Flavors say, `Attention!'

Interest is stirring for lots of strong spices

March 31, 2004|By Virginia Gerst | Virginia Gerst,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Hold on to your taste buds: Big flavors are muscling their way onto America's tables.

Professional chefs and home cooks from coast to coast are reaching for ingredients like cumin and cardamom, fenugreek and fennel to create sit-up-and-take-notice dishes they would not have contemplated even 20 years ago.

"We are definitely seeing more bold flavors," said Art Siemering, publisher of The Food Channel TrendWire, an electronic newsletter that tracks changes for the food industry.

"It has not been that long ago that a fairly large percentage of Americans rejected spicy cooking out of hand and a large number were never exposed to it. As we have become more exposed, many of us have found we like it a great deal."

Sumanth Das, chef at Monsoon restaurant on Chicago's North Side, agreed that tastes have changed.

"People are excited about bold flavors and a lot of spices," he said. "They are fed up with the typical food everyone has always been doing."

A native of Bombay, Das works with more than 20 spices to create an Indian-inspired Asian cuisine he describes as "big flavors bubbling in your mouth." The chef draws a mix of ages and ethnic groups to Monsoon with dishes like cardamom and fennel-crusted scallops, lamb with Bombay potatoes and mushroom ragout, and coriander-and-fennel-crusted ahi tuna.

Melissa's/World Variety Produce, a Los Angeles-based supplier of produce to grocers across the country, reports that its sales of lemon grass have risen 50 percent in the past four years and those of fiery Hatch chiles have shot up 300 percent. Orders for rocambole garlic, which is two to three times more pungent than the standard garden variety, have increased by 200 percent since 2001.

Joanne Weir, chef, cookbook author and public-television personality, looks to the nation's increasingly diverse population and the local markets that new residents bring with them to explain not only the country's newfound fondness for bold flavors, but her own as well.

Weir's previous cookbooks focused on Mediterranean-inspired dishes, but she looks to the spicier cuisines of Latin America and Asia for her latest, Weir Cooking in the City, due out this month.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Spicy Bulgur and Lentil Salad

Preparation time: 25 minutes; standing time: 1 hour; cooking time: 30 minutes

Makes 6 servings

1/2 cup bulgur, rinsed, drained (see note)

1/4 cup each: small French lentils, extra-virgin olive oil (see note)

1 small red onion, minced

1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

5 green onions, thinly sliced

3 tablespoons lemon juice plus more, if needed

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon each: crushed red pepper flakes, salt

freshly ground black pepper

1 small head romaine lettuce, leaves separated

Place the bulgur in a large bowl; set aside. Place lentils in a small saucepan; add enough water to cover by 2 inches. Heat to a boil; reduce heat to simmer. Cook until lentils are tender, about 15 minutes. Drain any liquid; pour hot lentils over the bulgur; mix thoroughly.

Cover; let stand until the bulgur becomes soft, about 1 hour. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the red onion; cook until golden, about 10 minutes. Pour the onion and oil from the pan into the bulgur-and-lentil mixture. Stir in parsley, green onions, 3 tablespoons lemon juice, cumin, garlic and crushed red pepper flakes. Season with salt, black pepper and additional lemon juice if needed; mix well. Place the salad in the center of a plate; use small romaine leaves as scoops.

Note: Look for bulgur and French lentils in specialty or natural-foods markets. Regular lentils may be used instead.

Per serving: 171 calories; 10 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 19 grams carbohydrate; 5 grams protein; 207 milligrams sodium; 6 grams fiber

- Adapted from "Weir Cooking in the City," by Joanne Weir (Simon & Schuster, $35)

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