Feb 2, 2013

Hey Little Caraway

I've been waking up at 3:27 AM a lot lately.

Enough to make me wonder what's happening inside my brain at that hour; unfortunately I'm rarely experiencing any great revelations that require a stumbling in the dark to find my notebook and scribble said brilliant idea in a mess of black ink over yellow legal paper. It might simply be the time of night when my sleep eye-mask slips off and the glare from the digital clock and ambient streetlamp light wakes me up. My sleep mask has the word "DIVA" spelled out in rhinestones but I can't say I look like one when I wear it, my hair poofed out on either side of the elastic band securing it to my face. It does help me sleep, however, making everything pitch dark.

Caraway is a diva, even if an obscure one. She is the diva of cabbage and sweet potatoes, pork and pastrami, Irish soda bread and the infamous rye. When I take a whiff of caraway seeds I see and taste rye bread. Would rye bread even be rye bread without caraway? Not to me. I smell caraway and I see a Jewish deli, and I'm ordering a Ruben sandwich. It's strange and yet so obvious that smells get attached to images—feelings—all of our senses. I want to understand this better, the power of associations, because it's what helps make spices come alive.

Caraway and cumin are sisters. They are both part of the carrot family, along with dill and fennel. Both caraway and cumin have that distinctive human sweat smell that I think some people love and some hate. I go both ways. I do think that certain members of this spice family, such as cumin, can smell like bad b.o. sometimes, and other times, just familiar and comforting, like the smell of a used bookstore, all those pages touched by so many people over the years; fingerprints, ink, paperback, home. Caraway has the smell of cumin plus something else: a lemony-cabbage-like tone. She's a strange spice lurking in the back of your cupboard waiting to surprise you; she's a diva in the dark.

Lest I get any deeper into pumpernickel metaphor, I do want to mention the kale salad I made last night. Kale is so trendy right now, especially when tossed with caraway roasted sweet potatoes. I had this for dinner, then for lunch the next day, then for dinner again. Which is to say, it's good fresh, and also keeps well as leftovers, almost getting better the more the flavors marinate.

It should also be noted that caraway has excellent digestive properties—which is why it's often used in cabbage dishes (which are hard to digest) or with very rich foods such as those typical to Eastern Europe and Scandanavia. Aquavit, a Scandanavian liqueur made with caraway is popular after meals, and another, called "Kummel" contains caraway, cumin and dill, and is popular in Russia. It has a wild, medicinal, carrot-top taste, I assure you. Let the digestion begin.

Recipe for Kale & Sweet Potato Salad

1 TB ground toasted caraway seeds
1/2 TB sweet paprika
3 medium sized Sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed (about 5 cups)
1 bunch kale, deveined and chopped
1/4-cup olive oil
juice from half a lemon
3 TB Toasted sesame seeds (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. On the stovetop, heat a small skillet and toast caraway seeds for one minute, being careful to remove from the heat before the seeds start to darken. Cool, then grind.

On a cookie sheet, toss cubed sweet potatoes with ground caraway, paprika and half the olive oil. Sprinkle salt generously - a few teaspoons. Place in oven to roast for 40 min, tossing occasionally.

Place your chopped kale in a bowl and add your remaining olive oil and lemon juice. Add about a teaspoon of salt and then "massage" the kale with your hands until it feels soft and coated completely with dressing. It should take a couple minutes. For added crunch, add toasted sesame seeds.

Top with roasted sweet potatoes and serve.