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I Spice: Fenugreek

Fresh fenugreek leaves. (Monica Bhide)

Remember all the fuss in New York a few years ago about a strange maple syrup aroma permeating the city? Well, last year investigators found the culprit: fenugreek seeds.

Ah yes, these lovely seeds pack quite a punch, both in terms of taste and, as is now so obvious, aroma. My earliest memories of these seeds may amount to “too much information,” but I recall that when I was a child, every time a relative gave birth, the grandmothers at home would immediately make the new mom increase her intake of fenugreek, because apparently it helps with milk production. Who knew?

Recipe Included

The small, caramel-colored, flat, square seeds are commonly used in Indian and North African cuisines. The seeds are hard and work best when slightly toasted or soaked in water for an hour or so. When using them, toast them as needed and only lightly, or bear the wrath of a horridly acrid taste. Also, be stingy with this seed; a little goes a really long way, and too much can be bitter.

The seeds are used in Indian cooking to flavor pickles and curries. They go especially well with fish curries. My Yemeni neighbor soaks the seeds, then grinds them with cilantro, tomato, zhug (a Middle Eastern hot sauce) and garlic to make a delicious dip/paste called hilbeh. I don’t have any zhug and so I use dried red pepper. My mother-in-law, who likes to sprout every bean in sight, has a particular soft spot for these. (The seeds are actually pulses, like lentils.) She uses their sprouts in salads, soups, sandwiches, stir-fries and even just as a garnish for steamed rice.

I spoke about fenugreek leaves and seeds with acclaimed teacher and author Raghavan Iyer, whose book “660 Curries” (Workman Publishing, 2008), has several recipes using this wonderful ingredient: “I love the heady aroma of fenugreek leaves, dried or fresh: musky, strong and perfumed," he says. "They yield a flavor parallel to none, and can often be the only headliner in a dish. The dried seeds evoke an ‘ooh, curry’ response from my students since it is an essential spice in commercial curry powders. I love the hint of bitterness the seeds impart.”

I asked Raghavan for tips on how to use fenugreek in everyday cooking:

* Stir a handful of the fresh chopped leaves into a stew of potatoes and garbanzo beans.

* Simmer a pot of homemade tomato sauce with a drizzle of clarified butter and crushed dried leaves.

* Toast and crush the seeds before you add them to unripe mango pickled with ground red pepper and salt.

* Flavor steamed green peas with dried or fresh fenugreek leaves, salt and a hint of cream for a great side dish.

I have a particular soft spot for fresh and dried fenugreek leaves, also called methi. The fresh leaves are petite, pretty and have a delightful taste, while the dried ones -- often my go-to ingredient whenever something I am cooking just tastes blah -- have the aroma of a thousand seeds and smell divine. (Ask New Yorkers, they know all about it.)

A friend of mine likes to crush the dried leaves to a powder and mix them into mashed potatoes. Everybody loves them, she says, but no one can figure out what that elusive flavor is.

Fenugreek seeds can be stored up to two years. Ground fenugreek to me is pretty useless, as it loses its potency very fast. Toast and grind the seeds as you need them. Dried fenugreek leaves, which I could write volumes on, can be stored for up to a year, if not more. Use your nose: If it smells good, it can still be used.

About the fresh leaves: “When choosing fresh leaves, look for leaves that are bright green and perky. Once they start to fade, the leaves acquire a light yellow color. They resemble watercress leaves and can be quite muddy due to the fact that they grow very close to the ground,” says Raghavan.

I would like to add that these are best used immediately. Also, be sure to wash them well before using. Try my father’s method: He used to fill a huge bucket with cold water and add bunches of fenugreek leaves. Swirl the bunches around, letting the sand and grit settle to the bottom. Why in bunches? Well, these leaves really shrink when cooked, so what may seem like a lot in raw form isn’t so when cooked. You also can purchase frozen fenugreek leaves from Indian grocers. In most curries, they can be substituted for fresh ones.

Try these delicious dishes in Recipe Finder: Curry-Dusted Pork Tenderloin with Mango Chutney, Pine Nuts Chicken Kebabs, and chef Marcus Samuelsson’s Spiced Butter, a mainstay of Ethiopian cooking.

According to Aliza Green's “Field Guide to Herbs & Spices” (Quirk Books, 2006), there is a related plant called blue fenugreek. She writes that it is milder than regular fenugreek and found in a special type of Swiss cheese called sapsago. First blue allspice, and now blue fenugreek? Someone forgot to tell me that blue is the new black in spices.

-- Monica Bhide. Follow her on Twitter.

Roast Chicken With Fenugreek. (Monica Bhide)

Roast Chicken With Fenugreek
4 to 6 servings

I learned to roast chicken whole from my culinary hero, cookbook author and New York Times columnist Mark Bittman. I love his no-fuss method of roasting. I don’t truss a small chicken, but a large bird will need to be trussed. Please use butter if you want a crisp skin on the chicken; oil just does not work the same way.

One 3-to-4-pound whole chicken
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus melted butter for basting
1 teaspoon salt, plus more for seasoning the bird
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more for seasoning the bird
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons dried fenugreek leaves, crushed

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Have a roasting pan at hand, with a rack that fits inside.

Remove the giblet package and excess bits from inside the chicken. Cut any excess fat or skin from the chicken. Rinse the chicken and pat it dry; do this well or any remaining moisture will produce steam when you roast it. Lightly season the inside cavity of the bird with salt and pepper. Place the chicken on the rack in the pan.

Combine the room-temperature butter, the teaspoon each of salt and pepper, the crushed red pepper flakes and the fenugreek leaves in a small bowl; mix to incorporate. Rub this mixture liberally all over the chicken, making sure you work it under the skin as well.

Turn the chicken breast side down on the rack. Roast for 20 to 30 minutes, until the skin begins to brown, then use some melted butter (to taste) to baste the bird and turn the breast right side up. Use melted butter to baste the breast, which should be starting to brown. Roast for 5 minutes.

Use melted butter to baste the bird all over; reduce the temperature to 325 degrees and bake for 45 to 55 minutes, or until the chicken's juices run clear.

For a well-browned chicken, you can increase the oven heat to the broil setting (no need to re-position the oven rack); broil for a few minutes, watching closely.

Transfer the chicken to a platter and let rest for about 10 minutes. Serve with each portion of chicken with a drizzle of pan juices, if desired.

Per serving (based on 6): 557 calories, 42 g protein, 0 g carbohydrates, 42 g fat, 15 g saturated fat, 190 mg cholesterol, 547 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar

By The Food Section  |  January 29, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  I Spice , Recipes  | Tags: I Spice, Monica Bhide, fenugreek, recipes  
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Fenugreek has become one of my new favorite herbs. I didn't know much about it until I bought your book, so thank you for the introduction!

Posted by: sstiavetti | January 30, 2010 2:03 PM | Report abuse

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