Grains of paradise, a Pantry Special (Recipe: tagine of lamb with apricots)
Pantry Specials are great ingredients that find their way into my pantry from time to time, but not all the time.
On a recent search for new pantry ingredients with food blogging friend TW Barritt of Culinary Types, I acquired this tin of grains of paradise -- so unfamiliar to me that I had to look it up on my phone in the middle of the store.
Popular in West African cuisine and indigenous to that part of the world, grains of paradise (also called Melegueta or alligator pepper) got its name in a medieval marketing ploy: spice traders looking for a way to inflate the price claimed that the seeds grew only in Eden, and had to be collected as they floated down the rivers out of paradise. Spices were popular in those days, but true pepper was expensive; grains of paradise was a cheaper substitute (ironically, today pepper is inexpensive, while grains of paradise is not cheap at all). The spice was widely used in England until King George III, fearing it was being used in beer and wine production, banned it.
Grains of paradise tastes pungent and fruity, a bit like pepper crossed with cardamom. A frequent component of the spice blend ras el hanout, it works well with eggplant, potatoes, lamb and poultry, squash, tomatoes, and other root vegetables. Purchased in seed form, it must be ground or crushed right before use, and is best added towards the end of the cooking time.
Is this Pantry Special new to you?
Black pepper. 1 tsp grains of paradise equals 1/2 tsp black pepper. For a more rounded flavor substitute, mix black pepper with a bit of cardamom and ginger.
How to use grains of paradise:
Cucumber and smoked salmon wraps
Samosas with grains of paradise
Molasses braised turnips
Fennel and sweet onion salad with tomato vinaigrette
Curried butternut squash soup
Panang curry beef
Yellow raspberry crisp
No-sweat pickled beets
Swedish crisp bread
Tagine of lamb with apricots
Sweet and fruity, this classic North African stew can also be made with beef. You can add a bit of chopped preserved lemon rind to balance the sweetness of the fruit, if you wish, but I used grains of paradise to add a peppery, fruity undertone. Recipe adapted from Tagine: Spicy Stews of Morocco, by Ghillie Basan, and other recipes. Serves 4; can be doubled.
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp sliced raw almonds
2 onions, roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp grated or minced fresh ginger
A pinch of saffron threads
2 cinnamon sticks
1-1/2 tsp ground coriander
1-1/2 lb boned lamb, cut into 1-1/2 inch cubes
24 dried apricots
4 strips of orange peel
1 Tbsp agave nectar or honey (to taste)
1/2 tsp grains of paradise + 1/2 tsp black peppercorns, ground together coarsely in a mortar or spice grinder
Kosher salt, to taste
In a Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium heat, and add the almonds. Stir and cook until the almonds begin to brown. Add the onions, and sauté until they begin to color. Add the garlic, ginger, saffron, cinnamon sticks, and coriander. Stir to combine. Add the lamb, stir to coat with the seasonings, and sauté for 1-2 minutes, until the lamb is lightly browned.
Add 3-1/2 cups of water, or enough to just cover the meat. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer, cover the pot, and cook for 1 hour.
When you set the pot to simmer, place the apricots in a bowl or glass measuring cup, and cover with very hot tap water. Leave them to soak for 1 hour while the lamb is cooking. At the end of the hour, drain the fruit and add to the lamb, along with the orange peel. Simmer for 20 minutes more.
Stir in the agave or honey, ground grains of paradise and pepper, and salt to taste. If there is a lot of liquid in the pot, leave uncovered, and simmer 15 minutes more until sauce is reduced and thick. If there's not enough liquid, add water or orange juice to keep the lamb from sticking until it's finished cooking. The lamb should be tender, and the sauce thick and glistening.
Serve hot, with couscous, rice, or chunks of bread to mop up the sauce.