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October 31, 2010

Filé powder, a Pantry Special (Recipe: gumbo ya-ya)

Gumbo ya ya

When Ted and I moved to a wooded part of Rhode Island, we never intended to become gumbo filé farmers. We didn't know that in our woods, among the pine and oak and maple, we would find several sassafras trees, or that sassafras -- often associated with the southern states -- actually is native to New England. And we didn't know that we could make filé powder from the dried, pulverized leaves of our very own sassafras trees. Filé (pronounced FEE-lay, and also called gumbo filé) lends an exotic, flowery, "root beer" flavor to gumbo, and when stirred in at the end of the cooking (as it always should be), it acts as a thickener. Though filé is most often associated with Cajun and Creole cuisine, it was the Choctaw Indians who first used it in their cooking, long before the Acadians arrived in Louisiana. I use it for gumbo, of course, and to thicken stews and lentil soups.

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September 14, 2010

Fennel seed (Recipe: linguine with sausage, peppers, leeks and tomato)

Linguine with sausage, peppers, leeks and tomato

 A fun thing to know about fennel seed:

Did you ever wonder about the large bowls of mixed seeds and what looks like candy at the entrance to most Indian restaurants? It's called mukhwas, which means "mouth smell". After a meal, on the way out the door, you spoon a bit into your hand and chew. Typically, mukhwas contains a variety of seeds, including betel leaves, rose petals, cardamom, clove, pumpkin seeds, roasted coriander seeds (dhana dal), dried mint, and -- my favorite ingredient of all -- roasted or candy-coated fennel seed. Mukhwas cleanses the breath, but also aids in digestion, cools you after you eat spicy food, and helps control what Julia Child used to call the rooty-toot-toot.

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September 9, 2010

Cumin (Recipe: chickpea falafel) {vegan}


A fun thing to know about cumin:

Since the Middle Ages, people have believed that cumin -- one of the "warm" spices, along with cinnamon, allspice and coriander -- is a food of love. They carried cumin in their pockets when attending wedding ceremonies, and married soldiers were sent off to war with a loaf of cumin bread baked by their wives. Cumin was thought 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. And, I guess, to ensure that the couple always would have their chickens. And eggs.

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August 24, 2010

Vanilla powder, a Pantry Special (Recipe: cinnamon and vanilla challah French toast)

Cinnamon and vanilla challah French toast 

Vanilla powder (also known as ground vanilla), a very recent arrival in my pantry courtesy of Cousin Martin's eclipse-watching trip to Tahiti, takes the bean out of vanilla beans. It's made by grinding whole dried vanilla beans into a powder. No fuss, no muss, no leftover slit vanilla pods (after all, how many of those can you stick in the sugar jar?). You get pure vanilla flavor without the additional alcohol in extracts, and, unlike extracts, the powder can be added directly to warm liquids and the flavor will not dilute. Best of all, you still can see the little flecks of vanilla in your dish. Be careful when purchasing, as some vanilla powders (including some popular brands) also contain sugar; read the label to be sure you are getting 100% pure vanilla powder. When baking, add vanilla powder with the dry ingredients. If your recipe calls for one teaspoon of vanilla extract, substitute one-half teaspoon of vanilla powder and add one more teaspoon of liquid (milk, buttermilk, etc.) to the wet ingredients.

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August 10, 2010

Curry powder (Recipe: stir-fried curried beef with tomatoes and peas)

Stir fried curried beef with tomatoes and peas 

When someone mentions curry powder, I think of Indian food.

Don't you?

We need to think again.

Most Indian cooks create their own curry-powder-like blends, portioning out their favorite spices from a masala dabba, adjusting the balance to the needs of a particular recipe. There's no one "curry powder" in Indian cooking. The curry powder we buy -- the "convenience" blend from the supermarket or spice merchant -- has no place in most Indian kitchens.

Many cuisines incorporate the component flavors of curry powder into their own dishes; Indian spices traveled with merchant ships to the Caribbean, Europe, South Pacific, Japan and China. And eventually they made their way to my own kitchen, where both sweet and hot curry powders have a place on the spice rack.

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  • My name is Lydia Walshin. From my tiny kitchen in Boston's South End, I share recipes that use what we keep in our pantries, the usual and not-so-usual ingredients that spice up our lives. Thanks so much for visiting.

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