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I Spice: Nigella (the seeds)

Nigella seeds. (Jim Thresher for The Washington Post)

This blog post is about nigella: the spice, not the food personality. I wonder how many readers I just lost by admitting that upfront.

I found someone who loves nigella the little-known spice as much as I do (and no, I did not ask him about Nigella Lawson). Chef Richard Ruben, author of "The Farmer’s Market Cookbook," told me he first loved nigella because it "called to him” from the spice shelves as something he didn't recognize. But then he realized that he did know it: He had been visited by the spice all his life as charnushka, a topping for the traditional Eastern European rye bread that was always in his mother’s bread basket.

Recipe Included

“It was like finally putting a face with the voice. I am now surprised how often I encounter these seeds, primary on breads from rye to nan to pita,” he said. “I was quite intrigued by this mysterious seed that I now connected with Eastern Europe and the foods of the subcontinent. Then I found it was commonly used in Middle Eastern cuisine.”

That is where I first found out about nigella, too -- on Middle Eastern breads -- and then I noticed that my mother used it in Indian preparations as well.

Commonly known as nigella, this spice is also known as onion seeds. But as Ruben correctly pointed out, these seeds bear no botanical connection to the ubiquitous allium he uses daily on the job. The plant nigella comes from is related to buttercups. It is also sometimes referred to as black cumin or black caraway, but again, it is related to neither.

I have always loved the nutty, peppery flavor of the tiny, flat black seeds. But I’ve also always been a bit wary of using too much of them, as they add a lot of bitterness really quickly. In working with nigella, Ruben said, he finds them to be slightly bitter/smoky with an herbaceous note reminiscent of oregano. When ground as part of a seasoning mix, that herby quality acts a primary fragrance. He and I are inclined to agree, though, that we prefer using the seeds whole not only for the complex taste they offer but also for the texture this surprisingly dense seed delivers.

When buying nigella, think small. A little goes a long way. Ruben advices storing it in the freezer, since exposure to light and heat releases the spice's volatile oils, which, in turn, removes the sought-after fragrance in any spice. So while that spice rack adjacent to the stove may be convenient for storage and access, it can prematurely destroy the potency of your purchase.

To use nigella, warm it first. “If I am using nigella seeds as a finish -- as I do with roasted potatoes -- I gently toast them before sprinkling them over the finished dish,” the chef says.

It is easily available at Indian grocers or at (as kalunji), and at and as charnushka.

For fun ways to use the spice, I turned to the all-knowing Web and my food-savvy buddies on social media. Food writer Elissa Altman says she loves to add nigella to scrambled eggs, mashed potatoes, and potato croquettes. My tweet for nigella lovers was also read by the legendary cookbook author Paula Wolfert, who responded with, “I have a unique home-style tagine from Marrakech in which some of seeds are ground with coarse salt to a powder and rubbed onto the chicken, and also some are added to the sauce. The seeds impart a mild peppery taste and pair well with a little sweet caramelized tomato and salty preserved lemon.” I Spice reader Kathy Wielech Patterson, posted on my Facebook page that she adds them to her hash browns.

-- Monica Bhide

Feta-Turkey Burgers. (Jim Thresher for The Washington Post)

Feta-Turkey Burgers
6 servings

Adapted from chef Richard Ruben, author of "The Farmer's Market Cookbook," (Lyons Press, 2006).

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, cut into small dice (1 cup)
2 medium cloves garlic, crushed to a paste with a little kosher salt
2 teaspoons zaatar (a Middle Eastern spice blend often composed of ground sesame seeds, dried thyme, dried marjoram and sumac)
1 tablespoon nigella seeds (see headnote)
1 pound (uncooked) ground turkey
1/4 pound feta cheese, crumbled (about 1 cup)
Leaves from 2 or 3 sprigs thyme, chopped (2 teaspoons)
Freshly ground black pepper

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a medium nonstick or cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for 20 to 25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until browned at the edges. Transfer to a medium bowl and add the garlic, zaatar and nigella seeds, stirring to incorporate. Let cool completely.

Add the remaining tablespoon of oil to the same skillet used to cook the onion; heat over medium heat.

Meanwhile, add the ground turkey, feta, thyme and pepper to taste to the cooled onion mixture. Use your clean hands to form the mixture into 6 patties. Working in batches, add 3 or 4 of the patties to the skillet, being careful not to overcrowd. Cook for about 6 minutes until browned on the bottom, then turn them over and cook for 4 to 6 minutes, until fully cooked (but not dry). As the turkey burgers are done, transfer to a plate and cover loosely with aluminum foil to keep warm. Add the remaining patties to the skillet (no more oil will be needed) and repeat the cooking process.

Serve immediately, with your favorite burger accompaniments.

Per serving: 228 calories, 17 g protein, 3 g carbohydrates, 16 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 82 mg cholesterol, 351 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar

By The Food Section  |  November 13, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  I Spice , Recipes  | Tags: I Spice, Monica Bhide, nigella seeds, recipes  
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Scatter nigella seeds on a Yorkshire Pudding/Popover just before you put it in the oven then, once cooked, pour in some onion meat gravy for a great late night snack.

Posted by: backblow | November 13, 2009 8:30 AM | Report abuse

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