Cinnamon (Recipe: Mexican-spiced fish)
I like a spice that swings both ways.
Cinnamon, for example.
It can go sweet, or savory. Hot or cool. Mild, or with a bit of a bite.
At the moment I have two types of ground cinnamon, plus Indonesian cinnamon sticks from Penzeys, in The Perfect Pantry. I'm not a cinnamon snob; I'm just one lucky cook.
My friend Candy recently traveled to Vietnam; in the Ben Thanh Market in Ho Chi Minh City, she bought (for me!) some fragrant ground cinnamon in a beautiful hand-carved box made from a branch of a cinnamon tree. That's it, in the photo.
Vietnamese cinnamon is said to be the highest quality, with the strongest flavor, but it's often twice the price of the cassia cinnamon I use for everyday. (In many countries, including the United States, cassia can be sold as cinnamon.) My go-to is Indonesian Korintje cassia cinnamon, which has a bit milder and sweet taste -- the cinnamon flavor of my childhood -- or sometimes Chinese cassia, which is slightly spicier.
Cinnamon is the inner skin of the bark of a plant in the laurel family (cassia is a different, but related, plant). The bark is peeled from the trees during the rainy season and left to dry and ferment for 24 hours. Then the outer layer of the bark is scraped off, leaving the inner, light-covered bark, which curls as it dries. Cinnamon sticks, which often seem to have a very mild flavor, come from the tree's upper new growth; more intense, ground cinnamon is made from old growth bark on the lower part of the tree.
When buying sticks, look at the shape of the quill. Cinnamon rolls into a single quill (like a telescope), while cassia curls from both sides toward the center, like a scroll. The sticks are difficult to grind, so it's best to keep both sticks and ground cinnamon on hand in the pantry. You can use cinnamon and cassia interchangeably, in bread, muffins, cake and cookies, but also with chicken, lamb and beef.
According to The World's Healthiest Foods, seasoning a high carb food with cinnamon can lessen the impact on blood sugar levels. I don't think this means that a bit of cinnamon will turn a sticky bun into health food (oh, how I wish it could), but it makes me even more enthusiastic about the health benefits of the cinnamon-spiced tagine cuisine I've been learning to cook.
In ancient times, cinnamon was used both for embalming, and as an aphrodisiac. Hmmm.
We don't often think of the traditional "warm" spices with fish, but this recipe, adapted from The Food and Cooking of Mexico, South America and the Caribbean, by Jane Milton, Jenni Fleetwood and Marina Filippelli, uses cinnamon, cumin and annatto to give rich flavor to the fish (and the annatto will give this a bit of red-yellow color). The striped bass I saw at my fish market last week would be perfect here. Serves 6.
3-1/2 lbs striped bass, cod steak, or any non-oily white fish, cut into 6 portions
2 Tbsp canola or vegetable oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, chopped
12 oz tomatoes, sliced
2 drained canned jalapeño chiles, rinsed and sliced, or 2 fresh jalapeños, seeded, ribs removed, and minced
A few flat-leaf parsley leaves, for garnish
For the marinade:
4 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground annatto
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 cup mild white vinegar
Kosher salt, to taste
Arrange the fish in a single layer in a shallow dish.
Make the marinade: With a mortar and pestle, grind the garlic and peppercorns. Add the oregano, cumin, annatto and cinnamon, and vinegar, and mix to a paste. Add salt to taste, and spread the marinade on both sides of the fish. Cover and leave in a cool place, or in the refrigerator on a very hot day, for one hour.
In a flame-proof pan large enough to hold the fish in a single layer, pour in the oil and spread it to cover (use more oil if necessary). Place the fish in the dish, and top with the remaining marinade. Arrange the sliced onions, garlic, tomatoes and jalapeño over the fish.
Cover and cook over a low heat on the stovetop for 15-20 minutes, or until the fish is no longer translucent. Garnish with some flat-leaf parsley, if desired, and serve hot with rice.