Jan 30, 2013

Citrus Spark Spice

It's gray here in Massachusetts, but I am glad for the drab palate that begs for contrast. It pushes me to want something, namely COLOR and BRIGHTNESS to add life to the otherwise paint-chipped landscape.

When I called my mother in a down mood the other day she said, "I don't know why, but I think you need to eat more turmeric." Maybe so, as turmeric has been known to be a natural medicine for arthritis and other ailments, although I wasn't feeling too stiff.  She was right though, in her instinct to eat color. I told her I like turmeric, but I was focused on eating citrus. She responded alarmingly, "you don't think you have the flu, do you?" I don't have the flu, mom. I just need to eat citrus!

At the bakery where I work we are taking full advantage of the glorious citrus coming into season: Meyer lemons, tangerines, grapefruits, blood oranges, kumquats. I get inspired every time I see Chef Maura at the stove processing some new fruit, because it means an exciting new something will be appearing on the menu. While it's gray and cold here, the citrus are ripe on the trees in California and Florida, and they are arriving by the crate load like sun to the dark side of the moon. Maura's most recent addition to the menu was blood-orange pistachio cake, with candied blood oranges creating a sweet and tart marriage of flavors.

Jan 17, 2013

Cinnamon Roasted Onions

My only encounter with a cinnamon tree took place in a botanic garden outside the capital city of Accra, Ghana when I was 18. Though it's hard to believe that was a decade ago, I can still recall the encounter with the vividness of it happening last week. The park, a national landmark known for its fine collection of trees and medicinal plants, was located about an hour outside of Accra and boasted a lush oasis of plants that were easier to navigate than the dense rainforests the country is also known for. I remember wandering away from my fellow travelers, lost in a kind of humid trance, when I approached a large tree with beautiful, glossy green leaves. As I stood, a bit dazed, admiring the shape of the tree and the lustrous quality of the leaves, my nose began to pick up on a familiar smell, like a person I hadn't seen (or smelled) in a long time.

"Cinnamon tree!" I shouted out to no one. I leapt up from where I was standing in a sweaty stupor and snatched one of the leaves from over my head and crushed it between my fingers, inhaling the bright, warm scent, and then stepped forward and scratched the trunk with my fingernail, putting my face up against the bark to smell the sweet, aromatic spice. And that was it: my first cinnamon romance.

I didn't grow up knowing cinnamon outside of French toast, apple cider doughnuts and those fiery "red hot" candies at the bottom of my pillow-case trick-or-treat Halloween bag. As I've taught myself to cook over the years, I have begun to use cinnamon in more creative ways, still using it as a go-to in breakfast dishes and desserts, but loving it even more for the spark it adds to dinner. My friend Lucien brought my awareness to the beautiful marriage of red onions and cinnamon, and my taste buds haven't been the same since. I don't know where Lucien discovered this lovely but foreign combination (in Southie?) but many cultures use cinnamon in savory applications, namely Moroccan, Iranian and Mexican. This dish is easy to make but the flavor is complex and will fill your kitchen with a glorious, global palimpsest of scents that will convince you that your oven is indeed, a place of worship.

Red onions are key - it won't be the same with ol'Whitey!

For Cinnamon Roasted Onions:

2 LG Red Onions, sliced
1/4 cup olive oil
1 heaping TB cinnamon
2 tsp salt

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees F. Dump sliced onions on a large cookie sheet or in a big cast iron pan. Toss with olive oil, then sprinkle on cinnamon and salt, and toss again, making sure cinnamon coats all the onions. Roast until melted and crispy, stirring occasionally, about 40 minutes.

Serve with cous-cous, chick-peas and kale. Or however you want!

And for the record, there are two types of cinnamon: Cinnamon cassia - the southeast Asian variety of cinnamon that is most commonly called "Vietnamese Cinnamon," which is known for its hard bark and distinctly powerful aroma. Or, Cinnamon verum, more commonly known as "Ceylon Cinnamon" or "Sri Lankan" cinnamon, or even "White Cinnamon," which has a softer bark and a more fruity, delicate, flavor. Each type of cinnamon has its own distinct flavor profile and may be used in differing applications, but keep in mind the Vietnamese cinnamon has more 'heat' and is better with savory food (or wherever you want a little more punch), versus the delicate Sri Lankan, which is great with fruit and sweets.