Cardamom spices up cookies, cuts of meat alike

My mom separates cooks into two categories — those who freely and instinctively use spices and those who can’t envision a spice’s use without a recipe’s guidance.

That a self-proclaimed “mistress of spices” would call me this weekend with a question about cardamom gave me a little boost in the self-esteem department. Should she bother to buy cardamom for a sugar cookie recipe? my mom wondered.

I reminded her that she would know cardamom from its distinctive use in Scandinavian pastries and bread. Obviously, it’s not a spice that’s easily substituted, and if you like the flavor, I said, it’s worth purchasing.

A relative of ginger, cardamom is the unripened fruit of a perennial plant native to India, according to McCormick’s spice encyclopedia. Enclosed in the green fruit pods are tiny, brown, aromatic seeds that are slightly pungent to taste. Cardamom is one of the Arab world’s most popular spices, with its addition to coffee being a symbol of hospitality and prestige.

Cardamom is best stored in pod form, because once the seeds are exposed or ground, they quickly lose their flavor. However, ground cardamom is often more readily (and cheaply) available than the pods. For recipes requiring whole cardamom pods, a generally accepted equivalent is 10 pods equals 11/2 teaspoons of ground cardamom.

But how else to use it? my mom asked. It just so happened I had been playing around with cardamom more than usual over the past week. I had added a crushed pod to my pumpkin butter as it simmered for hours in the Crock-Pot. Ditto for my beer-braised lamb shank. Once I drained off the pan sauce to convert into gravy, I added more of the ground spice.

Oh, so you can use it in savory dishes!

Yes, I said. In fact, cardamom is a traditional component of Moroccan spice rubs. And because every mistress of spices occasionally needs a recipe, here’s one for the classic spice mixture Ras el Hanout, adapted from “The Revised and Updated Martha Stewart Living Cookbook: The Original Classics,” by the editors of Martha Stewart Living.

Ras el Hanout

1 teaspoon whole or ground allspice

1 cinnamon stick, broken into pieces

1 teaspoon ground mace

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon whole cardamom seeds

1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds

1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds

1/2 teaspoon whole cloves

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

1-inch piece galangal (optional)

1 piece long, thin red pepper (optional)

1 teaspoon grains of paradise (optional, see note)

Combine the allspice, cinnamon stick, mace, cayenne pepper and the cardamom, coriander and cumin seeds in a small skillet over medium heat. Dry-roast for about 5 minutes, shaking pan often, until spices are fragrant. Transfer to a mortar or spice grinder; add the cloves, ginger and black peppercorns and the galangal, red pepper and grains of paradise, if using. Grind to a powder. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dark place until ready to use.

Makes 1/4 cup.

NOTE: Grains of paradise are hot and pungent West African seeds with hints of ginger, cardamom, coriander and citrus. They are available at specialty markets and through online gourmet purveyors.

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  • Blog Author

    Sarah Lemon

    Sarah Lemon covers the Rogue Valley’s food scene with an enthusiasm that rivals her love of cooking. Her blog mixes culinary musings and milestones with tips and recipes you won’t find in the Mail Tribune’s weekly A la Carte section. When ... Read Full
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