April 8, 2013
Chia seeds are gaining a reputation as a superfood, joining the ranks of açaí, pomegranate, goji berry and the most recent favorite, quinoa (the United Nations dubbed this year the International Year of Quinoa.) But unlike its health food brethren, which few knew of before they became ubiquitous, the ingredient once enjoyed some unusual success outside the kitchen: it gave life to Chia Pets, ceramic turtles, cows, pigs and other creatures that sprouted plant-hair and sat atop living room tables across America in the 1990s.
Chia, a flowering plant in the mint family known as Salvia hispanica, is native to central and southern Mexico and Guatemala. Domesticated in 2,600 B.C., the seed is said to have been a staple of the Aztec and Mayan diet. The Tarahumara of Mexico, famous for their incredible endurance running, consume a blend of maize and chia seeds while pounding the desert sand.
At just 65 calories per tablespoon, chia seeds are rich in protein, fiber, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids. The seeds transform water into a gooey, gelatin-like mixture one can drink (slowly) straight out of the glass. Their unassuming mild, nutty flavor can disappear into countless different dishes, from pancakes and mashed potatoes to barbecue sauce and Jell-O. Here are five ways to cook with chia seeds that go beyond breading and salad garnishes.
Smoothies. Chia seeds can be ground down into a fine powder in a blender. Now a nearly invisible ingredient, chia powder can be swirled around with countless combinations of fruits, veggies and syrups. This recipe pulverizes the seeds with yogurt, blueberries, mangoes and vanilla extract for a tropical shake, while this one blends them with strawberries and apple juice for a quick breakfast beverage. For a brightly colored shake that tastes better than it looks, combine baby spinach leaves, chunks of kiwi, almond milk and a frozen banana and blend till smooth. Toss a few tablespoons of seeds with peanut butter, frozen bananas, chocolate-flavored coffee creamer, cocoa powder and milk to create a rich dessert smoothie. If the mix is too thick, add milk until it thins out.
Pudding. Some drink chia seeds straight with water, but if the gooeyness minus the flavor is too much for you, try pudding. Fold chia seeds into a mixture of cocoa powder, brown sugar, instant coffee and milk and stick them in the fridge for two hours to create decadent chocolate pudding. Combine the seeds with milk, sugar and vanilla extract and refrigerate overnight for a tapioca-like treat, sprinkling it with shredded coconut. For a breakfast pudding, toss water-soaked cashews with maple syrup, vanilla extract and chia seeds until smooth. Refrigerate eight hours or all night, and or top with dried or fresh fruit.
Breads. When chia seeds absorb water, they create a gelatinous mixture that can replace eggs, oil and butter in baking. In this recipe for pumpkin bread, chia gel takes on the role of butter and oil. Blend it with sugar, eggs and pumpkin puree. In another bowl, sift together flour, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Stir the pumpkin mixture in gradually, then fold in chopped walnuts for crunchiness. Spread the batter out into a pan and bake for an hour at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Once it’s transformed into a spongy loaf and cooled, smear with a sweet glaze of cream cheese, powdered sugar, milk and vanilla extract. Swap pumpkin puree for bananas for classic banana bread.
Burgers. For an extra protein kick at the picnic table, use chia seeds in homemade burger patties as a binding agent. Stir them in water to create a thick gel-like mixture. Saute chopped onion with olive oil in a pan until it begins to caramelize, then add minced garlic. In a bowl, combine them with ground meat, grated carrots, seasonings and the chia seed mixture. Using a large spoon or glove hands, mold the mix into 4-inch patties that are about half an inch thick and freeze them for an hour. Then, toss them on the grill, letting them sizzle for three minutes on each side.
Soups. Water-laden chia seeds can help thicken soup for a hearty comfort meal. For creamy cauliflower soup, boil chopped onion, cauliflower and vegetable stock. Ladle out half of the broth and stir in ground chia seeds. Return the mix to the pot and continue cooking. Garnish the soup with chopped parsley and black pepper, and serve with a crunchy slice of bread.
March 29, 2013
Nothing screams Easter like the arrival of brightly colored marshmallow Peeps snuggled inside crinkly packaging at the grocery store. For many people, the sweet is meant to be hidden: some stuff them into plastic eggs hidden in the backyard for their kids to find, while others tuck them away in desk drawers at the office to satisfy late afternoon hunger pangs. But for one distinct group, marshmallow chicks and bunnies are stuffed (and baked and blended and broiled) into otherwise Peep-less recipes in the kitchen. Thanks to the massive proliferation of food blogs in recent years, we can witness the surprising culinary places a few of the 2 billion Peeps produced each year end up. Here are five ways to cook with these sugar-laden holiday staples, which Bethlehem, Pennsylvania-based company Just Born has manufactured for 60 years.
Bake them. Because Peeps are essentially colorful marshmallows, they won’t seem out of place in dessert recipes. Exposed to high heat, Peeps melt back into their native state, a pool of sugary liquid fluff. They’re worthy substitutes for plain marshmallows in brownies, cookies, pies—even bread. For hearty Peep-stuffed brownies, start with a regular boxed mix of the bake-sale classic, following the package directions to create the gooey batter. Spread a portion of it out onto a pan, pressing Peeps of the color of your choosing into the mixture. Layering the remaining brownie mix on top to hide the chicks, and dust some Peep powder on top for decoration once you’re done baking.
Try squishing a Peep between two globs of cookie dough, sculpting the batter into round, slightly raised shapes, and bake according to your usual cookie recipe (this one recommends folding a pretzel into the dough along with the Peep for added crunch). Or use chick or bunny Peeps as pie filling. Melt the candies in hot milk and let them cool before folding in heavy whipping cream and chopped or bite-size chocolate candies (semisweet chocolate chips, Reese’s Pieces or tiny chunks of toffee). Pour the thoroughly mixed batter into a store-bought or homemade pie crust and leave in the refrigerator overnight.
The Peep flavor can also be infused into breakfast desserts, like the sticky and gooey monkey bread. Dip buttermilk biscuits into a smoothly whisked mixture of microwave-melted Peeps, butter and vanilla extract. Roll the biscuits in sugar dyed with food coloring to match the color of the Peeps, and stack and mold them into a bundt cake shape after they’re baked and golden brown.
And bake them some more. Not all casserole recipes are a match for Peeps (think tuna or cheesy macaroni), but less savory kinds, like those made with sweet potatoes, welcome a hint of marshmallow. Bake chick-shaped Peeps atop a batter of boiled and mashed sweet potatoes, milk, brown sugar, cardamom and cinnamon, letting some of the toasted marshmallow flavor seep into the casserole. Or swap standard marshmallow topping for slightly browned Peeps in this recipe for candied yam soufflé.
Toss them. We don’t recommend pairing Peeps with arugula, baby spinach and crumbled feta—tossing them with sweet and citrusy fruits produces better results. This recipe takes a spin on the Waldorf salad, a blend of apples, celery, walnuts and mayonnaise popularized in the early 1900s at a New York City hotel of the same name. Use pink or yellow Peeps for this one—flashes of electric blue in the middle of a salad might be alarming. Pair them with diced bananas, chopped oranges, halved maraschino cherries and work in shredded coconut and your choice of nuts. Drizzle fresh lemon juice and orange-flavor liqueur on top, mixing the entire batch well before serving.
Peeps can replace regular miniature marshmallows in ambrosia salad, another well-known fruit concoction. Chop pastel-colored chicks or bunnies into the size of the average miniature marshmallow. Add them to a bowl of pineapple chunks, diced mandarin oranges and shredded coconut, and then stir in a generous helping of Cool Whip.
Blend them. Peeps’ soft texture makes them prime candidates for electric mixers. Combine chocolate mousse-flavored Peeps with milk, sour cream and vanilla ice cream in a blender for a chocolatey shake. For a hint of toasted flavor, broil the chicks for one or two minutes until lightly charred before tossing them into the blender. Make Peep-flavored frosting by heating your choice of Peeps with egg whites, sugar and water in a saucepan. Beat the batter with a hand mixer until it gains some thickness, then spread it over cupcakes. Feeling fancy? Transform Peeps into unusually colorful mousse. Melt Peeps with heavy whipping cream in a saucepan, then zest off some sugar from still-intact chicks onto the sugary mix once it’s cooled.
Freeze them. Peeps don’t always have to be melted down beyond recognition in the kitchen. The marshmallow candies can also make for tasty frozen desserts, which this recipe dubs “peepsicles.” Press wooden craft sticks into bunny-shaped Peeps and submerge them into a bowl of melted chocolate. Coat the peepsicles with shredded coconut, slivered nuts or sprinkles and store them in the freezer. Move beyond the obvious with this recipe for ceviche, a marinated seafood dish usually served raw and cold. Soak frozen bits of Peep in lime juice, dried chili peppers, fresh strawberries and dark chocolate, and dig in before they thaw and all the juices break them down. Peeps get very crunchy in less than zero temperatures, and really frozen ones (well, those submerged in a bucket of liquid nitrogen) easily shatter.
When cooking with Peeps, remember that, just like fruits and vegetables, they’re seasonal, available only around Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween and Christmas. However, the marshmallows have an astonishing shelf life of two years, so finding a forgotten pack of five in the pantry can be a sweet (albeit slightly stale) surprise.
December 28, 2011
About a year ago I went a little crazy in a specialty spice store and picked up all kinds of exotic spices to try. Since then I’ve been slowly working through them, trying to figure what the heck to make with them. I’ve had better luck with some (galangal) than others (annatto). Since their freshness is probably slipping away, it was time to try one of the last remaining unopened packages on my shelf: juniper berries.
What are they?
Botanically speaking, the dark little berries of juniper trees—which are conifers—are female seed cones, not true berries. But we’re speaking culinarily, in which case the dark violet orbs look and taste enough like berries to deserve the name. Dried juniper berries (or fresh ones, when they are available) are used as a flavoring in Northern European cuisine, especially in Scandinavia, Germany and the Alsace region of France. Americans are most likely to have encountered juniper in gin, the liquor that gets its name from the Dutch or French word for juniper.
Where do they come from?
The juniper berries used in food and drink usually come from the species Juniperus communis, which grows throughout the Northern Hemisphere, as far north as the Arctic.
What do they taste like?
If you’ve ever tried gin you’ll have a fair idea of what juniper berries taste like, although the ones used for cooking are riper. They have a slightly piney flavor with a touch of both fruitiness and pepperiness.
What the heck do I do with them?
I tried them in a chicken dish where I added both too much juniper and too much thyme, and the flavor was a little overpowering. Consequently, I didn’t eat much, which was probably a good thing—it was only after the fact that I read that pregnant women (which I am) should avoid juniper because it can cause uterine contractions. Luckily, I already had a doctor appointment scheduled the next day.
But if you are not pregnant and you use them sparingly, you may want to try juniper in game dishes, one of the spice’s most common uses. Pairing them with prunes over roast duck, as in a recipe from Bon Appétit magazine, sounds like it would make for a nice balance. Jamie Oliver stews the berries with venison, as both the Navajo and British did in days of yore.
Juniper berries are a common ingredient in Germanic food. In Alsace, a French province bordering Germany, choucroute garnie is a hot sauerkraut dish with sausage and other meats that’s especially popular in winter. Jacques Pépin shared a simplified version using store-bought sauerkraut in Food & Wine magazine.
As for me, I’ll be keeping my remaining juniper berries on the shelf until I’m ready to have contractions.
October 19, 2011
In each installment of this occasional series, we ask (and answer) questions about the less familiar items in the spice aisles—most importantly, what the heck you do with them. So far, we’ve looked at nigella seeds, annatto and galangal.
This time, it’s star anise. My first stab at an answer to the title question—what do you do with it—might have been: Turn it into earrings! Or maybe add it to a bowl of decorative potpourri. But star anise isn’t just the prettiest spice in the rack; its flower-shaped pods add essential flavoring to popular dishes from several cultures.
What is it?
Star anise is the seed pod from an evergreen tree, Illicium verum, that grows in China. It’s unrelated to regular anise, though they share a similar flavor. Star anise one of the five spices in Chinese five-spice blends, along with cloves, cinnamon, Sichuan pepper and ground fennel seeds. It’s one of the signature flavors in the Vietnamese noodle soup pho. Beyond the kitchen, it’s also a vital component of the influenza-fighting drug Tamiflu—although scientists have figured out a way to manufacture its active ingredient, shikimic acid, in recent years.
What does it taste like?
Star anise has a mild and fragrant licorice flavor. Max Falkowitz at Serious Eats describes it as having a “luxurious headiness along subtle sweet and herbal notes.” It’s subtler than the medicinal taste of black jelly beans or my least favorite liquor, Jägermeister, but it can still overpower a dish if used immoderately.
What the heck do I do with it?
The options are wide open, but there are a few classic combinations that are a good place to start. Chinese poached chicken with star anise, from Food & Wine magazine, uses an aromatic broth spiced with star anise, ginger, cinnamon and scallions. Steamy Kitchen gives step-by-step instructions for making a beef pho recipe from Into the Vietnamese Kitchen. In neighboring Thailand, some versions of condensed-milk-sweetened iced teas are flavored with star anise and other spices.
Desserts are also a natural place to use the licorice-flavored spice, and it works especially well with traditional fall and winter recipes. It adds another dimension to ginger cookies, like these triple ginger ones spiked with lemon, from 101 Cookbooks. A Life (Time) of Cooking uses it in a novel twist on baked apples. And Bobby Flay’s pumpkin bread pudding (via Food Republic) is topped with a caramel apple sauce spiced with star anise, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves.