Dec 28, 2014

Nigella Seeds

A balmy Boston Christmas this year tricked the trees into blossoming and the daffodils into pushing their way up through the dirt. Not their moment to shine, but still I had to pause and study their strange beauty.

Thank you to everyone who stopped over here to the AROMATUM pages to learn about my new spice venture, Curio Spice Co. I sold out of most of the holiday spices, but there are a few left if you didn't get a chance to order some. I have a lot to do between now and launching the business, but knowing you're out there cooking and tasting my creations means a lot. 

In the meantime, these pages will continue to be a space where I write about spices and botanicals. In a mess of settling into who I am and what I do for a living (do we ever settle, really?) there remains this instinct to write and paint.  

A year ago I gave Mark a set of small (empty) picture frames before I left on my trip to Asia. Though it seemed lame at the time, I told him that my gift was not these frames so much as a set of paintings I would make for him throughout my travels, as a way to stay connected while I was away. Photos—so easily uploaded now via cell phones or over the internet—did not feel as meaningful a way to share my experience. Like writing and mailing a hand-written letter, I felt that each painting might capture something that a photo (or text, phone call, or Skype session) could not. 

Similarly, I'm continuing to paint spices. Abstractly. These as love letters to no one, but painted with love. Take Nigella seeds, for example:

The seeds are peppery and flowery with a hint of onion. The flavor is a little bitter, so the seeds go better with vegetables and cheese as opposed to fruit and sweets. But there aren't rules to experimentation. Nigella seeds come from a flower in the buttercup family called Nigella sativa. Below they are seen pictured with a flower called Eryngium which is unrelated, but has a similar frilly character to the fresh nigella flowers, which are a delicate blue. 

The seeds are sometimes called "black caraway" (unrelated to true caraway), or "black sesame" (unrelated to true sesame) or "black cumin" (again, unrelated). The point is, the spice isn't a black version of another spice—it has its own identity, and its own unique flavor.

Nigella seeds are common to Armenian, Turkish and Indian cuisines. Perhaps you've seen them dressing Armenian string cheese, or sprinkled on the Indian bread naan (they are an ingredient in the blend called "paanch phoran") In any application, they are beautiful both visually, being a striking black that contrasts with light-colored ingredients, as well as sensually, having an unusual flavor and texture that adds a wonderful dimension to other foods. 

In my exhaustion from over-eating this Christmas, I have delved into salad research, both warm and cold. I'm not making false promises in the New Year, but am genuinely interested in cooking healthier dishes. Spices, especially whole seeds, provide a fantastic texture and flavor to salads and can add nutrient richness too. If you're anything like me and need a break from rich foods right about now, the salad below is an easy way do it. 

As winter encroaches, spices serve as colors against a dull landscape, and bright lights in the dark. Here's to another vibrant year ahead.

Warm Cabbage Salad with Nigella & Hazelnuts

For salad:
4 cups grated/chopped green cabbage (about 1/2 head of cabbage)
1 cup grated carrots (about 2 carrots)
2 cups broth, such as vegetable or chicken broth
1/3 cup golden raisins
1 tsp salt

For dressing:
1/4 cup whole hazelnuts, roughly chopped
1 TB caraway seeds
1 TB nigella seeds
1/3 cup shredded purple cabbage
juice of 1/2 lemon

In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine green cabbage, carrots, broth, raisins and salt. Stir to mix all ingredients. Bring to a boil (should take about 10-15 min), then reduce the heat and continue simmering for 10 minutes or until most of the broth has been absorbed. 

Meanwhile, toast the chopped hazelnuts and caraway seeds in a toaster oven for 3 minutes at 300 degrees. The nuts should be golden and the caraway fragrant. Set aside some of the mixture to sprinkle on top.

When you're ready to serve, transfer the warm cabbage mixture into a serving bowl and toss with the hazelnuts, caraway, nigella seeds, and fresh purple cabbage. Finish with lemon and reserved hazelnuts.

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