Spices

Faking It.

I feel that I am at a point in my culinary education where my brain has stopped taking in recipes. As a person who rarely follows them, when I do “use” a recipe it’s only as a jumping point for whatever I feel like doing or creating a variation using whatever it is I have to use up–I’m looking at you truckload of turnips that just won’t stop. I’m now moving into a place where I simply repeat the demonstrated steps & otherwise go by instinct. However, with my ever present need for perfection, I then do a lot of second guessing–rarely with positive results.

Thus, upon our next assignment, I had a bit of panick. We were to draft a recipe–one that we enjoyed and often made at home–in the style of our textbook. The only recipes I generally repeat are the simplest ones–ones where you’d rather not cook, but you should eat at home because you can’t affored the price or calories of eating out…i.e. not suitable for impressing anyone.

And so, I approached the assignment from a different perspective: a method I enjoy and frequently use at home–the use of csa items from last week that I had better use before they turn. This week it was butternut squash and red delicious apples. But wait: conundrum. Butternut squash soup is kind of passe, maybe a little boring, so I had to enliven it somehow. Since I’ve made several variations of said potage, I was up for the challenge of making a new one & trusted my gut that it would work. It did. By roasting the squash first, the earthy, caramel sweetness of the squash shines through. An addition of star anise throws in a different, unexpected flavor, providing a counterpoint to the earthy and the addition of chicken stock provides a heartiness that water or vegetable stock might not.

Of course, a properly Frenchified soup wouldn’t be a properly Frenchified soup without some garniture. Luckily we’d had grits that morning for breakfast & because of an excess of grity goodness had been prepared (totally by accident….totally…) grit croutons were my go-to decoration.

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup with Grit Croutons

For the Soup
700 g butternut squash (about 1 large) or other winter squash,
       skinned and cut in large dice
2 medium sweet apples, skinned & cut in mirepoix
1 medium red onion, cut in mirepoix
500 mL chicken stock
20 g butter
20 g olive oil
10 g brown sugar
1 star anise
10 g (½ t) Ceylon cinnamon
Salt and Pepper, to taste

For the Croutons
240 mL water
240 mL milk
120 g instant grits
30 g butter
Salt and Pepper, to taste
Pinch of nutmeg
Oil, for frying

For the Soup

  1. Preheat oven to 375F. Toss squash with olive oil, salt, pepper, cinnamon and star anise and spread in a single layer on a sheet tray. Place in the preheated oven and roast until tender and starting to brown (about 30 minutes), tossing once during cooking.
  2. Melt the butter in a saucepot. Sweat onions for about 1 minute. Add apples and sweat, covered until soft. Remove the lid and allow the collected liquid to evaporate and begin to develop sucs on the bottom of the pan.
  3. Making sure to reserve the star anise, place roasted squash with apples and onions in a blender, adding just enough stock to puree.
  4. Return puree to saucepan along with star anise and brown sugar. Add enough stock to reach desired consistency. Bring to a simmer and cook on low for 10 minutes. Adjust seasoning and remove star anise. Keep warm for service.

 For the Croutons & Service

  1. Bring water and milk to a boil, immediately whisk in grits and ½ t salt. Bring back to boil, reduce heat and cook at a very low simmer, covered, until thick, whisking occasionally to avoid lumps.
  2. Once it is very thick, about 10 minutes, whisk in butter and nutmeg, plus an aggressive amount of salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning.
  3. Pour grits into a 9X3 pan and allow to cool. Once cool, turn grits out onto a board and slice into 1-cm cubes.
  4. Bring oil to 350F and fry grit cubes until golden. Drain on a paper towel. Serve soup in hot bowls, garnished with croutons.
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A Lusty Little Pepper

As I said in my last post, occasionally I have to write essays for school. It seems the typical required length will be but a page, so I thought I’d give them a second audience and share them with you. Our first assignment was to research the history and culinary uses of an herb or spice with which we were unfamiliar. Here is the result:

A Lusty Little Pepper

When faced with a recipe requiring a spice I’ve neither seen nor heard of, I have a tendency to first seek out an alternative. Of course I always keep that spice in the back of my mind, hoping that one day I’ll happen upon an epicerie and think to lay down my cash and experience the real thing. Such was the case a few weeks ago when I came across Paula Wolfert’s recipe for Spiced Butternut Squash Soup reliant upon the cubeb pepper.

Although native to Indonesia, and thus nicknamed Java pepper, the cubeb seems most prevalent in Moroccan cuisine and is a star ingredient in the North African spice mix Ras el Hanout, consisting of up to 20 herbs, spices and aphrodisiacs. In fact, cubeb too has been used as an aphrodisiac throughout history. It is mentioned in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights that Shams-al-Din is given an edible paste made from cubeb and other sundry items as an aphrodisiac remedy for infertility. Those attributes are also reflected in South Asian lore; “Unani physicians use a paste of the cubeb berries externally on male and female genitals to intensify sexual pleasure during coitus,” (Wikipedia).  Various other medicinal qualities have been alleged of this wee peppercorn:  physicians of the Tang Dynasty used it for everything from darkening the hair to restoring the appetite, “Sanskrit texts included cubeb in various remedies. Charaka and Sushruta (both ancient Indian physicians) prescribed cubeb paste as a mouthwash, and the use of dried cubebs internally for oral and dental diseases, loss of voice, halitosis, fevers, and cough.” (Wikipedia) Interestingly, more than one culture has also been known to use cubeb as a ward from demons.

Not to be outdone, Western medicine has also recognized the varying effects of cubeb on the humors of the body. In the 17th and early 19th centuries the London Dispensatorie published that cubebs “cleanse the head of flegm and strengthen the brain, they heat the stomach and provoke lust…and are very profitable for cold griefs of the womb,” (Wikipedia). Cubeb’s antiseptic qualities have also proven useful as an ingredient in remedies that treat bronchitis and most medically significant, gonorrhea.

Resembling an engorged black peppercorn with a clove-like stem, the cubeb is said to “have a warm, pleasant aroma, lightly peppery but also allspice-like, with a whiff of eucalypt and turpentine,” and is said to pair well with bay, cardamom, cinnamon, curry leaf, rosemary, sage, thyme and turmeric (Norman 229). When attempting to prepare the soup mentioned above, I was told to substitute equal parts black pepper and allspice. The aroma that emanated from my mortar and pestle was floral, spicy and sweet: a heady and intoxicating scent perfect for high-end cologne, or your next lamb tagine. True cubeb is said to carry a bitterness—one of the reasons it lost favor through the years. However, New American cuisine seems to be taking a turn for the bitter; so, perhaps it’s a time for this lonely spice to find a few new, and perhaps, lusty friends to rediscover the attributes prized by so many cultures before us.

Works Referenced

Donnelly, Kristen. “Paula Wolfert’s Moroccan Recipes.” Food & Wine October 2011. Print.

Norman, Jill. Herbs & Spices: The Cook’s References. New York, NY: DK Publishing, Inc., 2002.

Barber, Kimiko, et. al. The Illustrated Cook’s Book of Ingredients. New York, NY: DK Publishing, Inc., 2010.

Katzer, Gernot. “Spice Pages: Cubeb Pepper (Piper Cubeba, Cubebs).” Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages. 25 April 1998. 08 January 2012.

“Cubeb.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. 2 December 2011. 8 January 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cubeb&gt;.