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April 12, 2007

Cumin (Recipe: hominy and cactus soup)

Cumin

Once upon a time, four Boston friends got together to create a chili for a fundraising contest.

In order to set our chili apart, we considered many strategies. It wasn't enough to create a delicious recipe; we needed some buzz. Dressing up like chuckwagon chefs might be attention-getting, but we had to have an attention-getting name. A fun (funny?) name. A memorable name.

And then, it came to us:

Cumin Beans!

We laughed and laughed. (Human beings! Human beans! Cumin beans!) In the end, though, we renamed it, and we won first place — and a single crockpot, to share among the four of us. To this day, every time I make chili, I think of Cumin Beans. It makes me giggle.

More than any other spice, cumin defines the unique taste and aroma of Mexican, Southwestern US, Indian and Moroccan food. It's the seed of an herbaceous annual in the parsley family, native to only one place — the Nile River Valley in Egypt — though it's long been cultivated in India, China, North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean, and the Americas.

Cumin is considered a warm spice (like cinnamon, cardamom, caraway and nutmeg), fundamental to curries, masalas, panch phoron, baharat, and Cajun spice blends. Its taste can be described as earthy, sweet and yet bitter, and smoky (though it is not smoked). Use sparingly, as the flavor can overwhelm all other spices in a dish.

I keep both whole seed and ground cumin on my spice rack. Many Indian recipes call for dry-roasting or toasting the whole cumin seed before grinding, to deepen the flavor and aroma; grind only as much as you need, as the ground seed loses its punch more quickly. Ground cumin should be stored in an airtight container, or in the freezer.

With cumin on hand, you can go all around the world: try Indian fish curry, Moroccan carrot salad, Thai truffles, Indian-inspired vegetables, Chinese beef, Mexican chicken verde and tamales, or bread from the Southwest. 

During the Middle Ages, cumin was believed to keep lovers — and chickens — from wandering, and to ensure a happy life for a bride and groom who carried cumin seed in their wedding ceremony. Cumin also supposedly increased the appetite. Kind of all ties together, doesn't it? Bride, groom, appetite...chicken.

Hominy and cactus soup

A few years ago, my friend Cathy taught us this recipe, which she learned from her cousin's boyfriend, who is a chef. Nopales (also called cactus pads or cactus paddles), are fleshy oval leaves of the nopal cactus. They range in color from pale to dark green and have a delicate, slightly tart green-bean flavor. Though fresh nopales are available year-round in Mexican markets and some supermarkets, they’re at their most tender and juicy in the spring. Look for small, firm, pale-green nopales with no sign of wrinkling. Before use, the thorns must be removed (try a vegetable peeler). The flesh is generally cut into small pieces or strips, simmered in water until tender, and used in a variety of dishes from scrambled eggs to salads. Nopalitos (nopales that are diced or cut into strips) are available canned or in jars (pickled or packed in water). Makes enough to feed a small town (12-16 servings).

Ingredients

12 chicken breast halves, trimmed
3 limes
Olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1 jalapeno pepper
3 poblano pepper
3 large yellow onions
6 ripe fresh tomatoes
4 15-oz cans hominy (2 yellow, 2 white)
2 large nopales (prickly pear cactus leaves)
Ground coriander
Ground sage
Ground cumin
Chili powder
3 qts chicken broth
Cilantro (garnish)
Ripe avocado (garnish)
White corn tortillas (garnish)

Directions

Heat the grill.

Wash chicken breasts and trim. Marinate in olive oil, finely chopped zest of 1 lime, salt and pepper. Trim spikes and ragged edges off cactus leaves and brush with olive oil. Grill chicken and cactus. Cut into medium dice and set aside. On the grill, blacken the jalapeno and poblanos.

Peel, and remove seeds. Medium dice the poblano, and mince the jalapeno (wear gloves!) Slice onions very thin. Saute slowly olive oil in a frying pan over low heat, until the onions caramelize (about 10-15 minutes). Core and seed the tomatoes; cut into medium dice. Drain and rinse hominy, and set aside.

PREPARE GARNISHES:
•    Wash and pick off the leaves of cilantro.
•    Thinly slice the tortilla, and fry in small amount of vegetable oil. Drain on paper towels, and salt.
•    Medium dice avocado and squeeze juice of one lime (use the zested one) over to keep avocado from discoloring.

TO MAKE THE SOUP:
In a large stock pot, place (in this order): hominy, caramelized onions, poblano and jalapeno; chicken, cactus, chicken broth to cover (plus a little more); coriander, sage, cumin and chili powder to taste; and the juice of two limes. Cook over medium heat until just before the boil. Add tomatoes. Bring just to a boil, and turn off heat. Serve with garnish of cilantro, tortilla strips, and avocado.

[Printer-friendly recipe.]

Comments

My mom used to serve us hominy fairly often.
I can almost count on something a little off beat but always good here. I've never cooked with cactus. I do use cumin very often.
Cumin Beans - I understand it would make you giggle!

The Cumin Beans--I love it! Do you have any tips for cleaning the spikes off the cactus pads? I'm eager to try cooking with them, once we get some in NYC. (I saw piles upon piles in Texas, but didn't buy any like a fool!)

I love-love-love hominy!! And BTW Whole Foods had nopales last week - at least in St. Louis.

South End Deep Root Chili (Cumin Beans) is one of the best vegetarian meals!

Tanna, I never had hominy when I was growing up, but it makes a wonderful base for this soup. Glad you're giggling -- me, too!

Lisa, a vegetable peeler works well for the nopales -- a bit safer than a paring knife. You can always go the easier route and buy them in the bottle (Goya sells them, in many supermarkets).

Alanna, thanks -- I'll look for nopales at Whole Foods here. In Providence, Eastside Marketplace (the forerunner to Whole Foods) will special order for you.

Rupert, maybe we should have stuck with Cumin Beans, eh? Now I can't remember why we decided to change it!

i cumin

Where was this recipe when I actually lived in a place that had access to nopales- I guess I need to find peace and hominy with my new surroundings...

Thank you, Lydia. I am inspired to make panch phoron tonight for a block of paneer that has been waiting in the wings. Oh, the pleasures of being a spice pack rat!

Cumin is one of my favorites, and I also love hominy. So, I was nodding my head in agreement as I read your post. That looks like a great recipe. Thanks!

I love cumin, too. And I can't stop thinking about the lovely soup that you posted. Would love to try it one day.

Cumin is another one of those completely indispensible spices. My husband goes a bit doo-lally it we run out of it!

Stefanie, the name of your blog says it all! I love cumin, too.

Callypgia, thank you for adding "peace and hominy" to my vocabulary -- I'll be using that one again!!!

Susan, did you make the paneer? I've been wanting to try to do that. And I guess I'm a bit of a spice pack rat, too.

Sher, my cooking group had such a good time making this soup. It is truly delicious -- more than the sum of its parts.

Anh, when I was growing up, cumin was not part of the spice selection in my house. I learned to love it as an adult, and now I can't be without it.

Freya, I agree -- indispensable -- even in simple things like scrambled eggs. I buy it in the 8-ounce bag from Penzeys.

Ah, cumin! I go through an alarming quantity of cumin, I use it so much. So, did you break the crock-pot into quarters? :)

I hadn't cooked with cumin until very recently, Lydia, and I'm loving it!

When I make pizza (which is every Saturday night) I grab some portions of dough, roll out as thin as possible and sprinkle with salt, white pepper, dried oregano and cumin powder, then bake until very golden. It's delicious!

Nupur, we did the only thing possible with that crockpot -- we gave it away, to a friend who had small children and really appreciated it.

Patricia, what a great idea to add cumin into the dough. Sounds kind of like foccacia. Yum.

I'm always looking for another Mexican hominy soup variation. This looks really good.

Yum! I'd love to try a vegetarian version of this! I'm a serious cumin fan and like hominy. Haven't tried cactus yet, but here's my chance! Thanks for the recipe!

I've always been fonder of ground corriander than cumin, but last year I tried toasting, and grinding seeds then tossing a little powder with chopped pita breads and olive oil and baking them for about 10 minutes. It was a really lovely snack. I 'got' some of the flavour notes of cumin that had eluded me before. I think I served them with hummus.

KJxx

Michelle, hope you like this one. I think it's a great soup.

Catherine, easy enough to make this vegetarian, I think. The chicken adds bulk and also adds flavor to the stock, so you'd need to add those two characteristics if you didn't make this with chicken. Please let me know what works if you try it!

Kelly-Jane, doesn't toasting the spice give it a real depth of flavor? I love the idea of cumin-flavored bread with the tahini flavor in the hummus.

I know the the cactus pads are edible but have never tried them. Amazingly I see them growing wild in Spain - not certain if it's the same plant though.
I'm just starting to get into the 'warm' spices (late bloomer) and am learning about cumin....thanks for the primer!

The paneer was pre-made; I got it from Whole Foods, from a UK provisioner. Paneer itself is not difficult to make, but I haven't gotten around to it. What I made the other night with your panch phoron suggestion was wonderful, a simple saute of the cheese cubes in the sizzling buttered spices spooned over basmati. Wouldn't mind having some more right now.

Katie, I know that the nopales are one particular type of cactus. Are they used in Spanish recipes at all? Glad you are discovering the warm spices. They give a wonderful rich flavor to food.

Susan, I've never made my own paneer, though it's on my list of things to try. Your paneer with panch phoron sounds delicious.

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  • My name is Lydia Walshin. From my log house kitchen in rural northwest Rhode Island, I share recipes that use what we keep in our pantries, the usual and not-so-usual ingredients that spice up our lives.

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