Cinnamon confusion

August 20, 2009


Cinnamon seems like a pretty basic ingredient, right? Even university students and cottage pantries usually have a bottle of ground cinnamon on their otherwise empty shelves. You know all about it, right? Wrong. Turns out many people haven’t  used real cinnamon even if they make cinnamon toast every morning.

Here’s the deal:

Cassia Cinnamon from Indonesia and Sri Lanka is what is most often sold in North American grocery stores. Some spice sellers call it baker’s cinnamon.

Saigon Cinnamon from Vietnam is also a cassia but it has more of the essential oil that makes this cassia more complex and cinnamon-y. As a result, it’s often more expensive than other cassias but still cheaper than Ceylon cinnamon.

Ceylon Cinnamon is the real deal. It’s lighter coloured than cassia cinnamon and the sticks have a finer, less dense and more crumbly texture. Somewhat paradoxically, it is often less pungent than cassia and has a more refined, mellow flavour and bouquet.

Looking for Ceylon Cinnamon in stores can be a frustrating task but I found it recently at Toronto’s The Spice Trader which also has an online store.

How do you feel about being duped all these years about cinnamon? I admit that I’m 63.7% bitter about it.

Photo credit:

All about nigella

August 3, 2009


No, today’s post is not about British cookbook cupcake Nigella Lawson. It’s about nigella seed, the spice. This spice is the product of the nigella plant, native to western Asia, Southern Europe and the Middle East. Most of today’s commercial crop is grown in India where it’s often used in spice blends such as panch phoran, a vegetable seasoning that consists of five kinds of seeds: fenugreek, fennel, mustard, nigella and parsley. In turkey and the Middle East, nigella seed is often sprinkled over flat bread (much the same way poppyseeds are used here to accent burger buns and bagels).

Nigella seeds are very black and look a bit like onion seeds. They taste far different, though, and have a crunchy texture and a vaguely peppery flavour that pairs well with cucumber, mint and yogurt. This is what led me to create this fast and easy version of a tzatziki-style dip that I served over roasted gold and red beets blended with their own sautéed greens.

1 baby English cucumber
1 cup (250 mL) Greek or Balkan style yogurt
3/4 tsp (4 mL) nigella seeds
1 tbsp (15 mL) finely chopped mint leaves
½ tsp (2 mL) minced garlic
salt and pepper

Coarsely grate the cucumber. Drain for 10 minutes in a strainer. Transfer to a mixing bowl. Add the mint, nigella seeds and garlic. Toss well. Stir in the yogurt and season to taste with salt and pepper.

By the way, if you can’t find nigella seeds in your local chain or Indian grocery stores, you can buy it online from the Spice Trader.

Topline Trends Tuesday: Pepper heats up

January 20, 2009


As I’ve mentioned recently on television, specialty pepper is HOT in more ways than one.

Above is a picture of Comet Tail peppercorns from Just a Pinch. These peppercorns have a sweet flavour reminiscent of juniper and bay leaves that is fantastic in stews and cabbage dishes. Also new and notable is their smoked tri-colour pepper that is perfect for encrusting a steak before it goes on the grill.

How many kinds of pepper do you have in your spice cupboard? Given that pepper has a healthier halo than salt, will you use more if it than you do specialty salts?

Topline Trends Tuesdays: Pre-measured ingredients for busy and occasional cooks

January 13, 2009


Don’t ask me why it’s taken me over a year of blogging to get the clever idea that I should formally highlight a food trend once a week in my blog. It’s not like I’m known for being a food trend expert or anything…duh! So, without further ado, welcome to the first Topline Trends Tuesday post!

Well I remember the days when I was a poor but keen culinary student, standing horror-struck in front of a grocery display of spices wanting to buy all the ingredients I didn’t have or had never tried but unable to afford the full jars on display. Likewise, when I meet readers or do cooking classes, people often comment that they just don’t want to invest in all the spices, herbs and specialty ingredients that I, as a food writer eager for variety, throw into my recipes.

Several companies have picked up on these needs and launched products that are perfect for occasional cooks who don’t want a lifetime supply of saffron and for adventurous cooks who want to experiment with new flavours but not have to buy large quantities of ingredients they may only use infrequently.

Gourmet Garden Flavour Packs: This fresh herb and spice paste company makes it easy to dabble in Italian, Thai or Mexican cooking with these small format trios that keep in the refrigerator for up to 3 months. Meanwhile, in the dry goods aisle, Smart Spice and Tsp Spices both sell organic spices in pre-measured 1 tsp (5 mL) sachets so that you don’t even need a measuring spoon to use them.

For more info about food trends, sign up for my quarterly Topline Trends Newsletter. (FYI: the Winter 2009 Topline Trends will be online later this week)

Organize your spice cupboard today

February 7, 2008

SpicesThursdays just aren’t the same for me these days. A normal winter Thursday evening used to be highlighted by watching Ugly Betty and 30 Rock. With the full effects of the writer’s strike now limiting the new programming on the airwaves, I find my evenings sadly empty. The good news is that I’m finding the time (at last) to do many of the things that I should have been doing when I was instead staring at an overpriced rectangle for hours on end.

One of my recent Thursday evening accomplishments was to clean out my spice cupboard. Although I have often advised readers to use fresh, frequently purchased dried herbs and spices, the fact is my own shelves are crowded with bottles and boxes of dubious age. Some herbs can even be used to fight a cold or aid an achy stomach, so it’s especially important to store them well.

Purveyors like McCormick’s spices recommend the following guidelines for keeping spices and seasonings on hand:

• Ground spices 2 to 3 years
• Whole spices 3 to 4 years
• Herbs 1 to 3 years
• Extracts 4 years except vanilla which lasts longer if unopened
• Seasoning blends such as rubs 1 to 2 years

Whether your spices are brand new or a weeks or months old, remember that all seals should be air tight and the containers, if not opaque, should be stored in a dark, cool cupboard. A spice rack on the counter or a collection stored in the cupboard over the stove are two of the worst places to keep herbs and spices. Instead, choose a spot where heat, light and steam exposure will be minimal.