as a bit of an eccentric. After trying out so many varieties of grapes on his farm, Bull couldn’t seem to find one hardy enough to withstand the harsh Massachusetts winters, but he kept trying. After many attempts, in the late 1840’s he started eying the wild grape vines that rambled freely about the countryside. One day he dug up a vine and transplanted it near a Catawba grape, which was a popular variety that grew on his farm. A red grape cross between wild labrusca and European grapes, the Catawba most likely pollinated Mr. Bull’s wild transplant.

Whatever the parentage, Bull collected the grapes that grew on the wild vine that season and planted them, fruit and all, then waited to see what would emerge. One of these offspring proved to be exceptional. It had lovely flavor and aroma, and was early to ripen. Bull propagated his vine and entered it into the 1853 competition at the Boston Horticultural Society, where the Concord won first place. Not only was his grape wildly popular in home gardens, it inspired a massive shift in juice and jam-making.

I didn’t tell my six year old daughter what to expect when I snipped off a little cluster of dusky grapes from the market this fall. I watched as she discovered them for herself, slip skins, seeds, and all. She experimented with crunching up the seeds at first, but soon opted to spit them out and carefully build a small stack at the side of her plate as the grapes disappeared. And then she asked for more.

Fun Facts:

Welch’s grape juice was first made in a family kitchen, the experiment of a Temperance activist and doctor, Thomas Bramwell Welch, in 1869.  He wanted to create a replacement for communion wine. Welch successfully produced a non-fermenting grape juice by pasteurizing it in glass bottles on the stove top and first served it at his Methodist church.

Grape jam was first called Grapelade, made as a military ration in World War I. Even if the name didn’t stick, it became the most widely known companion to peanut butter in American sandwiches, also with a bit of help from Uncle Sam, who got American GI’s hooked on the combination during World War II.

Concord Grapes are rich in vitamin C as well as antioxidants. As a dark purple fruit, their color comes from anthocyanins, which has cardiovascular and immune supporting properties. The grapes also contain catechins (an antioxidant also found in green tea), as well as quercetin, another flavonoid with antihistamine action. The skins and seeds also contain resveratrol, which has also been studied for possible cardiovascular benefits.

Simmering Malus

In Fruit and Veggies on October 19, 2012 at 6:01 am

Fresh Crop Transparent Apples

Forget scented candles: they make you hungry but taste terrible. The real thing is so easy: a pot of bubbling apples, sifted generously with cinnamon and just enough sugar. The fragrance of simmering malus domestica fills the house with an inner sense of cozy that’s hard to replicate any other way.

Apples are taken for granted, I think. Shining like glass, waxy to the touch, the supermarket apple often disappoints at first crunch. It pales in contrast to the fresh, non-shiny ones you pick from your own tree or find at the farmers market in September, a leathery leaf still hanging on the odd stem. The best part about Farmer’s Markets and co-ops is finding there is more to apples than the half dozen varieties you see in the produce aisles. In fact, making sauce from some of the dessert varieties most commonly available is disappointing, as they disintegrate into blandness, due to their low acidity.

Living in Washington state, I’m lucky enough to have access to many different types, including hard to find Gravensteins and Pippins, but you can enjoy checking out your farmstands and local markets for vintage varieties wherever you are.

One of my all time favorites for simmering is the commonly available Granny Smith. Its green apple flavor adds a nice complexity in sauce or pie, and a perfect texture.

Another one worth mentioning is the Transparent. Early to ripen, it’s green, with a thinner skin than the Granny. Eaten out of hand, it’s mouth puckering, but in a sauce, transformational. It cooks down into a soft creamy white mass with perfect classic apple flavor.

If you can find Rome Beauty, you’ll get a nice pink applesauce if you throw in a few curls of peel to simmer with the chopped fruit. Adding half grannies to the mix would maximize the flavor, as well.

Fun Facts:

There really was a Granny Smith. Maria Ann Smith of New South Wales, Australia first cultivated this tart green apple in 1868. It’s thought that Grannies are a hybrid of malus domestica and its wild cousin, malus sylvestra.

Apple cider was one of the most commonly consumed beverages among colonial Americans, who often avoided fresh water. It was difficult to store fresh, so it frequently was drunk “hard.”

It turns out the old saying, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” has some merit. Apples contain anti-viral properties and are also great for digestion because of the high pectin content in their skins.

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.