“When one is tired of all seasonings, cumin remains welcome.”
(Pliny, Citronelle, 1st century, AD quoted in “The Oxford Companion to Food“)
Seen but not Heard
When Sarene suggested we discuss cumin to kick off 2015, I wondered why we hadn’t already delved further into this common yet underappreciated spice. When I combed our cookbooks for specifics, only The Flavor Bibleand an old copy of a Paula Wolfert book spared any space in the index to highlight it. Yet when searching for recipes in “Jerusalem: A Cookbook“, it shows up in 45 of them as an ingredient! Cumin’s spot in your cooking repertoire is akin to an old friend that you can’t live without but occasionally take for granted.
A Multicultural Spice
Dating back to the Old Testament, cumin [KUH-mihn; KYOO-mihn; KOO-mihn] is similarly shaped to a caraway seed. It’s aromatic with a warm, earthy spiciness. The Flavor Bible describes it as both bitter and sweet with a moderately loud volume (were they talking about me or the spice?). It’s said to have been a popular spice in Roman times. Today, it’s what enlivens Middle Eastern, Asian, Mediterranean, Mexican, Spanish, American Southwest and Indian menus. In the Netherlands and Switzerland, it’s added to cheeses. It’s mixed into cakes and breads in France and Germany.
An Introvert and an Extrovert
It’s often used alone and in spice blends, like chili powder, garam masala, char masala, curry powders, Persian advieh, baharat and others.
It’s sprinkled in recipes throughout the Jerusalem cookbook. Joumana Accad, author of Taste of Beirut(2014) uses it in Falafel Loaf with Tarator Sauce and Chickpeas with Cumin (Balila), among others.
While cumin comes in three varieties — amber, white and black — amber is the most common. Black has a complex flavor and can’t be substituted for the other two, according to Internet sources.
Best Practices to Heighten Flavor
To enhance the flavor, dry toast cumin quickly in a hot, dry skillet, as Tasting Jerusalem member Adrian Seltzer does. She points out that it’s best to buy the whole seeds and toast and grind them as needed for the best flavor. Or, better yet, use them whole.
Cooks can also make cumin-flavored oil to perk up steamed asparagus, cauliflower, carrots and broccoli. It adds interest when pooled atop hummus instead of olive oil. It does the same thing when swirled into chilled gazpacho soup just before serving.
Use it as a base for marinades or oil and vinegar dressings, especially those with garlic and lime. Toss it with lentils, rice, beans, tomatoes or cheese. You can also add ground cumin for a more intense effect.
Make cumin-flavored oil by grinding one to two tablespoons of the seed in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder. Mindy Schreil, a professional cook in the San Francisco Bay area, who developed the recipe for Cook’s Illustrated magazine, used one tablespoon. Schreil’s version was too subtle, so I added a second tablespoon. The result was a distinct cumin taste without being overbearing.
Stir the ground spice into a glass container filled one cup canola, peanut, corn or olive oil. Loosely cover the glass with plastic wrap and store in a cool place for at least three days. Remove the sediment by straining it in multiple layers of cheesecloth. Tightly covered, the oil keeps in the refrigerator up to a month.
Oil-rich cumin seeds also have many health benefits. According to the Times of India, cumin aids digestion and cures cold, flushes toxins and helps the body absorb nutrients.
“It would be beneficial to sip on a concoction of cumin seeds and water. Boil a handful of cumin seeds along with water. Drinking this water wards off common colds, and keeps the digestive system on track. Many South-Indian households drink only ‘jeera-pani’ instead of sipping on plain boiled water,” states the publication’s website.
Cumin Recipes from “Jerusalem” and Beyond:
There are truthfully too many to list. But one of the approved printable recipes is the Stuffed Eggplant with Lamb and Pine Nuts on page 166. It uses cumin in powdered form but remember Adrian’s wise advise and grind it from whole toasted seeds for best results. This photo is from Winnie Abramson of the blog Healthy Green Kitchen and author of the book One Simple Change. You’ll find the recipe at the end of the post.
Welcome to Tasting Jerusalem
If you’re new to the group, here are our “rules” (there really aren’t any except to cook and share your experiences.)
- How often will we cook: We’ll pick a new set of recipes monthly to allow us all to fit in the cooking when we can and to find any ingredients that might not be available at your typical grocery store stop.
- Do I need to cook all the recipes?: We offer up several recipes to fit your taste buds, menus, schedules – cook as many or as few as you desire. But once you start cooking from this book, you probably won’t stop!
- What do I need to participate: Jerusalem: A Cookbook Plus an interest in cooking, willingness to try new flavors, and an electronic device that communicates via the Internet. We will always post the month’s information in a blog post via omgyummy.com so you can subscribe to Beth’s blog to be guaranteed to receive it or just check in frequently via the Facebook page or Twitter hashtag #TastingJrslm
- How to share what you cook: Tasting Jerusalem is open to anyone. You do not have to be a blogger or food professional of any sort. But if you have a camera, we encourage you to share photos of your dishes on Twitter or the Facebook page or Instagram, using the hashtag #TastingJrslm – we all love to see the results of your kitchen adventures. New to these types of social media? Just drop me an email beth (at) omgyummy (dot) com – I’ll be glad to help you get started.
- What recipes can be published and how to publish: We expect to cook through most, if not all, of the recipes in the cookbook over time. As such, for those of us blogging or writing about our experiences in any way, it’s important that we don’t include the recipe in our blog posts, unless Ten Speed Press has approved its use. The goal of the group is to learn together and enrich our experience using this cookbook, not create an online version of it. We are in touch with Ten Speed Press to find out which recipes we can post. For an example of another group that writes about their cooking but doesn’t post each recipe, please visit French Fridays with Dorie. If you legitimately change a recipe, rewrite the headnote and instructions, and choose to share it, please say you’ve adapted it, giving credit to the source including a link to purchase the cookbook.
- What if I have questions? Sarene and I will be monitoring the Facebook page and Twitter hashtag #TastingJrslm almost continuously so just leave us a note there. If you see a question and know the answer, jump on in before us. Part of the fun of the group will be each of us sharing our own knowledge, perspectives and ideas.
- What to include if you write a blog post: If you do post about what you cook, please let us know – we will link to it. And feel free to post it on the Facebook page and Twitter with the #TastingJrslm hashtag. We’d also appreciate it if you would include this verbiage in the context of your post:
“Tasting Jerusalem is a virtual cooking community exploring the vibrant flavors and cuisine of the Middle East through the lens of Jerusalem: A Cookbook by Ottolenghi and Tamimi published by Ten Speed Press. You can follow along and cook with us by subscribing to omgyummy.com, following the hashtag #TastingJrslm on Twitter and Instagram, liking our Facebook page or joining our Google+ Community and finally checking out all of our groups’ dishes on Pinterest.”
- 4 medium eggplants (about 2 ½ lb/1.2 kg), halved lengthwise
- 6 tablespoons/90 ml olive oil
- 1 ½ teaspoons ground cumin
- 1 ½ tablespoons sweet paprika
- 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
- 2 medium onions, (12 oz/340 g in total), finely chopped
- 1 lb/500 g ground lamb
- 7 tablespoons/50 g pine nuts (I used chopped walnuts instead)
- ⅔ oz/20 g flat leaf parsley, chopped
- 2 teaspoons tomato paste (I used homemade ketchup instead)
- 3 teaspoons superfine sugar
- ⅔ cup/150 ml water
- 1 ½ tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon tamarind paste
- 4 cinnamon sticks
- salt and freshly ground pepper
- Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F/220 degrees C.
- Place the eggplant halves, skin side down, in a roasting pan large enough to accommodate them snugly. Brush the flesh with 4 tablespoons of the olive oil and season with 1 teaspoon of the salt and plenty of the black pepper. Roast for about 20 minutes, until golden brown. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly.
- While the eggplants are cooking, you can start making the stuffing by heating the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large frying pan. Mix together the cumin, paprika, and ground cinnamon and add half of this spice mix to the pan, along with the onions. Cook over medium-high heat for about 8 minutes, stirring often, before adding the lamb, pine nuts, parsley, tomato paste, 1 teaspoon of the sugar, 1 teaspoon salt, and some black pepper. Continue to cook and stir for another 8 minutes, until the meat is cooked.
- Place the remaining spice mix in a bowl and add the water, lemon juice, tamarind, the remaining 2 teaspoons sugar, the cinnamon sticks, and ½ teaspoon salt; mix well.
- Reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees F (195 degrees C). Pour the spice mix into the bottom of the eggplant roasting pan. Spoon the lamb mixture on top of each eggplant. Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil, return to the oven, and roast for 1 ½ hours, by which point the eggplants should be completely soft and the sauce thick; twice during the cooking, remove the foil and baste the eggplants with the sauce, adding some water if the sauce dried out. Serve warm, not hot, or at room temperature.