The Queen Of Spices: Cardamom

Blueberries and cardamom make this coffee cake irresistible.

blueberries and cardamom flavor make this coffee cake irresistible.

We awoke Sunday morning and decided it would be a great day to go berry picking. Early afternoon, after a quick vote to survey the family faves it was decided that blueberries and raspberries outweighed strawberries. So, we headed to Monadnock Berries in Troy where we were greeted with an abundance of berry bliss perched atop a beautiful hilltop with a breathtaking view of Mt. Monadnock on the horizon. Row after row of raspberries were ripe for our pickin’. The blueberries were just as abundant and we quickly filled our buckets and bellies in no time. In about an hour, under the hot summer sun, the four of us gathered about 10 pounds of bounty. If we had been asked to weigh-in before picking and after, chances are we would’ve added another 10lbs to the loot picked. Thankfully, it’s not polite to ask a strangers weight.

It was towards the end of our picking, feeling berry-filled and heat exhausted but not yet ready to quit, that I began to daydream about the creations we might spice up at home with all these sweet and tart fruity inspirations in our midst. When my mind hit upon the idea for a blueberry cardamom coffee cake I became fixated. You see, cardamom is one of my favorite spices, ever. It is known as the “Queen of Spices” and that’s a rightly royal title in my mind. It holds a special spot on our spice shelf, right next to the mortar and pestle so we can easily grab it and grind some fresh to use in our morning coffee brew. Cardamom is the fruit of a large perennial bush that grows wild in southern India, Sri Lanka and now cultivated heavily in Guatemala. It has been used for thousands of years in India and Scandinavian countries where it is used in both sweet and savory dishes. It’s aroma is strong and requires only a small amount to impart flavor. It’s taste is floral and a touch lemony with just a hint of camphor which gives it that fresh and clean scent. Use your imagination and experiment with this extremely versatile spice to add a touch of exotic elevation to your food. Here are a few ideas to get you going:

*Baked Goods: Raspberry Cardamom Cocoa Muffins; Blueberry Cardamom Coffee Cake; . Poached Pears with Cardamom. It pairs especially well with berries, apples and pears, orange, chocolate and cinnamon.
*Drinks: Add a touch to your coffee directly with the coffee grounds for a nicely spiced morning brew or combine with cinnamon, clove, star anise, ginger and black or green tea for a chai-tea infusion.
*Savory: Rice Pilaf (add a couple of pods along with cinnamon, clove and cumin) into the water while cooking; Add to your pickling jars; Slow-cooked meat dishes and poultry.

Ginger, Cherry and Rhubarb Muffins

Gluten Free Rhubarb Muffins

We pack lunch every day for our kiddos so I get a lot of opportunity to bake. Thankfully my kids appreciate some variety (in muffins, at least!) This week, swimming in rhubarb, I whipped up a batch of these muffins with what I had on hand and they were a huge hit. Next time you have a hankering for a muffin, clean out the fridge and see what unique combo you can come up with!

1 1/4c Gluten Free Pamela’s Muffin Mix
1 egg
1/4 cup water (or milk or milk substitute)
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tsp ginger, ground
1/4 cup rhubarb chopped
1/4 cup cherries chopped

Preheat oven to 350F. In a saucepan add in 2 tbsp of water and the sugar, rhubarb and cherries. Simmer for a few minutes until sugar is dissolved and rhubarb is softened. Add this into the flour mixture along with remaining ingredients. Mix well and spoon into buttered muffin tins. Top with anything…nuts, granola, oats, etc… Bake for 15-18 minutes.

Spicing Up the Grill on Memorial Day

Spicing up the Grill with Barbecue Chicken

Spicing up the Grill with Barbecue Chicken

Dormant tree buds are unfurling, yawning and stretching open. The pesky black flies are hurling, swarming and attacking. That can mean only one thing, spring has sprung and the grilling season is upon us. The upcoming Memorial Day weekend often marks the onset of outdoor gatherings, the safe season to plant the garden and the inauguration of the beloved barbecue grill.

Memorial Day historically was known as Decoration Day in honor of those who fought for our country and gave their lives to protect our freedom. The custom of decorating the deceased graves with an American flag has evolved to also include ceremonies and parades often followed by gatherings with family and friends to ‘grill and chill’ and enjoy great weather and great company.

The process of cooking meat slow and low over a source of fire to impart as much smoke flavor as possible is called Barbecue. As Chinese chef Martin Yan, host of the long-running show Yan Can Cook, put it, “Man discovered fire. Five minutes later, he invented barbecue.” This process has some history and can be serious business. Barbecue has a global appeal. From Argentinian Asado Steak to Jamaican Jerk Chicken, the roots of barbecue are not purely American (don’t tell the Southern States that though). Did you know that the barbecue world has their own Grillers Hall of Flame located in Orchard, MA? There are so many different techniques combined with hundreds more of favorite spice rubs, finger-licking marinades and secret sauces that are all treasured for their final flavor. Grilling, as a technique, is a close cousin to the barbecue. It is the quicker method of using higher heat to cook the meat faster and with little smoke. Most serious barbecuers and grillers have their own “tried and true” method.

A serious griller I am not, though we do enjoy a well seasoned and grilled piece of meat or slow-cooked pulled pork. This weekend, whether you’re prepping a smoker or lighting a grill, the merits of mixing up smoke, heat, meat, sugar, and spice is undeniable. And let’s not forget our veggie family and friends. What’s good for the brisket or thigh can work just as well for some tofu or Portabella mushroom. Below is some of what we’ll be cooking up this weekend when friends and family gather at our home to grill-n-chill while the kids run wild.

Spice Rub for Beef or Chicken
1/4 C Sweet Smoked ​Paprika
3 Tbsp dark chili powder-if you like heat make it Ancho Powder
1 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper–balance with the chili powder for heat
1 Tbsp white or maple sugar, can also use honey
1 1/2 Tbsp Oregano, use Mexican Oregano for a truly south of the border flavor
1-2 Tbsp Salt to your own taste–applewood or hickory smoked salt here works wonders for a richer flavor
2 Tbsp ground Cumin-can be pan roasted for a deeper taste
1 Tbsp Brown Sugar
2 tsp Garlic powder
2 tsp Onion powder
1 Tbsp each black and white peppers.

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix well. You can massage right onto the meat or I like to add a few tablespoons of tomato paste/ketchup, an ounce or two of apple cider vinegar and a splash of olive oil to the rub right before grilling to turn it into a sauce–either way tastes fantastic.

For Pork Chops:
1 Tbsp Cumin
1 Tbsp Tarragon–ground in mortar and pestle for freshest, sweetest flavor
1 tsp white pepper or lemon pepper
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1 Tbsp basil
1/2 tsp salt or to taste
2 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion powder
Combine and massage as above. If possible rub onto meat and refrigerate for 1-3 hrs before grilling. No additional liquid for this one.

*This article was written by Melissa Spencer for the Monadnock Ledger Transcript

Spice Tea for the Common Cold

Attar Spice Tea

Attar Spice Tea

We’ve been recirculating a cold that just won’t quit in our house this past month. Really, it’s been about a month of morphing from one compromised body to the next. Emptied boxes of tissues, low grade fevers, cough-filled nights and hacking days have plagued our home for far too long. Sometimes the hardest part of these colds for me is the feeling of helplessness and the inability to make them go away for good. I feel like I am in a real life game of “whack-a-cold”. As soon as one sicky is well, it pops back up in another. It is in these moments when I’m feeling worn down by everyone’s sickness that I catch myself and as one of my favorite writers, Glennon Doyle Melton reminds often, it’s time to adjust our “perspectacles”.

This is not a chronic illness and we are not dying. We are simply fighting the common cold for an uncommonly long time! We will get through this. Sleepless nights, chicken soup for three meals a day and an obscene amount of cough drops are not the end of the world. Sometimes we just have to surrender to it and give our bodies the time and resources to rest and heal. Easier said than done in our fast-paced, action packed world but worthy of our attempts always.

In our household when colds hit like this there are some basic guidelines we follow like lots of healthy soups, no dairy and certainly no sweets. Take a ton of vitamin C and drink LOTS of tea. And that’s exactly what we do. Lots and lots of tea. This is really my best and only secret weapon. I head to the spice cupboard and pull out a few key spices to help us combat the bugs, boost the immune system and try to restore health again. As you may have heard me say before, spices are little powerhouses of anti-oxidant and nutritive healing value. It may not be a quick fix but its soothing and supportive of the compromised systems and most importantly for me, it’s comforting.

Spice tea for the Common Cold:

*Combine in a pot 3 cups of water, ½ tsp. ginger, 1/4tsp clove, ½ tsp turmeric, ½ tsp fennel and a cinnamon stick (or grd. cinnamon). Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Strain the spiced water into a cup and add honey and a squeeze of lemon to taste. This recipe is very forgiving. If you like more of one, add it. If you don’t have one, leave it out. Adjust to your tastes and preferences. Honestly, I don’t measure and it’s different every time but ALWAYS comforting. Let’s drink to health and adjusting our perspectacles!!

*This article was written by Melissa Spencer for the Monadnock Ledger Transcript for April 2016.

Natural Dyed Eggs
The Birthday/Easter weekend was a grand success. The weather was pleasant and Lavender Lemon Chocolate Chip Pancakes were enjoyed (with a spontaneous batch of lavender infused chocolate sauce that I whipped up to accompany them). We went to pick out plants at The House By The Side Of the Road.
We also had lots of fun dying eggs the “old fashioned way”. Old fashioned as in “before there were concentrated food coloring dyes in convenient little teardrop shaped bottles with rather predictable results” sense of the word. One great thing about natural dyes is that you can most likely find a pretty decent palette by rummaging through your pantry. I took the opportunity to use up some VERY old annatto and turmeric, some very freezer burned blueberries and the scraps of beetroot skin sitting in my compost bin. I got to do a little spring cleaning along side our Easter fun!
By the way some whole spices can stay potent for as long as four years but ground spices and herbs should be checked after 1 year. Storing spices in an airtight container away from light and heat will help them keep flavor and color longer.
Natural dye
This is less of a recipe and more of an idea for a process. The general idea is to take your found natural dye elements and essentially make “tea” with them. Some things require longer “steeping” or even boiling to get the richness of color out. The more of something you use and the longer it sits the more vibrant the color. A little splash of vinegar helps the egg shell to absorb more of the dye. It’s as simple as that.Natural Egg Dye
We decided to avoid any system of measurement and simply add what we had on hand and see where it took us. I really enjoyed the element of surprise in this project. I did grind the turmeric and annatto seeds before adding them to the water. I would have used more blueberries if I had had them but they still turned out a beautiful pale cornflower color. I would also have boiled the annatto and the paprika for longer as the colors could have been much more vibrant as I did add a good amount. We also chose to let them sit overnight in the dye baths. All in all I think the results were quite beautiful!
Natural Dyed Eggs Carton
Everly enjoyed watching the process but the part where he got to EAT the egg was his favorite, of course!
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The color from the beetroot was the most surprising. It’s such a rich shade and there are little blooms of rust color on it. SO beautiful!
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Some other great ideas for things to use as natural dyes include: Purple Cabbage, Chili Powder, Spinach, Raspberry, Red Onion Skins, Chamomile Tea, Grape Juice. Think to yourself “would I be worried about this staining my white shirt?” if the answer is “yes” then chances are good it would make a nice dye!

Lavender Lemon Chocolate Chip Pancakes

Rich lavender field in Provence with a lone tree

Ah Spring! The fresh, clean, newness of it all. This year my partner’s birthday falls on Easter Sunday. I was trying to think of something special to do for breakfast that morning so it seemed pretty appropriate to come across this gem of a recipe in the archives this morning. Flowers, Chocolate and Pancakes in one fell swoop.

When most us think Lavender we think SPA. It is, after all, well known for its aroma-therapeutic ability to help us relax. The French don’t shy away from the use of lavender in culinary applications and for good reason. Lavender can be intimidating to use in cooking but if done right it can be absolutely divine. Adding too much can definitely spell disaster and make your food taste like a bar of soap, so when in doubt add less. It doesn’t take much!
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This recipe really hits the nail on the head with that delicate floral balance.

Lavender Lemon Chocolate Chip Pancakes
1 3/4 cup all purpose flour
1 1/4 cup Milk
1 tbs baking powder
3 tbs vegetable oil or melted butter
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 tbs sugar
pinch of salt
1 egg
1/2 tsp granulated lemon
1 tsp freshly ground lavender flower (grinding releases the volatile oils that make it smell so lovely)
1 tsp whole lavender flower ( this is mostly for visual appeal)
1/2 cup dark chocolate chips (or more! this is Easter after all)
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Combine all dry ingredients in a bowl. Whisk together wet ingredients in a separate bowl and stir into dry ingredients. Fold in Chocolate chips.
Cook on a lightly oiled or buttered skillet on medium-high heat.
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Did you know lavender is also one of the essential oils that can effectively deter insects including ticks? How perfect for an Easter stroll through the field!

The Spice of Life

familybreakfast
Well, there’s good news and bad news. Myles came home from college last week for a quick visit. It was the usual: quick load of laundry, get a haircut and eat some food. It was only for one night but it doesn’t even matter. I’ll take quality over quantity everyday. Oh, so for the good news and bad. I’ll start with the bad. The food at school is horrible. That’s disappointing because the boy eats all his meals there and the boy eats a lot of food! The good news,however, is that he has gained a very real appreciation for home cooked food. Not that he didn’t have it before, but there’s nothing like absence to make the heart grow fonder and a little distance to provide some perspective.

Since his visit was unplanned and brief I hadn’t prepared anything special for dinner. As it turns out he had already eaten but was happy to sit with us and enjoy second dinner. While the five of us were sitting there talking, laughing and sharing I realized it really didn’t matter at that moment what we were eating. The act of gathering around the table together for nourishment is not one dimensional. Yes, our food is important. Healthy food is extremely important. But as we come together the community aspect of the dinner ritual is equally as important as what we are putting in our mouths. With our busy days and everyone going in different directions I have come to really appreciate how the family dinner creates a necessary pause and regrouping within our family. Its an exhale at the end of the day. A reminder to say thank you. We have food. We have each other. Some days the food is great and some days it’s not. It’s in the sharing with each other where we are deeply nourished.

As a food column and in particular one that focuses on spices….sometimes the most important spice is the Spice of Life. Wishing you many gatherings around the table with family and friends this spring season.

Written by Melissa Spencer for the Monadnock Ledger Transcript

St. Patrick’s Day Herbed Mashed Potaotes

Rosemary isolated on white
Just around the corner is March 17, when leprechauns, shamrocks and potatoes are aplenty. Everything is green — well, except for the grass that is. To tell you the truth, St. Patrick’s Day holds a very special place in my heart. I am not Irish, though I’ve been mistaken for one most of my life. With my fair skin and freckles I suppose it’s a safe enough assumption.

There’s something more though. My brother, Patrick, was born on St. Patrick’s Day 42 years ago. He is not Irish either, but was given the name at birth and throughout his life carried the mixed blessing of receiving birthday cards with happy green men, rainbows and the infamous pot o’ gold. They were personalized at least. Not many of us can boast that.

Patrick passed away two years ago on March 16 and as you can imagine, there isn’t a St. Patrick’s Day that goes by that his presence isn’t felt with every green-legged leprechaun, shamrock or pot o’ gold I happen to see. And while he mostly found his connection with this day amusing, he could never connect with the honorary meal of the day, corned beef and cabbage. Through the many birthday dinners that were shared, corned beef and cabbage was never allowed. It was his day after all. Sometimes there is a place for reinventing tradition. Sometimes there is more meaning in starting a new way of doing, being or celebrating that can bring about that comfort of a time-honored tradition.

On this St. Patrick’s Day, and all those going forward, I choose to celebrate with the food that Patrick loved as a way to honor his memory. That would be mashed potatoes. I guess I don’t have to stray too far away from the Irish traditions after all. Mashed potatoes are a comfort food and while they require some prep time they are worth the effort. I have a little spin on the traditional recipe that makes them visually appealing for St. Patrick’s Day and tasty enough for whatever day you decide you need a little comfort. I include rosemary and thyme in the broth while I cook up the potatoes. Rosemary is known as the remembrance herb, and happens to complement potatoes so well.

I think it’s safe to say that Patrick would approve of this recipe.

herbed mashed

Herbed Mashed Potatoes

∎  Add to a pot of water 1 tsp. of thyme, 1 tsp. of rosemary and 1 tsp. onion powder. If you are using dried herbs, be sure to put in cheesecloth to make removal easier.

∎  Peel and cut 3 large or 5 medium sized potatoes and add to your water. Bring to a boil and then simmer until potatoes are soft.

∎  While potatoes are simmering, take 1/2 cup kale and puree in 1/2 cup of milk, (or cream). Set aside until potatoes are done.

∎  Strain potatoes from water, being sure to remove the herbs as well. Add pureed kale to the potatoes along with 2 Tbsp. of butter and mash to the consistency of your liking.

∎  Add salt, pepper and chives to taste.

Written by Melissa Spencer for the Monadnock Ledger Transcript

Cherry Coconut Chocolate Balls

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Just shy of Eight months old, Everly has already learned to crawl and pull up! It’s so amazing to watch him grown like a little sunflower and learn so many things. It also feels like I’m caught in a whirlwind! Is soon as I get used to one thing ( or even before I get used to it!) we are on to the next. People always seem to think that the pregnant mom should be eating for two but I tell you what- I am MUCH more hungry as a breastfeeding mama, chasing around a little one, than I ever was with my squished stomach during pregnancy. Of course now getting good nourishing food into by belly can be a challenge. I know all new parents can relate.
But what’s a health conscious hungry lady to do when that post dinner sweet tooth kicks in with a vengeance? I have a secret weapon in my arsenal for just that scenario. Decadent but nutritious chocolate Balls! The great things about these besides the fact that you can whip them together in 5 minutes and they are delicious is that they are SUPER VERSATILE. You can change out virtually any of the ingredients for what you have on hand and make them as decadent or nutrient dense as you wish. THINK: Toggling the tipping point between a truffle and a granola bar. This recipe falls somewhere in the middle. It really satisfies the sweet craving but also could easily work as a mid afternoon pick me or post work out out snack!

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CHERRY COCONUT CHOCOLATE BALLS
1 cup shredded unsweetened coconut
1 cup dried tart cherries
1/2 cup almonds
1/4 cup chia seeds
2 Tbs natural cocoa powder
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup coconut oil
1 Tbs dark chocolate chips or bar

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Start by grinding up the bigger things first. I ground up the almonds and cherries first then added in the chocolate chunks, cocoa powder, chia seed and shredded coconut. After that is all ground up I added in the coconut oil and maple syrup and ground until it started to clump together in the food processor. The clumping together is good clue that your ratios are going to work and it will easily roll into balls.
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For an extra element of fun I like to roll the balls in cocoa or another ground dry ingredient. For this batch I tried cocoa, crushed almonds and shredded coconut and they all looked pretty. You don’t have to do this! On a very warm day you may choose to store the balls in the fridge. This also helps to set them up but they should hold together at room temperature.

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Make them Your Own
The basic idea is that you grind up all the dry ingredients and add in the sticky wet ones to bind it all together and then form it into little bite sized balls of YUM. If you make substitutions you might need to adjust the ratios just a touch to get all to stick together and form a ball. Its really as easy as that! This is really where you can choose how decadent or health minded you want to steer your treat. They are also wonderfully easy to spice up!

Instead of Shredded coconut and/or almonds Try:
Oats
Any kind of nut
Protein Powder

Instead of Chia Seeds Try:
Flax
Hemp
Sesame
Poppy
(You could also omit these)

Instead of dried cherries Try:
Dates
Dried Fruit of any kind

Instead of Maple Syrup Try:
Honey
Agave Syrup
Molasses

Instead of Coconut Oil Try:
Peanut butter
Almond Butter
Butter- Straight up decadent

You could also choose to omit the chocolate chunks, add more, or use milk or white chocolate.

Other add ins:
Crumbled cookies
Cinnamon
Cardamom
Nutmeg
Cayenne
Vanilla Extract
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ginger
The groundhog did not see it’s shadow and has forecast an early spring, but we’re no fools. After this past weekend, we know there is still ample time for winter to continue to wallop us with more mounds of snow and even colder arctic freezes. I am no fan of the cold but I am a fan of our New England winters. I understand we must have cold temps.to have snow and I love the beauty and freshness of a new-fallen blanketing of white. I do have a secret spice weapon though that helps me battle the cold that is inevitable and without which I may just stay huddled in a ball in front of the fireplace. Zesty, zingy and warming, ginger is a righteous rhizome and prevalent in our home throughout the winter.

Ginger, zingiber officinale, is a flowering plant that is known best for its rhizome or root stalk, ginger root. Whether you use it fresh, candied, pickled or powdered ginger offers incredible flavor and has great warming properties. It can add a touch of heat to sweets as it’s most commonly used in our culture however it is versatile enough to lend it’s pungent flavor to savory dishes, drinks and candies. Anyone who has experienced bouts of nausea may well know that ginger can help. Simply made into a tea, a few slices of the root boiled in water can bring quick relief to settle the tummy. There are so many ways to use ginger in all its forms but one of our favorites is the winter warming tonic, Fireside Tonic.

We usually make a large batch of Fireside Tonic in the fall to carry us through the cold and flu season. However it is helpful at any time of the season. Fireside Tonic, a traditional recipe first introduced by Rosemary Gladstar, author and herbalist, is a spice and veggie infusion that benefits the immune and circulatory system. It does indeed fire you up, physically and mentally! Over the years, many variations have emerged. Ginger is an integral part of this recipe and I tend to be a little generous with it. By combining ginger and fellow potent spices in apple cider vinegar a daily tonic can be made that will warm you from within and help combat the pesky germs that can slow us down throughout the winter.
fireside
Fireside Tonic
based on original recipe by Rosemary Gladstar)
*Chop: Equal parts fresh horseradish root, fresh garlic and onion and half that amount of fresh ginger root. To that add and 1/2 -1 fresh cayenne pepper or 1 tsp cayenne powder. Place all of the above in a glass quart jar and cover with apple cider vinegar (preferably Braggs, with the mother) allowing enough vinegar to cover the herbs about 1-2 inches. Allow this tonic to steep for at least 2 weeks or up to 3 months in a dark, cool environment. You do not refrigerate. The flavor will change as you go. When you are ready, strain the liquid from the jar and combine with equal parts honey or to taste. One tbsp of the tonic can be taken as a shot or mixed with water and sipped for a daily tonic. It can also be diluted and used in soups or stir-fries or as a salad dressing. The flavor will be hot, spicy and sweet but most importantly it is providing your body with a healthy dose of cold and flu fighting properties so we can enjoy all what winter has to offer.

Written by Melissa Spencer for the Monadnock Ledger Transcript