If cumin really could make your food sing, what tune would it choose?
A bit of Mexican mariachi?
Native American pow-wow?
Or would your cumin groove to a Bollywood beat?
More than most seasonings -- except salt and pepper -- cumin plays a key role in the cuisine of so many regions that it's impossible to imagine a pantry (or a music collection) without it.
On its own or in spice blends like panch phoron or garam masala from India, Persian baharat or Ethiopian berbere, cumin adds a familiar husky-musky quality, the taste your taste buds identify as the dominant flavor in many ethnic cuisines.
Cumin (comino in Spanish; kuming in Chinese; jinten in Indonesian; and cumin du Maroc or faux anis in French) is the seed of an herbaceous annual in the parsley family, native to only one place — the Nile River Valley in Egypt — and cultivated in India, China, North Africa, the eastern Mediterranean (especially Iran), and the Americas. It resembles the elongated and striated caraway seed, which is in the same plant family.
I keep both whole cumin seeds and ground cumin in my pantry; I buy in bulk from Penzeys, or from an Indian market when I'm lucky enough to get to one, and store most in the freezer, with a just a small amount on my spice rack. (Freezing extends the shelf life of many spices.) Whole seeds are often used in Indian cooking, or sprinkled on breadsticks and flatbreads; ground cumin features in the cooking of Mexico and the Mediterranean.
Chewing on cumin seeds can be an effective treatment for indigestion and morning sickness. In ancient Egypt, cumin was used to mummify pharoahs; in Roman times, students used cumin to give their complexions a more pallid look, the better to convince teachers they had been up all night studying!
More important to cooks, cumin is said to stimulate the appetite, with its naturally spicy-sweet pungency. Test the theory for yourself -- create your own world tour with cumin-spiced foods. Start in North Africa, head east to Persia, then on to India, Malaysia, South America, Mexico, and back to the Southwest United States.
And don't forget to load up your iPod, because food seasoned with cumin really does sing.
Spicy pinto bean ravioli
The filling, adapted from Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations, by Lois Ellen Frank, can be made ahead and stored in the refrigerator for a couple of days. It would be great in burritos or tacos, too. If you don't have a slow cooker, remember to soak the beans the night before you're ready to cook. Serves 4-6 as an appetizer.
2 cups dried pinto beans
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp ground cumin
4 cloves garlic, unpeeled
1 small onion, chopped
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 Tbsp red chile powder
1 tsp kosher salt
24 wonton skins
Cook the beans: Pick through the beans to remove any stones or broken bits, and place in a slow cooker with water to cover; set on LOW and cook for 18 hours. Or, soak the beans overnight in cool water to cover. The next day, drain, rinse with cold water, and place in a pot with fresh water to cover by 2 inches. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce to simmer and cook for two hours or until the beans are soft and the skins begin to split, adding water if necessary to keep the beans from burning and sticking to the pot. Remove from heat; drain, but reserve the bean cooking liquid.
Toast the oregano and cumin in a dry sauté pan over medium heat until lightly browned and aromatic. Remove from the pan and set aside. In the same pan, add the unpeeled garlic, and roast over medium heat until it is soft and blackened in spots. Let cool, then peel and mash with a knife.
In a saucepan, sauté the onion in 1 Tbsp of the oil over moderate heat until it is lightly browned. Reduce the heat to low, add the garlic, and cook for 30 seconds. Add the oregano, cumin, red chile powder, salt, beans, and just enough of the bean water to cover, about 2-3 cups. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes.
Pureé the beans with an immersion blender, or in batches in a food processor, until smooth.
In a cast-iron skillet, heat the remaining oil over high heat to its smoking point (make sure you have a fan or ventilator running!). Add the bean pureé and stir for 1 minute. Lower the heat to medium, and cook for 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until the bean pureé turns into a medium paste. It will thicken as it cools.
To make the ravioli: Bring a large pot of water to a boil. In the meantime, place 12 wonton skins on your countertop. Place a teaspoon of bean filling in the center of each wonton. With a small brush or the tip of your finger, paint the edges of the wonton skins with water. Top each with another wonton skin, and press tightly to form a seal. (At this point, you can freeze for future use.) When the water has boiled, reduce the heat to low, add the ravioli, and cook until they float on top of the water. Serve with your favorite salsa.
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