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:
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).
12 chicken breast halves, trimmed
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)
3 qts chicken broth
Ripe avocado (garnish)
White corn tortillas (garnish)
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.
• 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.
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