Here's an interesting article from today's NYT food section about a delicious sounding spice. [p]Grains of Paradise[p] Publication Date: Wednesday May 3, 2000
Dining In, Dining Out/Style Desk; Section F; Page 1, Column 1 c. 2000 New York Times Company
By AMANDA HESSER [p] I FIRST saw them in a spice shop in London. Not long after, they were spotted among the ingredients on a bottle of Van Gogh gin. Their name alone, grains of paradise, sparkled. Then a friend gave me a small bagful as a gift from his travels. [p] For the first time, I had my hands on an ingredient before it was, like lemon grass or chipotle, strewn across every menu. It was as refreshing as it was disconcerting: I had no idea what to do with the tiny round grains, brown as nutmeg. They looked as promising as an oyster in the shell. Paradise could not have seemed farther away. [p] I put a few between my teeth and crunched. They cracked like coriander, releasing a billowing aroma, and then a slowly intensifying heat, like pepper. The taste changed by the second. The heat lingered. But the spice was pleasantly tempered, ripe with flavors reminiscent of jasmine, hazelnut, butter and citrus, and with the kind of oiliness you get from nuts. They were entirely different from black peppercorns. And in my mind, incomparably better.
Black pepper is something that cooks, myself included, use mindlessly. It is added to dishes as sugar is stirred into coffee or ice is added to a glass. Taste is not so much the point as the burn. Grains of paradise are dense fragrance underlined with heat. And that brings food to life in a way that black pepper never does.[p] I soon realized there is probably no recipe in which grains of paradise can't be substituted for black peppercorns. Like peppercorns, they can be crushed in a mortar and pestle or ground in a pepper mill. But with a different effect: spread as a crust on tuna, they gave the fish a round, faintly peppery edge, rather than blunt heat. [p] The more I came to know them, and the more I was seduced by their lingering, comforting aroma, the more astonished I was that they had not already caught on in America, where heat is often irresistible. Spice dealers like World Spice Merchants in Seattle, Vanns Spices in Baltimore and Adriana's Caravan in Manhattan have begun carrying grains of paradise in the last few years. The spice is not expensive, only about $3 to $5 an ounce, against about $1.50 for black peppercorns.[p] I began poking around, trying to piece together what I could about grains of paradise. Food encyclopedias helped little. Grains of paradise remain in the realm of African scholars and spice purveyors. For ages, the spice has been relished for its heat in both religious rituals and cooking in West Africa, where it originated. [p] The heat is what has kept grains of paradise alive in people's minds. The spice grows wild in countries like Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea and Liberia.
The plant, Aframomum melegueta, is a short shrub that produces pods the size of figs, each containing 60 to 100 seeds, or grains. Grains of paradise are also called guinea pepper, atare, alligator pepper and melegueta pepper (not to be confused with pimenta malagueta, a Brazilian chili of the same name, usually preserved in oil). But the spice is not a relative of the Piper nigrum family, the source of black and white peppercorns. Even experts disagree, though it is most often linked to the cardamom family. [p] Grains of paradise are among many hot spices, like long pepper and cubeb, from West Africa, where spices are ground and combined in complex blends. Grains of paradise are mixed with coriander, cinnamon, dried chilies and cloves as a condiment for grilled lamb, chicken, fish, pumpkin and okra, or added to soups, stews and pickling mixtures. They also turns up in raz al hanout, the spice mixture of Morocco.[p] In the Middle Ages, before trade routes from Europe to the East were established, grains of paradise were sought as a substitute for black peppercorns, an expensive import from the East. West Africa was much closer to Europe and was also important for the trades in gold dust, ivory and slaves. Europeans began importing grains of paradise, using the spice to season foods. It also found its way into the spiced beers of Belgium. (It can still be found in some beers, like ales of Ommegang, a New York State brewery, and Blanche de Bruges from Belgium. As with Van Gogh gin, it becomes a discreetly layered aromatic, indiscernible as grains of paradise.) [p] Trade in the grains grew so much that the coastline just north of the Ivory Coast became known as the Grain Coast. Trade prospered until Europeans found their way around the Cape of Good Hope, making the East and all of its spices, including black peppercorns, much more accessible. Black peppercorns, which are easier to cultivate, came down in price, and the market for grains of paradise in Europe evaporated.[p] Grains of paradise remain more vital perhaps in religious ritual. Yvette Burgess-Polcyn, a Manhattan priest who practices the Nigerian religion of the Yoruba people, said that the spice is used as an offering to the spirits. When a follower is coming for a spiritual consultation, she will arrange on a saucer nine pieces of fresh coconut the size of a pea, each dabbed with palm oil and a grain of paradise, and she will place it on an altar. Sometimes the grains are added to food prepared as an offering to a deity. They are also used ritually in the religion of the Ibo people. [p] ''We're very careful with guinea peppers not to drop them, because anyone stepping on them could generate fights,'' Ms. Burgess-Polcyn said.
Jessica B. Harris, a culinary historian in Brooklyn, said grains of paradise are also a paradigm of abundance. With so many seeds in the pod, she said, ''If you drop it, if you lose it, you're cutting your abundance.''
And the heat has great power metaphorically, said Robert Farris-Thomson, a professor of African-Atlantic art at Yale University. ''If you want to bless someone, you chew on this hot pepper, and it is believed that the heat of the pepper on the tongue will go into your words and spiritually underline them,'' he said.[p] The metaphor of heat extends to food as well, Mr. Farris-Thomson said. In the belief of the Kongo people, you can defend yourself from envious people by eating foods cooked with grains of paradise or other peppers.
The symbolism of heat stayed with African people in the New World, but the sources of heat changed, to chilies and peppercorns. Spices like grains of paradise stayed behind.[p] ''Once in America, we were forced to come up with new variations on old themes,'' said Diane Spivey, author of ''The Peppers, Cracklings and Knots of Wool Cookbook: The Global Migration of African Cuisine'' (State University of New York, 1999). African-Americans, she said, used what was available here and, drawing on what they knew, created new dishes. [p] It is difficult to find African restaurants that use grains of paradise. Mama Zee in Staten Island is one. Oyebolanle Grant, the chef, who is from Nigeria, uses the grains in a dish called suya, mixed with peanut butter, dried red pepper, salt and a bouillon cube, then spread on beef, sliced as thin as bacon. The beef is strung on skewers, then grilled and served with more of the rub.
She also adds grains of paradise to a custard with ginger, a traditional Nigerian breakfast dish, which takes four days to make.
Both dishes sounded appealing but were not exactly what I had in mind when I first tasted the spice. I wanted to use it more as Europeans had, in place of black peppercorns.[p] I started off pan-roasting pieces of cod. When they came out of the oven, crisp on the edges and opaque in the center, I squeezed on a few drops of lemon juice, sprinkled on a little olive oil and then let flecks of grains of paradise, crushed in a mortar and pestle, speckle the fish. Cod, which is buttery and sweet, was a perfect fit for the oily fragrance of the grains, and they did not seem unnecessarily aggressive, as ordinary pepper can.
With a baby chicken, I rubbed the skin with a mixture of grains of paradise, crushed coriander and lemon zest -- all of which are fruity and floral. The mixture, which lightly freckled the skin, whispered its flavor just enough for the mild flesh. [p] The roundness in flavor of grains of paradise is reminiscent of sweet spices like nutmeg, coriander and cinnamon. It struck me that it would be terrific with sauteed chicken livers, showered with grains ground in a pepper mill as they finish cooking in the pan. [p] I pressed some grains into a fresh pink piece of tuna, then seared it in a shallow iron pan. I let the tuna cool to not quite room temperature, then laid it on salad greens with green beans and hard-cooked eggs, a loose interpretation of salade Nicoise. The spice's fragrance had not diminished but had infused the fish, adding heat without bite. [p] I rolled a small crottin of fresh goat cheese in the crushed grains, flecked it with thyme and drizzled it with a stream of golden olive oil. What I needed was a good loaf of bread and plans for a brunch. [p] As I was cooking, I realized that using black pepper had become a reflex. I had to be more thoughtful with grains of paradise; their gentle flavors could be easily overpowered. [p] I later learned that Jean-Georges Vongerichten is one of the very, very few chefs who have begun experimenting with the spice. He crusts halibut with the crushed grains, adds them to mignonette sauce for oysters and stirs them into tomato juice with balsamic vinegar and lime juice to make a startlingly peppy bloody Mary. [p] John Ash, the culinary director for Fetzer Vineyards, slips the grains into tomato water and herbal syrups and sometimes infuses creme anglaise with them. [p] I tried his recipe for rosemary syrup with grains of paradise, chopped ginger, white wine and balsamic vinegar. As it simmered on the stove, it darkened like wet leather. I strained it and spooned it over slices of ripe mango. I was skeptical, and I worried about the mango, which I had patiently ripened. I have had syrups of ginger and black pepper before, many of which are like a shot of cheap whiskey coursing down your throat. This was different. It was like a decadent, aged port and so thin that it barely wetted the fruit.
I have a new black pepper in my kitchen and I'm not looking back.
SYRUP OF GRAINS OF PARADISE AND ROSEMARY [p] Adapted from John Ash, culinary director of Fetzer Vineyards
Time: 15 minutes [p] 3/4 cup sugar[p] 3/4 cup dry white wine [p] 1/4 cup rosemary leaves[p] 1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger[p] 2 teaspoons grains of paradise, slightly crushed [p] 2 tablespoons fine balsamic vinegar, or to taste.[p] In a small saucepan, mix together all the ingredients plus 1/2 cup water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat, and simmer partly covered, for 10 minutes. Let mixture cool, then taste, adjusting sweetness and acidity as necessary. Let mixture steep longer if more flavor is desired. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer, and store refrigerated. Sprinkle over fresh fruit, like mango or strawberries.[p] Yield: about 2 1/2 cups. [p] BLOODY PARADISE[p] Adapted from Jean-Georges Vongerichten [p] Time: 5 minutes[p] 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste[p] 1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground grains of paradise, more for garnish
1 cup tomato juice [p] 2 tablespoons lime juice [p] 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar[p] 1 1/2 ounces citron vodka[p] 2 basil leaves, fried in oil and sprinkled [p] with salt, for garnish.[p] In a shaker, mix together salt, grains of paradise, tomato juice, lime juice, vinegar and vodka. Shake well. Pour over a glass of ice, and grind more grains of paradise over the glass. Garnish with basil leaves.[p] Yield: 1 drink.[p] PAN-ROASTED COD SEASONED WITH GRAINS OF PARADISE [p] Time: 5 minutes[p] 3/4 pound cod fillet, cut into 2 pieces[p] Sea salt [p] 1 tablespoon peanut oil[p] Extra virgin olive oil, for sprinkling [p] 1/4 teaspoon grains of paradise, coarsely ground in a mortar and pestle
1 lemon, halved, for sprinkling (optional).[p] 1. Heat oven to 425 degrees. Place a medium iron skillet over medium high heat. Season cod on both sides with salt. When skillet is hot, add peanut oil, then cod. Saute until crisped and brown. Then turn, saute for one minute, and transfer to oven to finish cooking, about 2 minutes longer, depending on thickness of fish. [p] 2. Remove from oven, and place on serving plates. Drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle grains of paradise on top. Squeeze a little lemon juice over fish, if desired.[p] Yield: 2 servings.