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I Spice: Cumin

You great big beautiful dal. Keep reading to get the recipe. (Monica Bhide)

I have to confess my obsession with cumin: Its toasty, smoky flavor had me at, well, first taste.

It is said to be one of the most popular spices in the world, preceded, I have read, only by black pepper. This little oblong seed is actually a dried fruit and is generally not used in its raw form. It can be toasted in a dry pan or fried in a little oil, powdered in a spice grinder or toasted and then pounded with a mortar and pestle.

To check for freshness, use your nose: If this aromatic spice does not release its fragrance, it’s too old and should be discarded. Once it is ground, the scent and flavor dissipate fast.

“I love cumin because it has just the right mix of exotic and everyday," says cookbook author Ramin Ganeshram. "Neither the scent nor the flavor is overpowering, so I often use it in a cross-category of dishes. Even ‘spice-phobic’ individuals simply realize a greater depth of flavor without being perturbed in a way something like fenugreek or even coriander, with its astringency, might affect them.”

Ganeshram advises storing whole cumin seeds in resealable plastic food storage bags and grinding the seeds on an as-needed basis. She points out that there are several varieties of cumin: Mexican, Middle Eastern and Indian. “I find that the Middle Eastern or Indian varieties have a more pungent flavor than the Mexican kind, which is milder," she says. "There is also something called ‘kala jeera,’ or black cumin, which is earthier when uncooked and can be almost bitter when toasted or fried. Black cumin is smaller and sweeter than regular cumin, and unlike many other spices with similar names, actually does belong to the same family as regular cumin."

John Sconzo, a food lover and avid cook, shared some tips on how he uses the spice: “I probably use cumin most frequently with potatoes. I roast potatoes with it or add toasted cumin to warm or cold potato salad or even mashed potatoes. I find that the cumin adds a perfume to the potatoes that really rounds them out and infuses them with a savory zing. I add it to roast meats or Mexican dishes as well.”

Salil Tripathi, a U.K.-based journalist, likes to add toasted cumin to buttermilk: Just mix and drink! Dry-roasted and ground cumin is a great garnish for plain yogurt, rice pilafs, meat and poultry stews and even roasted vegetables. Whole cumin sizzled in oil is a lovely foundation for rice, vegetables and all types of curries and stews.

Try some with Leyden cheese; the semisoft cheese contains ground cumin seeds that give it a pleasant zing. Add ground, toasted cumin to guacamole or whole cumin seeds to a pot of chili to make them more authentic. Remember Marlena Spieler’s recipe for Zchug I told you about in my last blog post on cardamom? It just wouldn’t be the same without the ground cumin.

Cumin has found a home in the spice aisle of grocery stores and is also sold online. Penzeys carries the different varieties.

And here are some fun facts about cumin, from
* Ancient Romans and Greeks used cumin as a cosmetic, to make their skin look paler.
* Chili powder is actually a spice blend that includes ground cumin.

-- Monica Bhide

6 servings

Chunky's the traditional consistency here, but feel free to puree the dal in batches (being careful not to overload a blender or food processor with hot food). Serve over steamed white rice.

Adapted from “Sweet Hands: Island Cooking from Trinidad & Tobago,” by Ramin Ganeshram (Hippocrene Books, 2005).

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 small red or white onion, chopped (3/4 to a scant 1 cup)
1/2-inch piece peeled ginger root, minced (1 teaspoon)
1 medium clove garlic, minced (1 teaspoon)
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 cup dried yellow split peas
3 cups water
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat, until the oil shimmers. Add the onion and cook for 6 to 8 minutes, until softened.

Add the ginger and garlic; cook for 30 to 45 seconds, stirring often, then add the cumin seeds and stir for 30 seconds until fragrant and well incorporated. Add the split peas, water and salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for about 35 minutes until the split peas are very soft, skimming any foam that appears on the surface. Remove from the heat.

Use the back of a spatula or a wooden spoon to mash some of the peas in the skillet. Serve hot, over steamed white rice.

Per serving: 165 calories, 8 g protein, 23 g carbohydrates, 5 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 394 mg sodium, 9 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar

By The Food Section  |  May 22, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  I Spice , Recipes  | Tags: I Spice, Monica Bhide, cumin  
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I am *in love* with cumin and use it to spice up everything from sloppy joes and meatloaf to cookies! (yes, cookies! I have a wonderful cheddar cookie that I spice up with a little cumin. It makes for a lovely cocktail party snack.)

My husband always laughs at the fact that I buy more cumin than anyone he knows (and cardamom, too, for that matter) because I'm always running out...

Posted by: atigerinthekitchen | May 22, 2009 10:49 AM | Report abuse

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