Flickers of Spring….and a pinch of cardamom

February 9th, 2011

A drift of sweet scent wafts through the window as I lift a pot of deep blue and punchy pink hyacinths from the window sill and close the shutters every night. Fragrance, color, what healing powers the senses convey.  I turn to spices as the soup, sauce or chops are cooking, digging in the spice drawer for brilliant turmeric, tiny cumin seeds, ginger and crushed cardamom.  Cumin seeds send a smoky hint of the east  as they toast in the old Griswold skillet before I add sliced onions and then sear the turkey or sausages for supper. Just a dash of Nouilly Prat white vermouth deglazes the pan, a knife-tip of ginger and a pinch of sea salt are sprinkled in before the lid goes on and flame is turned down.  Using cardamom in savory dishes has become a habit as I stretch from accenting apple cakes or poached pears with this member of the ginger family.  Beyond its presence in Scandinavian sweets and pastries, where I first encountered it, cardamom is a great team player.  Indian and eastern Mediterranean cooks have known this for eons!

Black, crushed or green in the pod?

What is cardamom, anyway?  Happy growing in rain forests and tropical climates, the seeds of the pod of Ellettaria cardamonum are prized from India to Sri Lanka, and east to Malaysia.  It is a member of the ginger family (as noted), with long flat and pointed leaves.  The cardamom tree grows to ten feet/three meters high, and bears white flowers with a blue or lilac stripe in the center.  Cardamom appeared in Europe about 1200 A.D. – possibly another import brought with the courageous crusaders on their return from the middle east.  Its attributes are not only fragrance and flavor, but as a digestive aid and as a breath freshener.  Many cooks prefer to buy the green pods and to seed them as needed, certainly keeping flavor longer -  do avoid the finely ground caradamom found in supermarkets, which loses flavor once uncapped.  The pods mixed in with coffee grounds add an eastern Mediterranean tone to a French press or drip coffee.  This cardamom fan uses it so often,  I find the long glass tubes of crushed Guatemalan cardamom sold in Scandinavia keep the parfum longer when tightly re-corked and kept in a cool place.

It is a spice with character; a pinch is enough.  What was I saying about this team player:   skillet-toasting cardamom with cumin seeds before adding onions perks up a weeknight meal.  It adds an intriguing note to carrots cooked with garlic and sliced fennel.  Include cardamom in a “rub” for pork or duck, or even in a marinade for fish to add a new dimension to supper for a valentine….