Nov 19, 2014

Sweet Fenugreek


Lately I've been excited about spices that seem extraterrestrial. Unearthly flavors so strange and wonderful that they must have descended from outer space or attached themselves to the feet of the ESA space probe from the dark shadowy shores of a comet. ("Comet dust" as new culinary ingredient has not yet reached FDA approval.)


I think certain trends in our food culture share this allure—ingredients that seem so foreign everyone wants to try them; whole brands pop up to take advantage of said strange ingredient trend. One moment it's cod-liver oil, the next it's almond milk. Chia seeds, once used to sprout the famous Chia Pets of the '80s, now grace smoothies and gluten free bars galore. Ch-ch-ch-chia!

I just learned that you can sprout fenugreek seeds. Not in a ceramic pig (a la Chia Pet) but like you would make bean sprouts to toss in your salad. Fenugreek is in the pea family, and just as you would munch young pea greens in a salad, so too you can eat fresh fenugreek (seen above). More commonly it's found as a dried herb or seed (methi), used as spice and medicine. Below are the yellowish seeds used often in Indian curry recipes. They look like tiny discarded teeth to me. 


I never knew about fenugreek growing up, never heard about it until a couple years ago when I started making Indian food, though I am sure I have been consuming it since I was a toddler. For you see, deep in fenugreek's aromatic essence lies sotolon, the aroma compound that has a maple-sugar flavor. Indeed, artificial maple syrup relies on this fenugreek extract to get its imitation flavor, and I know that while my parents intended for us to only eat true maple syrup tapped from trees, the stuff is expensive and we often substituted it with the fake stuff. Sotolon is also present in certain liquors, such as aged rum or aged sake, white wine, and even sherry. But sotolon from fenugreek has become a go-to for artificial maple flavor.

< fenugreek >

What does it mean that we need artificial maple flavor? What role do these artificial flavors play in our culture? And if they're derived from a plant anyway, are they really artificial? Are artificial flavors just a shortcut for making cheap food taste like real, carefully-produced food? Why do we even need flavor?

For me, this blog has become an exploration of this very question. Why do we need flavor? In asking this question, I realize I have begun to expand the central topic of this blog to include not only herbs and spices but also essential oils, flavor compounds and plant extracts—like spices, these expressions of aromatic plants are not always edible but often wearable (such as in the form of perfume.) Whether or not we eat, drink, or wear these aromatic plants, we are predominantly relying on our sense of smell to relay information to our brain necessary for our survival. Smell and taste communicate that something is safe to eat, or in the case of a person, that he/she is trustworthy and attractive.

In stretching my understanding of taste and olfaction, I am also starting to interpret spices and scents through color (as seen in the above painting.) Let me know what you think. And I hope you try making these caramels for a Thanksgiving party favor - they are SO GOOD.


Fenugreek 'Maple' Caramels

While sugar is ultimately what makes these candies sweet, the fenugreek adds an exotic and sweet twist that gives you a sense of the spice's maple-y flavor profile. You'll need a candy thermometer for this recipe, and despite the lengthy instructions it's really very easy, especially if you love kitchen chemistry! 

Ingredients:

1 cup heavy cream
4 TB unsalted butter
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground fenugreek seeds
1 1/2 cups white sugar
1/4 cup corn syrup
1/4 cup water
2 TB crushed dried fenugreek herb 

Line an 8X8 glass dish (such as a brownie pan) with parchment, making sure the parchment comes up and over the sides. Spray the parchment with vegetable oil and set aside. 
Place the butter, cream, salt and ground fenugreek seeds in a small saucepan and heat over medium heat until the butter has melted. Turn off heat. 
In a separate large pot (must be at least 4 QT), place the sugar, corn syrup and water and stir to combine. With a wet pastry brush, brush down the insides of the pot so there's no sugar stuck to the pan (this will burn and ruin your caramels.) Clip the candy thermometer to the inside of the pot so it's touching the sugar mixture. Do not stir the mixture from now on. *Make sure you use a big enough pot because the sugar mixture triples in size as it caramelizes and the bubbles of sugar goo are very dangerous!* 
Over medium heat, allow the sugar syrup to come to a boil. DO NOT STIR! The syrup boils at around 250°, but keep heating until its reached a temperature of 300° (don't let the temp exceed 325°.) Turn off the heat and grab your whisk. Slowly add the butter/cream mixture, whisking it into the sugar syrup until all the cream mixture is added. 
Turn on the heat again to medium-high and bring the caramel back to 250° but again do not stir. You will see the caramel become a darker, medium-brown color. Once it's reached temperature, turn off heat and carefully pour into your prepared pan. *Do not scrape the pan or touch any of the caramel!* 
Sprinkle on the crushed dried fenugreek herb overtop the hot caramel. Let cool for several hours, or overnight, then flip out and cut into small pieces. Wrap in squares of wax paper and enjoy eating all the scraps!
Makes about 50 caramels

Adapted from The Kitchn blog's recipe for 'soft chewy caramel candies.'

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