Seeds Of Flavor

SUNDAY GOURMET

August 28, 1994|By GAIL FORMAN

Cumin smells like old socks. Yet what would chili be without cumin -- or curry or sausages or pickles or Edam cheese? The predominant scent in most curry powders and chili powders is cumin.

Cumin is the yellowish-brown, dried fruit of a small plant in the parsley family that is native to the Upper Nile.

A lot of experts say cumin tastes like caraway but that makes me wonder what's wrong with their taste buds. To me cumin tastes earthy, pungent, even a little bitter. The seeds of cumin do look something like caraway seeds -- at least they are both small and oval. The similarity once caused me to accidentally substitute cumin for caraway in hot sauerkraut. I found out that cumin can successfully take the place of caraway in certain dishes. But cumin-flavored sauerkraut and caraway-flavored sauerkraut are two different tastes.

Like most spices, cumin was well known in the ancient world. "Cominee" was the ancient culinary term for dishes cooked with cumin. Cumin was believed to have medicinal properties, as were other spices. The Bible mentions it and the Greeks and Romans prized it as a preservative.

Today, cumin is a common flavoring in the cuisines of Mexico, India, North Africa and the Middle East. It tastes especially pleasant in breads, cheese, soups, stews, tomato and barbecue sauces, marinades, poultry and fish dishes and dishes cooked from dried beans. And you may recognize cumin as the flavor essence of two popular liqueurs: kummel and creme de menthe.

To experience cumin at its best, buy whole seeds and dry roast them in a skillet. Use them whole or grind them to release the fragrant flavor oils.

MIDDLE EASTERN SALAD WITH CUMIN VINAIGRETTE

1/2 pound carrots

1/4 pound green beans

1 teaspoon toasted cumin seeds, ground

2 teaspoons coriander seeds, ground

salt and pepper to taste

1 clove garlic, minced

1/4 fresh lemon juice

1/2 cup olive oil

1/2 cup chopped fresh coriander

Peel carrots and cut into large bite-size pieces. Steam carrots until just tender. Clean green beans and steam them until just tender. Drain vegetables and place in a serving bowl. Beat together cumin, coriander, salt, pepper, garlic, lemon juice and oil. Pour over vegetables and marinate, refrigerated, for at least two hours. Sprinkle with fresh coriander. Serves 4.

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