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November 17, 2009

Tonka beans, a Pantry Special (Recipe: spice snap cookies)

Tonka beans

Did you know that can you toss seven tonka beans into a river to make your wish come true? You can, but it's so much more fun to bake with them. Tonka beans are the seeds of Dipteryx odorata, a tree native to northern South America. The inch-long, black, wrinkly seed has a hard shell, but when grated on a Microplane, it smells sweetly like vanilla, for which it's sometimes used as a substitute, and almonds. (Tonkas also lend that sweet smell to perfume and pipe tobacco.) Though popular in other countries, in the United States tonka beans cannot be used in food, because they contain coumarin, an anticoagulant that can be toxic in large doses. If you have health challenges, please use caution; for most people, however, tonka beans used a pinch at a time present no danger, and enhance the flavor of baked goods with a slightly exotic flavor. Some cooks suggest substituting mahlab, or a mix of vanilla and almond extracts, if you find yourself tonka-free.

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October 22, 2009

Zahtar, a Pantry Special (Recipe: fattoush, a salad of pita bread, tomato and cucumber) {vegan}


Zahtar, zatar, za'atar: what's in a name? Though the word means thyme in Arabic, the name also refers to a blend of sumac, sesame seeds, salt and dried green herbs (thyme, usually, but sometimes oregano, marjoram or parsley). Zahtar, a popular table condiment in the Middle East, is sprinkled on or cooked with meat and vegetable dishes. Most often it's ground in a mortar and pestle, so the texture remains a bit coarse. For a perfect snack, mix zahtar with a bit of olive oil, and smear it on pita bread or pizza. And don't worry: sumac, the dominant ingredient in zahtar, is not the poison sumac we're taught to avoid in the woods. This sumac, from the dark-red berries of a shrubby tree native to the Middle East and parts of Italy, has a tart, fruity, lemony flavor.

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October 15, 2009

Vadouvan, a Pantry Special (Recipe: butternut squash, apple and vadouvan soup)


Before last season's Top Chef, I'd never heard of vadouvan,so when I saw a small sample packet at the The Spice House in Chicago last summer, I couldn't pass it up. Basically, it's a French version of a South Indian curry powder (which can be a blend of up to 30 spices), and just as curry powders vary from one cook to the next, so does vadouvan. Sometimes it's more of a paste, made with cooked onions, that needs to be stored in the refrigerator. The packet I bought, which is a dry spice mix, contains curry, curry leaves, white and toasted onion and garlic powders, brown mustard seeds, shallots and kosher salt. Some blends also include fenugreek and cardamom. Use it as you would a sweet curry powder; the flavor is milder and a bit more fruity, with just a hint of smoke.

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August 23, 2009

Ritz crackers, a Pantry Special (Recipe: baked stuffed shrimp)

Baked stuffed shrimp, a New England classic.

In America, it's hard to imagine a place where you can't find Ritz crackers in every supermarket and corner store, yet I seldom keep them in my pantry. Since 1935, a year after they were test-marketed in Baltimore and Philadelphia, the round, scallop-edged crackers, salted on the top side and flaky on the inside, have been sold nationwide. Topped with peanut butter, they're a favorite afterschool snack for kids, but when crushed or ground, Ritz crackers work much like Cheddar cheese-y, buttery bread crumbs, in stuffings or as a coating.

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About The Perfect Pantry®

  • 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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