While working on a new recipe index, I've been revisiting some posts from the early days of The Perfect Pantry. Here's one of my favorites -- my very first ingredient post -- and the story of how I became a food writer. Welcome to Oldies Week, Day One.
Do you think it's easy deciding where to start?
I was this close to logic and predictability, beginning at the beginning with the quintessential pantry items: salt and pepper. And then, this morning, the universe sent me a sign. Two signs, actually.
First: While Ted was watching the World Cup soccer matches on TV, I entered all of the pantry items willy-nilly into a database on my computer, and kicked out an alphabetized list of more than 200 items that are always in my fridge, freezer, spice rack and cupboards.
Top of the list? Allspice.
Second: We'd vowed to "eat down" our pantry and leftovers this weekend, so I needed to forage. In the freezer I discovered a deeply-buried package of Empire kosher chicken breasts (another pantry staple). On the counter sat a couple of lemons that were a day away from relegation to the compost bucket. I always have garlic, and olive oil, and allspice. In my kitchen that adds up to one thing: garlic chicken on skewers.
Until I decided to try my hand at food writing, I'm sure I'd never ever bought allspice, nor did I have a clue about how to use it. However, my desire for the recipe for the absolutely heavenly garlic-lemon-allspice chicken kabobs made by Elias "Louie" Aboujaoude at Cedar's Restaurant in Boston propelled me into a food writing career, so perhaps it is the best place to begin our pantry exploration.
Within a week of moving to the South End more than 25 years ago, Ted and I settled ourselves at a window table at Cedar’s to watch our new neighborhood stroll by. For the first few months, we tasted our way up and down the menu of traditional Lebanese dishes, moving from the familiar shish kabob and falafel to kibbie bi syniyeh and kufta balls.
Then we discovered the garlic chicken, listed on the menu as “#25 chicken on skewer,” and life changed forever. We began to have garlic chicken cravings, and to bring friends to the restaurant to taste the dish and help us figure out the ingredients. In my own tiny kitchen I began to experiment. Each attempt was, as they say, “close but no cigar.”
By July 1993, I’d been tasting and trying to recreate Cedar’s garlic chicken for 13 years (at two skewers per serving, that’s more than 400 skewers!). I knew the time had come to ask for the recipe, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. And then it occurred to me that others also might like to learn the secret. Wouldn’t it be fun to share recipes, and stories of the lives of neighborhood cooks, in the local newspaper?
So that's how I became a professional food writer.
And that's why there's always fresh ground allspice in my pantry.
The dried berry of the evergreen pimiento tree, allspice, native to the West Indies and Central America, was discovered by Christopher Columbus — who thought it was pepper, hence its Spanish name, pimienta. Subsequently it became known as Jamaican pepper, because most of the best quality crop grew there; the English gave it the name "allspice", because it mimics the aroma of several spices, including cloves, pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg. According to Herbs & Spices by Jill Norman, "allspice is the only important spice that still comes almost exclusively from its region of origin — which also makes it the only one grown almost exclusively in the New World."
Today the majority of the world allspice harvest goes to the food industry, for use in commercial ketchups and other sauces. Allspice is an essential ingredient in jerk spice blends, barbecue sauces and rubs, chutneys, and sausages. Bakers often incorporate it into spice cakes. The whole berries add important flavor to the pickling spice mix I use for my half-sours every summer.
Shish taouk (garlic chicken on skewers)
6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2-4 cloves garlic, sliced, plus 4 cloves mashed (or from a jar)
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup olive oil
Wash chicken and pat dry with paper towels. Cut into 1-inch pieces. Add remaining ingredients, and mix well (with your hands). Marinate, covered or in a zip-loc bag, in the refrigerator for 4-5 hours, or overnight.
Heat grill to high. Place chicken on skewers, or on a barbecue grid, and cook over direct heat for 10-15 minutes, turning frequently. Serve with rice or in pitas, with chopped iceberg lettuce, tomato and cucumber.
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