Quick Recipes and Easy

Winter is a Cumin In

With my strong preference for cooking with fresh, not dried, herbs it seems natural in the winter to focus more on spices, most of which cannot be grown in a temperate climate anyway. Cumin is one of the oldest cultivated spices. It was a well loved spice and medicinal herb in ancient Egypt, being used for illnesses of the digestive tract and to treat coughs and chest colds. It has also been used as a painkiller, particularly to relieve toothache. Three pain-relieving compounds have been found in cumin, along with seven that are anti-inflammatory and four that combat swelling. Some herbalists recommend cumin to relieve carpal tunnel syndrome.

Cumin is very well loved in Indian cooking and Indian herbal medicine. In Ayurvedic medicine a well loved cure for hangovers is one teaspoon of limejuice and a pinch of cumin in a glass of orange juice. Ayurvedic practitioners also recommend drinking a cumin, coriander and fennel tea to help clear up acne. Combine the herbs equally for a total of one teaspoon and steep them for 10 minutes in hot water. Strain the tea and drink three cups a day after meals. Even if it doesn’t clear up your acne it will certainly help your digestion. Like its close relatives caraway and anise, cumin alleviates flatulence and bloating and invigorates the entire digestive system.

A 4th-century BC herbal medicine text has been found that lists cumin as a treatment for obesity and urinary and liver problems. The spice is mentioned in both the Ancient and New Testaments (“Woe unto you, … for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin.”) and the Romans imported the spice from Egypt and used it as we use black pepper today.

Cumin used to symbolize greed, which is why the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, was nicknamed “Cuminus”. During the Middle Ages it became associated with retention, attachment and fidelity. It was added to bread to prevent it from being stolen by wood demons. Cumin was also alleged to have the power to keep a thief inside the house along with the bread he was trying to steal. Country lasses used to make their lovers swallow cumin to ensure their fidelity. Soldiers’ sweethearts would place cumin in their wine and bread to guarantee their devotion.

Cumin has lost some of its popularity as a culinary spice. In Germany and Holland it is still used to flavor liqueurs and cheeses. Ground caraway seeds make a reasonable substitute for cumin, but the latter is much hotter. The zing in cumin is due to cumin aldehyde, which, like capsaicin in hot peppers, is insoluble in water. This is why drinking water with spicy food doesn’t tame the heat. Alcohol or milk stout will but. Ground cumin seeds lose their flavor rapidly so it is better to buy the seeds and grind them in an ancient coffee grinder as needed. Before grinding, lightly roast them in a dry frying pan to bring out their flavor and aroma.
For those who like spicy food, try some baharat, a fiery concoction from Africa for seasoning meats and vegetables. Stored in an airtight jar it will keep for up to four months.

½ nutmeg, grated; 1 Tbsp. black peppercorns; 1 Tbsp. coriander seeds; 1 Tbsp. cumin seeds; 1 Tbsp. cloves; Small piece of cinnamon; 6 small cardamom seeds; 2 Tbsp. paprika; 1 tsp. ground chili.

Grind all the ingredients together. Here’s my own cold combating soup (with apologies to American poet, Ezra Pound):

Chicken Cumin Soup:
(Winter is a Cumin in, loud sing oh damn!
Snow doth fall and car doth stall
And how the wind doth ram)
1 boneless, skinless free range chicken breast, cut into pieces; 4 cups unseasoned chicken or vegetable stock;
¾ a cup of dried red lentils;
4 cloves garlic, minced;
½ bay leaf;
1 small piece ginger root, minced;
2 medium onions, finely chopped;
1 fresh jalapeno pepper, chopped fine;
1 tsp. ground cumin seed;
½ tsp. ground turmeric; Juice from
½ lemon (if you’re making this recipe in the summer, some fresh chopped lemon balm or lemon thyme is even better);
1/3 cup of milk, light cream or substitute of your choice such as coconut milk;
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil.

Sauté the chicken in the olive oil until lightly browned all over. Remove the chicken and set aside. Lightly sauté the onions in the olive oil until translucent, adding the jalapeno and the garlic after several minutes. Add the rest of the ingredients, including the chicken, but without the milk and the lemon juice. Simmer until the lentils are tender, about 45 minutes. Just before serving, add first the lemon juice and then the soymilk, bringing the soup on a low heat back to simmer before serving. Before serving add salt to taste. Also, if it isn’t sufficiently fiery for you gastronomic pyromaniacs, add a small cayenne pepper. This immune boosting recipe will serve two and is guaranteed to search and ruin any lingering viruses that are threatening your well-being. An brilliant accompaniment is some fresh baked corn bread.

Bruce Burnett is an award-winning writer, a chartered herbalist and author of HerbWise: growing cooking wellbeing. Bruce and his wife Delaine own Olivia’s Fashion, Furnishings & Gifts ( olivias.ca/ olivias.ca/) in Ladysmith, BC Canada. Read more published articles by Bruce Burnett on his websites: bruceburnett.ca/ bruceburnett.ca/ and herbalcuisine.com/ herbalcuisine.com

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