By DANIEL NEMAN
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Here is the wildest, craziest, most mind-blowing fact about cardamom: Not only is it a spice that is used in both savory and sweet dishes, it is an important ingredient in the cuisines of India, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Scandinavia.
If geography is not your strongest suit, what makes the fact so bizarre is these areas are nowhere near one another.
It is more than 4,000 miles from India to Norway. It is more than 5,300 miles from Vietnam to Sweden. Jordan is more than 2,500 miles from India and is 2,200 miles from Sweden.
In other words, cardamom has leapfrogged around the world, dropping little bombs of intense and aromatic seasoning wherever it goes. It is not used much in American kitchens, but given the fact that it plays equally well with side dishes, main courses and dessert, perhaps its time has come.
Cardamom is a little bit sharp, a little bit sweet and a little bit rock 'n' roll. A couple of seeds on your tongue can be marvelously refreshing. It is sometimes used to flavor tea, such as chai. And rice pudding simply wouldn't be rice pudding without it.
For my exploration of cardamom, I decided to make five dishes that highlight the various aspects of the spice.
One of my favorite methods of cooking chicken is to marinate it in yogurt with spices and then grill it -- or saute it or bake it. The yogurt makes the meat tender and juicy, and it also tempers the spices. You can get a lot of flavor this way without overpowering the meat.
I decided to try it with cardamom, also adding allspice and nutmeg. Vaguely similar in taste, but also decidedly different with unique flavors of their own, the three spices blended in a way that was, as I'd hoped, complementary.
Grilling the meat over indirect heat would be ideal, lending the meat an additional smoky taste to play off the other flavors, but I decided to do the next best thing. I seared it skin-side down on a cast-iron grill pan, flipped it over, then put the pan into a 400-degree oven. If you don't have a grill pan, you can do the same thing with any oven-safe skillet.
I cooked it that way, too, which was equally delicious. But you have to watch it while searing, because the yogurt has a tendency to char.
Because cardamom goes so well with basmati rice, I decided to make two dishes that use it -- one of them as the feature, the other as a backdrop.
Jeweled Rice is perhaps the most amazing rice dish I have ever made. You start off with basmati rice -- already good -- and then you stuff it chock full with a host of other things that make it even better.
I'm talking here about pistachios and almonds. I'm talking orange peel and julienned carrots, cooked together in a light syrup to make them slightly sweet. I'm talking about plumped-up raisins and dried cranberries. And I'm not just talking about cardamom, I'm also talking saffron, onion, cumin and turmeric.
Yes, it is a lot of work. Yes, it is totally worth it.
Besides, you can make the most complicated part a day or two in advance. Then, when it is time to serve it (and it is so beautiful you'll want to serve it to company), all you have essentially to do is to cook the rice.
The other basmati-based dish is a slight variant on the Indian classic Chana Masala. It is vegan -- if you are interested in such things -- it is easy and it is simply wonderful. For that matter, it is also wonderfully simple.
Chana Masala is a dish of chickpeas simmered in chopped tomatoes and a lot of spices. The version I made, which comes from the food editor of Bon Appetit, uses only a handful of spices. So technically it is less of a masala -- a mixture of spices -- than it might usually be, but it is excellent nevertheless.
Simply saute onion with cardamom, garlic, ginger and curry powder. When the onion is soft, add chickpeas and tomatoes, and simmer until you can't stand to wait any longer. Then serve over basmati rice and garnish with cilantro.
Because cardamom is so good in baked goods, I also decided to try a dessert. What I found was extraordinary indeed: Pear and Cardamom Upside-Down Cake.
Yield: 6 servings
1/4 cup unsalted, shelled raw pistachios, see note
1/4 cup slivered almonds
2 cups uncooked basmati rice
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into matchstick size
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 teaspoon saffron threads
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread pistachios on a rimmed baking sheet and toast until just beginning to brown, about 4 minutes. Transfer to a plate, let cool, then coarsely chop. Spread almonds on the same baking sheet and toast until golden brown, 5 to 8 minutes. Set nuts aside.
Place rice in a fine-mesh sieve and rinse under cold water until water runs clear. Cook rice in a large pot of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally, until grains have lengthened but are still firm, 6 to 7 minutes; drain and rinse under cold water. Spread rice on another rimmed baking sheet; let cool.
Meanwhile, using a vegetable peeler, remove zest from orange and thinly slice the zest lengthwise (reserve flesh for another use). Bring sugar and 1 cup water to a boil in a medium saucepan, stirring to dissolve sugar. Add orange zest and carrots, reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until carrots are tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain and set aside (discard syrup).
Combine cranberries and raisins in a small bowl and cover with hot water (not boiling); let soak 10 minutes. Drain and set aside. Place saffron in another small bowl and add 1/4 cup hot water; set aside.
Heat butter and 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion, season with salt and cook, stirring often, until soft and beginning to brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Add cardamom, cumin, turmeric and 1 tablespoon saffron mixture. Cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 1 minute.
Reduce heat to low, add cranberries and raisins, and cook, stirring often, about 3 minutes. Stir in reserved nuts and orange zest and carrot mixture; season with salt. Set fruit and nut mixture aside.
Heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a large, wide, heavy pot over medium heat. Add half of rice, spreading evenly; top with fruit and nut mixture, then remaining rice, spreading evenly. Using the end of a wooden spoon, poke 5 to 6 holes in rice all the way through to bottom of pot (to help release steam and help rice cook evenly).
Drizzle remaining saffron mixture over rice. Place a clean kitchen towel over pot, cover with a tight-fitting lid, and secure loose edges of towel on top of lid, using a rubber band or masking tape.
Cook until pot begins to steam, 5 to 8 minutes. Reduce heat to very low and cook, without stirring, until rice is tender and bottom layer of rice is browned and crisp, 30 to 40 minutes.
1Scoop rice into a wide serving bowl, breaking bottom crust into pieces.
Per serving: 500 calories; 18 g fat; 4.5 g saturated fat; 10 mg cholesterol; 8 g protein; 83 g carbohydrate; 30 g sugar; 6 g fiber; 20 mg sodium; 40 mg calcium.
Yield: 4 servings
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, sliced
2 tablespoons chopped ginger
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cardamom pods
1 teaspoon curry powder
1 (28-ounce) can peeled whole tomatoes
1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, rinsed
Salt and pepper
Basmati rice, for serving
Chopped fresh cilantro, for serving
Cook onion, garlic and ginger in oil with cardamom and curry powder until onion is soft, 8 to 10 minutes. Add tomatoes with their juices and chickpeas and simmer until soft, 25 to 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with rice and cilantro.
Per serving: 265 calories; 10g fat; 1.5g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 10g protein; 36g carbohydrate; 6g sugar; 4g fiber; 525mg sodium; 90mg calcium.
YOGURT SPICED CHICKEN
Yield: 4 servings
1 whole chicken, cut up, or 3 to 4 pounds of chicken pieces
1 cup plain yogurt
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg (freshly ground is best)
1/4 teaspoon cardamom
Salt and pepper
Rinse chicken and pat dry.
In a large bowl, combine yogurt, allspice, nutmeg and cardamom. Add chicken pieces and mix until chicken is thoroughly coated. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
Arrange grill for indirect heat or preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Knock or brush off as much yogurt marinade as you can. Liberally sprinkle both sides of the chicken with salt and pepper.
If using grill, place chicken skin-side-down on the grate away from the coals or flames, and close the lid. Cook white meat 25 to 30 minutes, turning once. Cook dark meat 45 to 55 minutes, turning once.
If using oven, heat a grill pan or heavy, oven-proof skillet very hot on the stove. Spray with nonstick spray (or add a little oil), then place chicken skin-side-down on the pan. Cook until seared and brown, but do not let it burn, about 2 to 3 minutes. Flip chicken and place pan in oven. Cook white meat 25 minutes or until done; cook dark meat 45 minutes or until done.
Per serving: 390 calories; 22 g fat; 6 g saturated fat; 145 mg cholesterol; 45 g protein; no carbohydrate; no sugar; no fiber; 135 mg sodium; 30 mg calcium.
PEAR AND CARDAMOM
Yield: 8 servings
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon cardamom, see note
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter, room temperature, divided
3/4 cup packed golden brown sugar
2 firm, ripe pears, preferably Anjou
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup milk, room temperature
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter a 9-inch round cake pan.
Sift the flour, salt and baking powder together. Stir in the cardamom and set aside.
Melt 1/4 cup butter (1/2 stick) in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the brown sugar and stir for 2 to 3 minutes, until the sugar has melted and combined with the butter. Pour the mixture into the prepared cake pan, spreading it to reach the sides.
4. Peel the pears, cut in half and remove the core and stem. Cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Arrange the pear slices in a slightly overlapping circle around the cake pan, starting at the outer rim. Finish with several slices in the center. Sprinkle the pears with the lemon juice. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside.
5. Beat the remaining 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter in the bowl of an electric mixer until soft and fluffy. Add the sugar and beat until smooth. Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition. Beat in the vanilla, scraping down the sides of the bowl when needed. Add 1/3 of the flour mixture, 1/2 of the milk, another 1/3 of the flour, the rest of the milk, and the rest of the flour mixture, beating after each addition just until combined.
6. Gently spoon the cake batter on top of the pears, smoothing out to the edge of the pan and making sure the cake batter fills in around the pears.
7. Bake until the top is a deep golden brown and a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Place the cake on a rack to cool for 5 minutes in the pan.
8. Run a small spatula or knife around the edge of the pan and invert onto a cake plate, leaving the pan on the cake for 10 minutes. Carefully remove the pan. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Per serving: 445 calories; 19 g fat; 12 g saturated fat; 95 mg cholesterol; 5 g protein; 65 g carbohydrate; 44 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 245 mg sodium; 80 mg calcium.