Articles in Spices

The heat of the chilies in this Chili Peanut Relish is nicely balanced by the creamy, crunchy peanuts. This quick dish -- you can make it in about 10 minutes -- is delicious with fish and vegetables. Credit: Copyright 2014 Rinku Bhattacharya

Want a fresh way to spice up your summer grilling routine? Pair those grilled meats with Indian condiments.

While Indian foods are better known for their spicy heat, there are several Indian condiments that can cool off your summer table while appealing to a range of palates: sweet, spice, tart or savory.

Spices known for their cooling qualities include cumin, cayenne and black salt. The cooling spices are all part of the prescription for summer for Ayurveda: the thousands-years-old holistic approach to health and wellness.

Carrot and Cucumber Raita With Almonds

A raita is an Indian-style cucumber salad, paired with natural yogurt. In this version from my cookbook, “Spices & Seasons: Simple, Sustainable Indian Flavors,” I add freshly grated carrots and crunchy almonds.

This yogurt salad is colorful, refreshing and full of protein and vitamins. Serve it on crackers or grilled bread. Credit: Copyright 2014 Rinku Bhattacharya

This yogurt salad is colorful, refreshing and full of protein and vitamins. Serve it on crackers or grilled bread. Credit: Copyright 2014 Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

2 medium cucumbers

1 medium carrot

2 tablespoons almonds, coarsely ground or sliced

1 tablespoon fresh mint leaves, minced (optional)

3/4 cup low-fat plain yogurt

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1/2 teaspoon sugar

Freshly ground black pepper

A sprinkle of red pepper flakes (optional)

Directions

1. Peel the cucumbers and grate into a mixing bowl, discarding any whole seeds.

2. Peel the carrot and grate into the same bowl. Add the almonds and mint, if using.

3. In a separate bowl, beat the yogurt, salt, sugar and black pepper until well mixed. Stir into the cucumber mixture.

4. Garnish with the red pepper flakes, if using.

Mint and Cilantro Chutney

Spicy, green and fresh, this classic condiment is found year-round on the Indian table and can be served with most any dish. Traditionally, it derives its tartness from unripe green mangoes. This recipe simplifies it by using lime juice instead.

Mint and Cilantro Chutney, a simple-to-make dish from the "Spices & Seasons" cookbook, is a classic condiment found year-round on the Indian table. Credit: Copyright 2014 Rinku Bhattacharya

Mint and Cilantro Chutney, a simple-to-make dish from the “Spices & Seasons” cookbook, is a classic condiment found year-round on the Indian table. Credit: Copyright 2014 Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 10 minutes

Yield: 1 cup

Ingredients

1 bunch cilantro (about 3 cups)

2 bunches mint leaves (about 1 1/2 cups)

2 green serrano chilies

1 teaspoon cumin powder

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1 teaspoon black salt

1 teaspoon sugar

2 teaspoons oil (mustard or canola)

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

Directions

1. Place all of the ingredients into a blender.

2. Grind mixture until smooth. This chutney will keep for 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator, but the color will darken because of the lime.

 

Tamarind and Date Chutney

This tantalizing recipe is a superb alternative to barbecue sauce. It’s great on chicken wings or mixed with mayonnaise and drizzled over your favorite protein. 

Tamarind and Date Chutney is another classic Indian condiment; this version from "Spices & Seasons" is what I call the Indian barbecue sauce. Credit: Copyright 2014 Rinku Bhattacharya

Tamarind and Date Chutney is another classic Indian condiment; this version from “Spices & Seasons” is what I call the Indian barbecue sauce. Credit: Copyright 2014 Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

Yield: 1 cup

Ingredients

1 jar tamarind paste (I prefer Swad or Laxmi brands)

1 cup chopped, pitted dates

1/2 cup brown sugar or jaggery

1/2 teaspoon black salt

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

2 dried red chilies

Directions

1. Place the tamarind paste, dates, brown sugar, black salt and 2 cups of water in a pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer for 10 minutes. Cool slightly.

2. Meanwhile, place the fennel and cumin seeds in a heavy skillet and toast until the seeds darken and smell fragrant, about 20 to 30 seconds. Add the chilies and toast for a few more seconds.

3. Grind the seeds and chilies in a spice grinder until powdery.

4. Blend the tamarind mixture in a blender until smooth. Return to the pot, stir in the spice mixture and cook for another 5 minutes.

5. Cool and store in air-tight jars in the refrigerator for up to three months.

Indian Onion Relish

A popular feature in many Indian restaurants, this smoky, tangy condiment is a nice substitute for your usual relish on grilled hot dogs.

A popular feature in many Indian restaurants, this cumin-laced relish is a nice alternative to your usual relish on a hot dog.  Credit: Copyright 2015 Rinku Bhattacharya

A popular feature in many Indian restaurants, this cumin-laced relish is a nice alternative to your usual relish on a hot dog. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 2 hours

Yield: 1 cup

Ingredients

2 large white onions, finely diced

1 tablespoon cumin seeds

½ tablespoon black peppercorns

1/3 cup tomato ketchup

3 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 1/2 teaspoons black salt

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon red cayenne pepper

2 tablespoons minced cilantro

Directions

1. Chill the diced onions in the refrigerator for an hour.

2. Lightly toast the cumin seeds and black peppercorns and grind to a powder.

3. In a mixing bowl, add powdered spices, ketchup, lime juice, black salt, sugar and the red cayenne pepper and mix well with the chopped onions.

4. Return to the refrigerator and chill for another hour (or up to 6 hours) before serving. Garnish with cilantro and serve.

Pear and Raisin Chutney

This chutney from my cookbook pairs well with grilled tofu, pork or fish — and is wonderful added to a burger. Or serve it alongside a basket of warm tortilla chips. 

This Pear and Raisin Chutney recipe from my cookbook pairs perfectly with grilled tofu, pork or fish -- or try it as a relish on a burger. Credit: Copyright 2014 Rinku Bhattacharya

This Pear and Raisin Chutney recipe from my cookbook pairs perfectly with grilled tofu, pork or fish — or try it as a relish on a burger. Credit: Copyright 2014 Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 3/4 cup

Ingredients

4 to 6 medium red pears, cored and diced (not peeled)

1 lime

1 tablespoon oil

1 1/4 teaspoons fennel seeds

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

2 tablespoons finely grated ginger

2 tablespoons malt or cider vinegar

1/3 cup sugar or brown sugar

1/3 cup mixed raisins

1 to 2 tablespoons chopped dried sweetened cranberries

2 long green chilies (young cayenne or Italian), minced

Directions

1. Place the pears in a colander and squeeze the lime juice over them.

2. Heat the oil on medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the fennel seeds and wait until they sizzle and turn a few shades darker, about 20 to 30 seconds.

3. Add the red pepper flakes and stir.

4. Add the pears, ginger, vinegar, sugar, raisins and cranberries and stir. Let the sugar dissolve and bring the mixture to a simmer. Simmer for 5 minutes, until the raisins swell and the pears become soft — but not mushy.

5. Sprinkle with minced chilies before removing the heat.

6. Store and use as needed. This mixture will keep in the refrigerator for six to eight months.

Citrusy Roasted Beets With Tempered Spices

A cross between a salad and a light pickle, this healthy condiment adds a gentle tartness to tender young beets. This recipe is a lighter and healthier version of the traditional beetroot and cheese salad, and is dairy- and nut-free.

This healthy condiment, also from "Spices & Seasons," adds a gentle tartness to tender young beets, seasoning them with ginger, black pepper, Clementine juice and mustard seeds. Credit: Copyright 2014 Rinku Bhattacharya

This healthy condiment, also from “Spices & Seasons,” adds a gentle tartness to tender young beets, seasoning them with ginger, black pepper, Clementine juice and mustard seeds. Credit: Copyright 2014 Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 45 minutes

Total time: 55 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

3 medium red beets, greens removed

3 medium yellow beets, greens removed

2 to 3 tablespoons oil

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon ginger paste

1/2 teaspoon black salt

1/2 lime

1 orange or Clementine, cut in half

Several grinds black pepper

1 tablespoon cilantro, finely chopped

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 375 F.

2. Wrap the beets in foil and roast for 35 to 40 minutes. Allow beets to cool and then peel and cut into wedges.

3. Heat the oil in a wok or skillet. Add the fennel and mustard seeds. When they begin to crackle, add the garlic and ginger paste and sauté lightly until the mixture is fragrant.

4. Stir in the roasted beets and black salt and mix well.

5. Squeeze in the lime juice and orange or Clementine juice and mix well.

6. Stir in black pepper.

7. Garnish with cilantro and serve.

 

Slow Cooker Plum, Date and Rhubarb Chutney

This beautiful tangy ruby red chutney can be made with plums or any stone fruit of your choice. It takes a lot of cooking to obtain its deep jam-like consistency, which can be challenging during the summer, but I use the slow cooker in my recipe to keep my kitchen cool.

This  tangy, ruby-red chutney can be made with plums or any stone fruit of your choice. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rinku Bhattacharya

This tangy, ruby-red chutney can be made with plums or any stone fruit of your choice. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 3 hours in a slow cooker

Total time: 3 hours, 15 minutes

Yield: About 3 cups

Ingredients

1 pound of rhubarb, trimmed and cut into small pieces

4 pounds of purple plums, stoned and coarsely chopped

4 tablespoons minced ginger

3 to 4 star anise

1 large stick cinnamon

1 1/2 teaspoons red cayenne pepper

1 cup of chopped and seeded dates

1/2 cup chopped almonds (optional)

1/4 cup maple syrup

Directions

1. Place the rhubarb, plums, ginger, star anise, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, dates, almonds (if using) and the maple syrup in the slow cooker and cook on high setting for 3 hours.

2. Stir the mixture occasionally to help with the consistency.

3. After three hours you should have a fragrant, sticky and colorful medley.

4. Remove the whole spices and save the chutney in a clear jar and use as needed to perk up your meal.

Classic Cucumber Raita With Mint

Omnipresent on the summer table and year-round in India, this is the more traditional version of raita. I sometimes add dill instead of — or alongside — the mint and serve this as the perfect pair to salmon.

Omnipresent on Indian tables in the summer and all year round, this  Cucumber and Mint Raita is perfect with almost any dish. Try it with dill to mix things up. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rinku Bhattacharya

Omnipresent on Indian tables in the summer and all year round, this Cucumber and Mint Raita is perfect with almost any dish. Try it with dill to mix things up. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 25 minutes, plus 1 hour for chilling if you prefer the raita chilled

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

2 medium-sized English or Persian cucumbers (about 1 1/2 pounds)

1 1/2 cups of day-old natural yogurt

1/2 cup fresh mint leaves

1/2 teaspoon black or Himalayan salt

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon sugar

Cayenne pepper (optional)

Directions

1. Peel the cucumbers.

2. Grate about three-quarters of the cucumbers and finely chop the rest, keeping the chopped cucumbers separated from the grated cucumbers.

3. Place the grated cucumbers in a mixing bowl.

4. In a separate bowl, add the yogurt and beat well.

5. Mince the mint leaves and add to the yogurt.

6. Add the black salt, cumin, black pepper and sugar and beat well. Gently fold in the grated cucumbers.

7. Top with diced cucumbers and sprinkle with cayenne.

8. Chill up to an hour or serve immediately.
Main photo: The heat of the chilies in this Chili Peanut Relish is nicely balanced by the creamy, crunchy peanuts. This quick dish — you can make it in about 10 minutes — is delicious with fish and vegetables. Credit: Copyright 2014 Rinku Bhattacharya

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Every variety of artisanal salt has a unique flavor profile, thanks in part to the type and quantity of minerals it contains. Credit: 2015 Copyright Susan Lutz

Professional chefs and home cooks are discovering artisanal salt with a vengeance. No longer content with 50-pound bags of Morton or Diamond Crystal flake salt, chefs are using a bewildering array of salts from around the world in a dizzying variety of ways.

The reasons become clear on a visit to J. Q. Dickinson Salt-Works in Malden, West Virginia, where CEO Nancy Bruns is a seventh-generation salt-maker. In 2013 Nancy and her brother, Lewis Payne, revived their family’s historic salt-making business high in the Allegheny Mountains. In the past two years, their salt has become a favorite with chefs across the country. I spent the day at the salt-works and discussed the importance of salt with a variety of chefs who use Dickinson’s handmade product.

The reasons that artisanal salt has become important are many,  but seven reasons keep coming up.

Artisanal salt adds unique flavor

 Harvesting salt at Dickinson’s Salt-Works in the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia.  Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Harvesting salt at Dickinson’s Salt-Works in the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Whether it’s rock salt from the Himalayas or open-air evaporated salt from the Mediterranean coast of France, each form of artisanal salt has its own flavor profile.

Aaron Keefer, trained chef and culinary gardener at The French Laundry in Napa Valley, California, says the flavor of artisanal salt is hard to describe. “Any salt makes things taste better, but artisan salt has a more rounded flavor that adds a little something extra to the dish that you can’t put your finger on, but in the end you know it’s better.”

Good stories make good salt

A brine-settling vat at the old salt-works operation at Dickinson’s Salt-Works.  Credit: Courtesy of the J. Q. Dickinson family

A brine-settling vat at the old salt-works operation at Dickinson’s Salt-Works. Credit: Courtesy of the J. Q. Dickinson family

Artisanal salt always comes with a good story. Dickinson’s Salt-Works began just after the American Revolution, when Bruns’ ancestors began processing salt from the local briny pools. By the time of the Civil War, it was the biggest salt producer in the country. By the end of World War II, commercial salt production in West Virginia had essentially disappeared.

“I love the story,” Keefer says. “Dickinson’s salt was very popular, then it was defunct, then it was brought back in modern times.” But for Keefer, the heart of the story goes back even further: “What made it stand out for me is that the American Indians used it, and the method of extraction was unique.”

Bruns knows that there’s more to branding than simply a great product. “We have a great story which makes it a very authentic brand,” she says. “Seven generations of salt-making in one family on the same land is hard to beat.”

Balance: Minerality vs. salinity

Interior of hoop house for evaporating salt at Dickinson Salt-Works Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Interior of hoop house for evaporating salt at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

The key to an artisanal salt is the balance between minerality and salinity. A pink Himalayan rock salt has enough iron to give it its pink color. Celtic sea salt might have far fewer trace minerals. But each type balances the amount of the chemical sodium chloride, and the other minerals in the water source.

Bruns sources her product from a 400 million-year-old underground sea that geologists call “the Iapetus Ocean.” “Our source is very protected,” she says. “We are not drawing our brine from an exposed, open ocean where there is always the possibility of contamination.” The initial brine from her 350-foot well is rich in magnesium, calcium, potassium, manganese and especially iron. Bruns, a former chef, processes the brine to create a salt that has a unique appeal for other chefs.

Matt Baker, executive chef at City Perch Kitchen + Bar in Bethesda, Maryland, has become a fan of Dickinson’s salt: “The grain is nice and plump, so it holds its shape well while also having a medium level of salinity to the finish on the palate.”

Terroir: As vital in salt as it is in wine

Hoop houses and tanks at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Hoop houses and tanks at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Like wine, artisanal salt has terroir, the word winemakers use to describe that indefinable sense of place that gives each wine its unique personality.

Dickinson’s salt is pumped from more than 300 feet below the ground and evaporated in a series of small hoop houses. Dickinson Salt-Works uses handmade techniques drawn from a 200-year-old legacy. “We think of our salt as an agricultural product,” Bruns says. “It comes from the land, and we move the brine several times to maximize the flavor.”

Ian Boden, chef-owner of The Shack in Staunton, Virginia, says that good artisanal salt “has the taste of its place,” and Dickinson’s salt certainly does. “You can tell that it’s harvested from underneath a mountain because its mineral content is so high. It’s like using Hawaiian black salt — it has that earthy, funky, ash flavor. Except it’s not ash, it’s the mountains of West Virginia.”

The texture of artisanal salt adds contrast

Salt crystals forming in salt beds at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Salt crystals forming in salt beds at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Unlike the quickly dissolving grains of highly refined industrial salt, the texture of artisanal salt brings contrast to a dish. What most of us think of as texture is the result of a combination of factors including crystal structure, grain size and moisture content. Sometimes, it is texture alone that makes an artisanal salt memorable. All salts are either mined from rock or evaporated from saltwater lakes, springs or oceans. The majority of artisanal salts are evaporative, and the method of evaporation has a profound impact on the texture of the salt.

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Chef Boden says the unique character of Dickinson’s salt comes from its texture, which is the result of the solar evaporation process. “To be brutally honest, if you lined up 15 salts, I couldn’t tell you where each one came from, but I think there’s definitely a difference. If you lined salts up, I could tell by feeling it that it was Dickinson’s salt, most definitely.”

Chefs from east to west agree that Dickinson’s salt has a texture that can’t be beat. Baker of City Perch Kitchen + Bar discovered Dickinson’s salt through the restaurant’s mixologist Adam Seger and hasn’t looked back. “I instantly fell in love with the salt. What makes it great is its subtleness and medium-size grain.”

Keefer has also noticed the distinct texture of Dickinson’s salt. “It seems like all salts are shaped just a little bit differently. I like the grind on it — the flake on it — it’s a good all-around salt. I’ve used it both with fish and with meat and been very happy with the results.” Keefer adds, “Try as many different salts as possible and you’ll find a favorite.”

Artisanal salt gives a pop of flavor at the finish

 Nancy Bruns harvests salt at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Nancy Bruns harvests salt at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Artisanal salts are more expensive than industrially produced salts because of the time and resources required to produce them, but this increased price this doesn’t stop chefs from using artisanal salts in a variety of dishes. Keefer explains: “Everybody’s concerned about the price of artisan salt, but a little goes a long way. Use it as a finishing salt, not as a base salt.”

“Salt is there to make things taste more like themselves,” Boden says. But finishing salt is used in a slightly different way. “You put a little finishing salt on the dish and you get a pop of something unexpected. That’s really what we’re using it for — that textural and salinity contrast on a finished plate.”

Each chef uses finishing salt in a distinct and personal way. Baker reports: “We use Dickinson’s salt to finish a lot of our meats and fresh dishes like burrata cheese, seared tuna and foie gras torchon. The texture of the grains makes it melt in your mouth perfectly with a clean finish.”

The unexpected: Artisanal salt inspires creative chefs

Chocolate caramel tart finished with evaporated sea salt. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Chocolate caramel tart finished with evaporated sea salt. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Artisanal salt pumps up the flavor in unexpected dishes like desserts and cocktails. “I like to add a pinch of salt to a lot of my desserts — whether I’m making a cherry pie or chocolate frosting,” Keefer says. “I don’t put in enough to make it salty, but a pinch of salt adds a surprising amount of flavor.”

Baker has found a variety of unique applications for Dickinson’s salt. “At the bar we use it to rim our Forbidden Fruit Margarita and our Bloody Maryland.” Baker even uses Dickinson’s nigari (a by-product of the salt-making process) as the starter for his house-made ricotta cheese. He couldn’t be happier with the results. The nigari, which is traditionally used to make tofu, “gives the cheese a fresh bite of salinity and a hint of pepper.”

Dickinson Salt-Works has recently introduced a salt with a finer grain. Chef Boden at The Shack plans to experiment with it in his own take on traditional charcuterie, curing and fermenting. “It’s something I want to do. It brings a certain earthiness to the components.”

Artisanal salts are as varied as the almost endless places across the globe in which salt is mined or harvested. And it is these unique flavors and textures that inspire chefs — and the rest of us — to use artisanal salt in creative and ever-evolving ways.

Main photo: Every variety of artisanal salt has a unique flavor profile, thanks in part to the type and quantity of minerals it contains. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

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A platter of

Of all the influences on Spain’s distinctive culinary style, it was the Arab impact of bringing the spice azafrán or saffron known as “red gold” to the Spanish table that infuses Spanish cooking with its classic deep yellow color and slightly musky, rich taste.

For many American cooks like myself, saffron is still surrounded in a bit of mystery. The three-pronged stigma from the center of a saffron flower, at almost $20 a gram, it’s super-pricey. It has an aroma and flavor that hovers between floral and bitter citrus with metallic undertones. And like extra virgin olive oil, its somewhat dodgy history of fraud and adulteration serves as yet another culinary example of all that glitters is not necessarily gold.

When I returned from a trip to Spain 15 years ago, the customs official discovered three precious glass vials of saffron buried deep in my suitcase. With a raised eyebrow and a slight shrug, he waved me through. I stashed it away like my grandmother’s heirloom jewelry, anxiously waiting for the perfect recipe to showcase these dark red-orange threads, unknowingly saving it well past its prime. Because like other spices, saffron is best when fresh and does not improve with age.

Recently, I traveled back to the La Mancha region of Spain. While it might be best known for its iconic windmills and hapless hero Don Quixote, it was the acres and acres of inches-tall small crocus flowers that I was after. As a guest of Verdú Cantó, one of the largest saffron distributors in Spain, I spent the morning with Rodolfo Encarnación Marin, manager of the Corporacion de Operadores de Azafrán Español, deep in the heart of Spain’s saffron country, to learn all I could about this quintessential Spanish ingredient known as the world’s most expensive spice.

While saffron may be the world’s most expensive spice, used properly these exquisite red-orange threads are worth every dollar. Here’s are a couple of pointers to help you make the most of a very wise investment:

  • Always buy saffron in thread form, not powder, which is known to be easier to adulterate with other spices like turmeric.
  • Look for a Spanish D.O. (denominación de origen) and production date on the label to ensure best quality.
  • Before adding to most recipes, grind it gently between your fingers and rehydrate with a bit of very hot water. You might be advised to roast it to bring out the flavor but if it’s truly fresh this will diminish, not enhance, its subtle aromas.
  • Use a deft and light hand. Fortunately, just a few threads of saffron add a slightly smoky aroma of tobacco and cedar, a luscious flavor infused with undercurrents of pepper and citrus, and brilliant red-orange color.
  • Saffron is equally at home in dishes from savory paellas to sweet intensely flavored ice cream. Don’t be afraid to experiment — you will be rewarded with a unique twist on traditional tastes that add a bit of Spanish mystery to your menu.

Note: The best, most reliable shop I know to source saffron is the Spanish specialty online store www.latienda.com.

Main photo: A platter of “Spanish gold” — freshly harvested saffron threads in Albacete, Spain, before drying. Credit: Copyright Caroline J. Beck

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Perfumer Mandy Aftel now has a line of essential oils for her cooking. Credit: Copyright 2015 Emily Grosvenor

Mandy Aftel was well on her way to becoming America’s most highly regarded natural perfumer when she started using essential oils in cooking. She had a book out, “Essence and Alchemy,” and a line of beloved natural perfumes she made by hand in her studio. But while on book tour, she was encountering a troubling problem. She noticed that so many of the people she met said they hated perfume.

“As a perfumer, I wanted to be around people who cared about ingredients, and I found them in the food world,” she said. “For me it’s all about how stunning these aromas are and what you can do with them when you know how they work.”

Aftel, who lives directly behind Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, was no stranger to chefs obsessed with using only the finest quality whole ingredients. But what she needed was a chef who cared very much about aroma, and how it shapes how the mouth experiences food. She found that partner in Daniel Patterson, who has since become famous in his own right as a chef, food writer and primary proponent of California cuisine. Aftel took her traveling perfume organ — a suitcase of sorts in which she carries samples of the essential oils she uses in her studio — and shared them with him.

“He was knocked out, especially with the black pepper essence,” Aftel said.

Soon, Patterson began incorporating essential oils in his dishes. The two later collaborated on their first shared cookbook, “Aroma: The Magic of Essential Oils in Food and Fragrance.” Since then, Aftel has worked with all manner of people in the food industry to develop aromas for food products based on real, natural essential oils and has become a steady proponent of their use in the home kitchen. More recently, she has developed her own line of essential oil sprays — edible essential oils in an alcohol spray mist — for use in restaurants and home cuisine.

The American food scene has welcomed her approach as a next step in the country’s move back to a more natural relationship with food. A long history exists of using essential oils with cooking. But as with perfume, at the beginning of the 20th century, consumers became enamored of the synthetics because they were cheaper. In the past, people were took active plant material and infused or they were using the essential oils directly. In her new book, “Fragrant,” Aftel has resurrected a number of recipes for staples such as ketchup, which relied heavily on essential oils, and has made the relationship between perfuming and food even more tangible.

“Daniel and I were real trailblazers, because the history had been lost,” Aftel said. “I think it’s so exciting, deeply exciting to have the essence of the plant. It offers insanely creative possibilities and can provide flavor that you really can’t arrive at any other way.”

Aftel discussed how one might go about using essential oils in the kitchen:

What essential oils are safe to ingest?

It’s pretty simple. You should always trust who is providing the oils themselves, but you can eat all of the oils listed on the FDA’s GRAS list (Generally Regarded As Safe).

Can you give me some examples of situations where the essential oil is preferable to the spice?

There’s really no heat in black pepper oil, for example, it’s all in the peppercorn itself. If you used a lot of black pepper to get that black pepper essence it would be way too hot. But if you use a drop of the oil it’s an amazing flavor unto itself. In the middle of winter you might want the flavor of basil, but you don’t want the texture of basil leaves and the ones in winter aren’t really that good anyway. So you use the oil, and just a drop. When you use these oils it’s like being the master of the universe to use just one drop and have the result be so aromatic and lovely.

Where does one begin? What’s a good way to start?

A very good dark chocolate, say 65% dark at least, and vanilla ice cream can be a great place to start. Here’s the pink pepper. The sprays are really idiot proof — they are drops within alcohol and very easy to use. Drops themselves are just so strong, so you might want to use the drops when you are cooking them into something. But if you’re just doing a finishing then I recommend the sprays. Things like rose essence, cinnamon and vanilla, violet, sarsaparilla, all go great with a good vanilla ice cream. Yellow mandarin, cardamom, great with chocolate. Pear and chocolate. Anything that is creamy and rich is a nice base upon which to start because they have their own vibrant character, but they can blend in. The naturals, for better or worse, don’t last. But then again, people are used to the olfactory equivalent of McDonald’s. If you can isolate the aroma and use it in something or another. I like to keep things as simple and beautiful as possible.

Do you think people really think that much about the quality of their spices?

People are very familiar with some spices, but when they became easy to get, the thing that made them so powerful and amazing became less appreciated. People will buy a giant container of cinnamon and then let it languish in their cupboard for years, not understanding that the thing about the cinnamon is slowly going away, its nature is gone. With oils, you can create your own flavor and retain what is so powerful about the natural ingredient. I think it’s a very creative process.

How do you use essential oils in your home cooking?

I love roasted Brussels sprouts. One of the things I’ve found about beef is it’s great with chocolate. It adds a richness to it, a new flavor. I also love roasted red and green peppers with basil oil. The licorice/anise aspect of it really gets out. Or Foster, my husband, will get a tomato soup and I’ll add a little cinnamon, kind of a Mediterranean mix. I love the experience of changing things just a smidge, it makes all of my food experiences very aromatic.

What about drinks?

Drinks are the bridges from perfume to food. I’m thinking a lot about this for my new book with Daniel Paterson. Coffee, tea, wine, alcohol, these are very aromatic experiences. Citrus rinds. When someone has a drink, they are also smelling it. It’s no fluke that the experience people most associate with drink is very aromatic and very convivial. I think the aromatic aspects of it are what make it so wonderful. People take a lot of liberty with experimenting with drinks, in a way they don’t always necessarily do with food. It’s a wonderful bridge toward learning.

Are the oils better than the spices?

The oils, when they are done well, allow you to appreciate the real identity of the spice. A lot of the oils don’t have the sharpness of the spices. When you use the essential oil, you are actually harnessing the best version of the spice and holding on to it. There’s this awful thing that happens when you have access to things because of our global world. They stop being prized. I don’t think luxury should be attached to status. I like to retool the relationships between things that being available and things being prized. I like to prize that experience and have it drop by drop.

Main photo: Perfumer Mandy Aftel now has a line of essential oils for her cooking. Credit: Copyright Emily Grosvenor

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Sandesh is an Indian version of cheesecake, can be cut into shapes with cookie cutters or formed into balls. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

This Valentine’s Day, as you look for foods besides oysters and chocolate to woo the object of your affection, consider exploring your spice cabinet.

You’ll be surprised at the flavors’ powers — as natural aphrodisiacs — to be found there.

To heighten the senses and set the mood, we need fragrance and beauty in our foods.

In fact, Ayurveda — the holistic method of medical treatment in India rooted in Hinduism — traditionally placed a fair amount of emphasis on aphrodisiac terminology. The intent was to ensure that people led healthy conjugal lives and the ruler appropriately produced the requisite heir. There is similar wisdom found in other ancient texts.

So, cull through this list of common spices for your Valentine’s Day menu that also may help you spice things up — in other ways — with your Valentine.

First up is cinnamon, whose lustrous and sweet aroma can make you both happy and calm. (And, it’s certainly good for your blood pressure.)

Right alongside, you might have cloves, whose essential quality is to uplift your mood and spirits. And then there is nutmeg, also known for its antioxidant and astringent qualities.

An aphrodisiac spice, says ‘The Arabian Nights’

To complete the fragrant collection, we also have cardamom, which “The Arabian Nights” extols for its passion-inducing properties.

All of these will find its place in a good garam masala blend. And when meshed with saffron — the exotic spice of the gods — your Valentine’s Day collection of aromas will be complete.

When planning your menu, consider a good one-pot dish such as a biryani that will bring to your table all of these spices and more. If that’s too complex, try rubbing a chicken with butter and garam masala and serving it roasted to perfection, with saffron mashed potatoes on the side.

But don’t forget the dessert. Fortunately, many Indian desserts bring together cardamom, saffron and rose. From the universe of puddings, halwas and burfees, I have dug up a Bengali specialty called the sandesh, which, when done right, can win over the most fastidious of hearts and palates.

A sandesh is a cheesecake of sorts, with the emphasis on a specific cheese: channa, or homemade white cheese. The art of the traditional sandesh rests in the right texture and handling of this channa. Although it is prolific in Indian confectionary shops, we’re often hard-pressed to find good sandesh in commercial Indian sweet shops — mainly because of the relatively short shelf life of this delicate sweet.

Spicing up cheesecake the sandesh way

Ricotta cheese, if treated right, can be a substitute for channa. This recipe features a cheater sandesh, using ricotta cheese streaked with saffron and subtly scented with freshly crushed cardamom.

I have created this recipe for days when time does not allow for the making and draining of channa. It’s a fairly good facsimile for the steamed sandesh known as bhapa sandesh that my grandmother used to make. In this sandesh, instead of cooking the channa over the stove top, it is steamed with gentle and continuous heat.

In my recipe, I bake it on low heat in the oven and then cool and shape it. If you wish, you can garnish these delicate morsels with pistachios, snipped rose petals and anything else that catches your fancy.

Serve them with some chilled saffron almond milk.

That’s bound to warm the cockles of your heart and soothe your senses, all at once.

Baked Orange-Flavored Cheesecake — Bhapa Sandesh

Adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles,” by Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 45 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes, plus time for cooling

Yield: 12 servings

Ingredients

For the cheesecake:

Clarified butter or ghee for greasing the casserole dish

1 1/2 cups low-fat ricotta cheese (about 30 ounces)

3/4 cup condensed milk (about 12 ounces)

1/2 teaspoon saffron strands

1/4 teaspoon freshly crushed cardamom (about 2 pods)

6 tablespoons fresh orange juice or tangerine juice (about one medium tangerine)

For optional garnishes:

Orange sections

Slivered almonds

Chocolate shavings

The sandesh can be formed into round balls and rolled in chocolate shavings. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

The sandesh can be formed into round balls and rolled in chocolate shavings. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 325 F.

2. Grease an 8-by-12-inch cake or casserole dish and set aside.

3. In a mixing bowl, beat together the ricotta cheese and condensed milk.

4. Stir in the saffron strands and cardamom, pour the mixture into the greased casserole dish. The objective is to achieve a streaked effect rather than uniform coloring.

5. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes.

6. Drizzle with the orange juice and cool for one hour.

7. Carefully invert the prepared cheesecake onto a flat surface. This can be cut into shapes using a cooking cutter, or formed into round balls.

8. If desired, garnish with orange sections and almonds, or roll or sprinkle with chocolate shavings.

9. Chill for 45 minutes or longer, and serve.

Main photo: Sandesh, an Indian version of cheesecake, can be shaped with cookie cutters or formed into round balls. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

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Sumac and sumac pepper blend. Credit: Wendy Petty

Sumac is local lemon for foragers who live in places where there’s no chance of plucking one from a tree. When picked at peak ripeness, but before rain can wash off its tart coating of edible acids, sumac is just as pucker-worthy as any children’s sour candy. That tart flavor of sumac is a valuable part of my wild edible spice rack, and I turn to it often. The other great advantage of sumac is that it stores very well if kept cool and dry.

I was reminded of this as I stood and surveyed my pantry. At mid-winter in the Rockies, a forager can sometimes have a hard time finding enough activities to satisfy the urge to wildcraft. One can only spend so much time looking for tiny leaves of green beneath the leaf duff and snow, and sampling fermented-on-the-tree crab apples.

In the darkest months of the off-season, my larder offers up opportunities to work with the wild foods I adore. I spend much of the summer putting up as many wild foods as I can manage, in all forms – frozen, pickled, canned and dried. Seeing my shelves lined with these gorgeous preserves, I get the same feeling that some must get when gazing upon jewels, or the proverbial kid in a candy store. Recently, it was my tin full of red sumac that beckoned to me.

Though every forager I know, and many people who belonged to outdoor-based clubs as kids, has tried the sumac version of lemonade, sumac is probably best known as being a key component in za’atar spice blend, appearing along with herbs, sesame seeds and salt.

Sumac. Credit: Wendy Petty

Sumac. Credit: Wendy Petty

I often sprinkle ground sumac into recipes, savory and sweet, to add a little zip of brightness. Standing in my pantry looking at my tin of foraged sumac, I suddenly had a strong memory of a time in my childhood when it seemed every dish was seasoned with lemon pepper, and knew this would be an ideal place to substitute sumac.

I had thought that lemon pepper was a relic of the past, but a quick survey of my friends quickly revealed that many still use it frequently. I wasted no time in blending a batch of sumac pepper. Not only was it pretty to look at, it was seriously tart, without the aid of the citric acid that it used in many commercial lemon pepper blends. After a few days of testing, I found that sumac pepper was good in all the places you’d expect lemon pepper to excel. Sumac pepper can be sprinkled atop fish, meats, vegetables, and even breads and rice. My favorite place to use sumac pepper is atop fresh warm buttered popcorn.

If you would like to pick your own sumac but worried about confusing it with poison sumac, let me reassure you they are very easy to tell apart. Poison sumac has white berries, whereas all of the edible sumacs have red berry clusters. Sumac berries can be hairy or smooth, depending upon the species.

Sumac in a field. Credit: Wendy Petty

Sumac in a field. Credit: Wendy Petty

Sumac grows as a shrub with leaflets that are pinnately compound, which is to say that they are arranged somewhat like a feather, and the berry clusters grow in dense spikes at the end of branches. If you’ve not seen sumac growing before, you might hear the word berry and think of a juicy strawberry. But all the flavor of sumac is on the outside of its small dry berries. This is why the flavor of sumac is greatly diminished after rain or snow.

At peak ripeness, which is usually late summer in my area, I harvest a big basket full of sumac. I simply pack my sumac into a tin, and it keeps quite well. I’m usually able to use it right up through harvest time the following year. Though, one time, it did develop a rancid oil smell after a year.

There is one caution with sumac. It is related to mangoes and cashews, so anyone with strong allergies to those foods should also avoid sumac.

The following recipe calls for ground sumac. Often, the whole berries are ground up and used. I find the central seed of the berry to be unpleasantly hard, even when ground. The seeds can also lend a tannic astringency to recipes. So, I strip my sumac from the branches, and grind the berries in a molcajete. You could also pulse the berries in a spice grinder. Next, shake the ground berries through a sieve. This produces a pink fluff of sumac that is ready to be used in recipes.

Sumac Pepper Blend

Prep time: 5 minutes

Yield: 1/3 cup

Ingredients

2 tablespoons ground sumac

2 tablespoons cracked black pepper

1 tablespoon salt (optional)

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic

1/2 teaspoon granulated onion

Directions

Stir all of the ingredients together, and store the sumac pepper in small jar in a cool dark place.

Main photo: Sumac and sumac pepper blend. Credit: Wendy Petty

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Rigani-flavored baked chicken, with potatoes, has a different taste than one made with common oregano. Credit: Rosemary Barron

Making a favorite summer dish at a friend’s house recently, I used oregano that he’d bought in his local supermarket. The baked chicken I made that day didn’t taste at all like the dish I make at home with the oregano (rigani) I bring back from Crete, or buy tied in large bunches from a Greek deli in London.

My friend had taken care to source a fine chicken and good olive oil, the wine was flowing, and everyone was having a great time. But, as far as I was concerned, the chicken didn’t taste right. I wondered whether everyone who’s enjoyed wonderful, rigani-fragranced foods in Greece has found that their dishes, once they were back home, didn’t taste quite as good. The attractive label of the herb I’d used from my friend’s shelf had declared it “wild oregano,” but was it really oregano?

What is oregano?

The answer, I discovered, is both yes and no. In the world of commercial food-supply (and, sometimes, seed-supply), “oregano” can denote any herb in the Origanum family, which contains a number of subspecies. And this is where the cook’s problem lies: Each of these subspecies has a distinct character, and not all give good results in the kitchen.

True Greek oregano, or rigani, goes by the Latin name of origanum vulgare hirtum (or O. heracleoticum). Because the plant has more oil glands in its highly aromatic, dark-green leaves, rigani has a stronger flavor than common oregano — so strong that, eaten fresh, it can make your tongue tingle. This is the reason dried, not fresh, Greek oregano is used in the kitchen, an uncommon example of a dried herb being a better culinary choice than a fresh one. My friend had bought common oregano (origanum vulgare), a less flavorful subspecies, and the one most frequently found on the supermarket or grocery store shelf.

What’s in a name?

There’s some disagreement as to the origin of the word “oregano”: One source suggests that it’s based on the Greek word for acrid (some subspecies of oregano can taste bitter); another states that its Latin name derives from the Greek oros (mountain) and ganos (joy). If you’ve ever walked in the Greek foothills, you’ll know that this pungent herb truly is a “joy of the mountains,” covering the rocky land with magnificent abandon and perfuming the warm air with its strong, sweet scent. Rigani’s presence there dates at least to Greek antiquity, when the ancients encouraged its growth in the mountain grazing lands to improve the flavor of their goats and sheep.

The doctors of antiquity too knew the value of rigani. Hippocrates used its oil as an antiseptic and its tincture for his patients’ stomach and respiratory problems. Recently, scientists have discovered that the polyphenols and flavonoids in Greek oregano do indeed have strong health-giving properties, including, it is believed, some protection against the norovirus and the ability to block an enzyme associated with diabetes.

In the kitchen

For the Greek cook, right up until the days of refrigeration and antibiotics, rigani was invaluable as a preservative and a deterrent to flies. Out of these practical considerations came a large repertoire of marvelous dishes imbued with the taste and aroma of the “joy of the mountains.”

For flavor and beauty, rigani’s tiny, white flowers are especially prized. So too are the meat and milk of goats and sheep that feed off the summer-flowering herb, as well as foraging rabbits and other small game. Rigani, flowers or leaves,  flavors grills, oven-bakes, salads, sauces, and bean dishes like no other herb. In the village kitchen it’s measured in handfuls, not with a spoon. This provides a special pleasure for the cook: with finger and thumb, gently rub the rigani in your palm to lightly bruise it, before adding it to your dish. You’ll be releasing some of the herb’s oil and its pungent, lively aroma will lift your spirits as well as perfume your kitchen.

A few years ago, before both “wild” and “Greek” became food-marketing buzzwords, “wild oregano” bought outside of Greece was usually rigani. This isn’t always true today, with a commercial supply chain that’s confused and confusing. The most promising place to find real Greek oregano is in a store that you know takes sourcing ingredients seriously, or in a Greek or Middle Eastern deli where, late summer, you may even be lucky enough to find a large bunch of this fragrant herb that’s been gathered while in flower.

Rigani-Baked Chicken

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Note If you are using chicken pieces, boil the potatoes for 10 minutes before arranging in the baking dish.

Ingredients

  • One 4- to 5-pound chicken, whole or cut into serving pieces; remove skin and excess fat
  • Juice of 1½ lemons
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil, or to taste
  • ½ tablespoon coarse-grain sea salt, or to taste
  • 2 pounds of potatoes suitable for baking, cut into similar-size pieces
  • 4 cloves garlic (unpeeled), lightly crushed
  • A handful (or 4 tablespoons) rigani (dried Greek oregano), crumbled
  • Cracked black pepper to taste
  • 6 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1½ to 2 cups chicken stock, as required
  • ½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 1 small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, leaves coarsely chopped (for serving)

Directions

  1. Heat the oven to 375 F (190 C, or Gas Mark 5).
  2. Rub the chicken with the juice of 1 lemon, 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, and the salt.
  3. Place the chicken (or arrange the pieces) in a deep, heavy baking dish and surround with the potatoes and garlic in a single layer. Sprinkle the chicken with the rigani, pepper, bay leaves, and the remaining olive oil, and dot with the butter.
  4. Add half the stock, and bake, uncovered, 15 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 F (180 C or Gas Mark 4) and continue baking until cooked through but still tender – about 1¼ hour longer for a whole chicken, 40 minutes longer for chicken pieces. Baste the chicken and potatoes frequently, adding more stock to the dish if necessary.
  5. Transfer the chicken, potatoes, and garlic to a serving platter and keep warm.
  6. Strain the pan juices into a small saucepan, remove the fat with a spoon, and add any remaining stock. If there is more than about 1 ½ cups of liquid, reduce it by rapid boiling. Combine the mustard, honey, and half the remaining lemon juice and stir into the sauce. Add salt, pepper, and remaining lemon juice to taste, and heat to warm.
  7. Pour sauce over the chicken and potatoes just to moisten, and sprinkle with the parsley. Serve the remaining sauce separately.

Main photo: Rigani-flavored baked chicken, with potatoes, has a different taste than one made with common oregano. Credit: Rosemary Barron

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Myanmar's salads are infinitely less forceful than in neighboring Thailand. Credit: © Morrison Polkinghorne

We first discovered the food of Myanmar as armchair cooks intrigued by a cuisine, described by Mi Mi Khaing in “Cook and Entertain the Burmese Way” as “the best of Chinese and Indian cooking, but with a distinctive flair all its own.” After repeated trips to Myanmar, however, we would explain Burmese food differently: Indian lacking spice, Thai without fiery chili, similar to Chinese only via its stir fries, or perhaps a shared Yunnan influence with skewered and grilled pub fare. In other words, it’s unlike any other and deliciously unique.

For 20 years we traveled throughout Myanmar, later hosting food tours there, and eventually made a home in Asia. And we’ve never looked back.

We’ve tasted and tested almost every Burmese dish imaginable, supping with regional and capital cooks and learning in the most humble kitchens and 5-star sculleries alike.

Myanmar’s cuisine is a perfect fit for Americans. Granted, chili aficionados here will claim that hot flavors are passionately loved by all, but the general American palate seems drawn to the comforting, non-assertive tastes of Burmese dishes. There, the chili is long and mild, closer to a paprika, akin to the capsicums used in neighboring Yunnan province. Curcumin-rich Alleppey turmeric is a principal spice, while masala is the exception rather than the rule. And simple ground star anise acts as the “curry” seasoning for pork. Even salads — with the notable exception of Burmese Lemon Salad and renowned Pickled Tea Leaf La Phet — are infinitely less forceful than in neighboring Thailand. Vegetables and salads are commonly bound and melded with either besan (chickpea) flour or ground peanuts — depending on the regional crop.

The flavor of Burmese recipes are easy to recreate by merely — and gently — slow-frying onion, garlic and ginger in oil, then using the resulting emollient as a ubiquitous flavoring essence —  both in curries and salads. Better yet, ingredients are easy to find in the United States, more so if there’s an Indian grocery in your neighborhood.

From armchair to actual traveler, our quest for authentic Burmese cookery continues. We find it as exciting as exploring the country’s awe-inspiring sites — from ancient Bagan to imperial Mandalay, to the temples and caves and floating islands of Inle Lake. The image of awakening to the golden rock, Kyeik Hti Yoe, sitting above the clouds will always linger in our minds, as will the vision of the volcanic plug, Mount Popa, with its golden temples crowning the top like a fairyland. But we equally savor memories of the simple peppery stocks of the country’s Rakhine seafood stew.

Why Myanmar? Why Burmese?

Although Burma is the name commonly used by Anglo-Westerners, Myanmar is the term used by locals. “Burma” and “Burman” reflects the Bamar ethnic majority, not its other cultural groups. However, our recently released The Burma Cookbook celebrates all this nation’s diversity — historic and ethnic. We chose the title not as a political statement, but because our cookbook includes dishes of colonial Burma, as well as contemporary Myanmar. So you’ll  find a recipe for Lobster Thermidor served at The Strand hotel for more than a century, but also a biryani rice that reflects the country’s Indian heritage, along with a “bachelor” chicken curry that can be traced back to larrikin lads absconding with a farmyard chicken and herbs grasped from a neighbor’s garden.

Main photo: Myanmar’s salads are infinitely less forceful than in neighboring Thailand. Credit: © Morrison Polkinghorne

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