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I Spice: Allspice

I spent the better part of early November searching for “white allspice” at a reader’s request. I could not find anything except one reference in a wassail recipe. So I do apologize to that reader.

What I can do is share what I have learned about the gorgeous brown, dried, unripe berry that perfumes Jamaican, Lebanese, Mexican, Indian cuisines and more.

Recipe Included

Allspice comes from the berries of tropical evergreen trees native to Jamaica, Cuba, Guatemala, Honduras and southern Mexico, according to "The Spice and Herb Bible" by Ian Hemphill. While the berries we see are brown, I read in Tony Hill's lovely book, "The Spice Lover's Guide to Herbs and Spices," that if they stay on the tree too long, they turn blue. Who knew?

The spice is key to the cookery of Jamaica, and you may recognize it as the chief component of jerk seasoning. But here's a thing or two you may not be aware of: The meats that are seasoned are then cooked over an allspice wood fire. Jamaicans also soak the berries in rum to make a special liqueur. The British developed their taste for allspice from Jamaica and began to add it to their stews and more. Chef and cooking teacher Pati Jinich, who wrote Wednesday's Food section article on chorizo, told me that in Mexico allspice is called pimienta gorda, or "fat pepper"; it is used a lot in the country's Yucatan peninsula. And recipes that attempt to duplicate the taste of
"secret spices" in Heinz ketchup usually include allspice.

Cookbook author extraordinaire Anissa Helou, an expert on Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking teacher, says she loves allspice for its complex flavor that hints of nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon: "It is a perfect substitute for the Lebanese seven-spice mixture that also includes black and white pepper and coriander."


Okra and Meat Stew. (Monica Bhide)

Using allspice is simple. Add it to any dish that has bold, sweet and savory flavors. I have added it to cakes (even though I am not much of a baker, this spice makes a big difference), stews, soups, lentils, kebabs, puddings, barbecue sauces and so much more. Of course, there is nothing like a bit of allspice in your cup of hot chocolate.

Helou tells me allspice is great in dishes with ground meats. She always adds it to kefta (ground meat balls or skewers) and kibbeh (ground meat with bulgur wheat, which can be prepared in myriad ways: in balls cooked in yogurt, sumac sauce or with quince; as a pie with a filling of meat, onion and pine nuts between two layers of bulgur). She also uses it in tabbouleh and to stews -- including a pea, carrot and tomato one flavored with lemon and orange zest.

For more fun recipes that call for allspice, how about this variety: these amazing buttermilk scones (http://projects.washingtonpost.com/recipes/2008/11/12/buttermilk-scones-mosaic-dried-fruit/), agave-tomato jam (http://projects.washingtonpost.com/recipes/2009/08/12/agave-tomato-jam/), and Big Jim’s BBQ Chicken (http://projects.washingtonpost.com/recipes/2006/06/14/big-jims-bbq-chicken/).

While Helou is lucky enough to be able to buy her allspice in Lebanon or Syria, where it is called b’har helu ("sweet pepper"), the rest of us can buy it just about anywhere spices are sold. Look for berries that are bright, brownish red. If you get a chance to smell them, their aroma should be strong. The best way to store allspice is in a sealed container (come on . . . you all know the drill by now!), away from direct heat. If you buy the berries and grind them yourself (always a good idea for fresher flavor), five whole berries yield about 1 teaspoon ground. Helou says even ground allspice remains potent for a long time. (She says "forever"; I've seen estimates of three to five years.) Follow your nose on this one.

By the way, there is a claim on several Web sites that allspice is also excellent as a deodorant. Any testers?

-- Monica Bhide

Okra and Meat Stew(Bemyeh bil-Lahmeh)
4 to 6 servings

Serve with rice. From Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking expert Anissa Helou.

1 1/2 pounds okra
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium onion, cut into thin slices
1 pound boneless lamb from the shoulder, cut into bite-size pieces
7 medium cloves garlic, crushed
1 bunch (about 3 1/2 ounces) cilantro, washed, dried, tougher stems cut off then finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
Sea salt
One 14-ounce can peeled Italian tomatoes, drained and chopped
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Cut off and discard the tops of the okra; take care not to cut into the vegetable, to avoid the release of its mucilaginous substance during cooking.

Line a plate with a few layers of paper towels.

Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat until the oil shimmers. Add the trimmed okra and fry for 5 to 6 minutes, stirring constantly, until it begins to brown. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the okra to the paper-towel-lined plate. (Once the oil has cooled, discard it.)

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for 6 to 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until soft and transparent. Add the lamb and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the pieces are browned on all sides.

Add the garlic, cilantro, coriander and a pinch of salt. Cook for 1 minute, stirring, or until the cilantro softens but does not brown.

Add the tomatoes, cinnamon, allspice, pepper and salt to taste, mixing well; increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover and cook for 35 minutes or until the lamb is almost tender.

Add the fried okra. Once the stew has returned to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and cook for 15 minutes or until the okra is tender and the stew has thickened. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed. Discard the garlic, if desired.

Divide among individual bowls; serve hot, with plain boiled or steamed rice.

By The Food Section  |  January 15, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  I Spice , Recipes  | Tags: Monica Bhide  
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