So many of you have been writing lately that my Blog To Do List now includes a discussion forum. Look for it soon. In the meantime, here are answers to a few of your spicy questions:
Candi wants to know how to locate a supplier of “fruit of the ash tree (fraxinus).”
Hmmm…I wonder if you are thinking of Zanthoxylum or prickly ash, a genus of thorny shrubs which reside in the Rutaceae family (which also includes citrus) rather than Oleaceae (where Fraxinus can be found).
The Zanthoxylum genus, which includes Z. piperitum and other species native to Asia, produces a reddish burr-like fruit commonly known as the Sichuan peppercorn. This is a misnomer, as the spice is not even vaguely related to the true peppercorn or piper nigrum. Sichuan peppercorns have a mildly pungent, lemony flavor and a fizzy, numbing effect on the tongue—which is probably why they are casually lumped into the pepper category. They are a key ingredient in Chinese Five Spice powder and in Sichuan cooking. Fuschia Dunlop’s marvelous book Land of Plenty, offers recipes like Fish with Chiles and Sichuan Pepper which uses over a tablespoon of the tingling spice.
In 1968 the USDA banned the import of Sichuan peppercorns due to a suspected citrus canker, but you could still buy them at many Asian markets. The ban was lifted in 2004; to kill the disease, the peppercorns must now be exposed to heat of 140 degrees for 20 minutes. According to Florence Fabricant of The New York Times, heat-treated berries have “about 10 percent less heat and tingling sensation in the mouth than untreated ones.” So if you crave “the signature fire of Sichuan dishes,” up the quantity of peppercorns in the recipe.
The fizziest, most frighteningly numbing Sichuan peppercorns I’ve ever tasted—they made my throat clutch when I casually chewed two or three--came from Goumanyat et Son Royaume, a Paris spice shop—definitely not tamed by heat of any kind. Here in the U.S., you can get them at your local Asian market, or order them from www.chefshop.com,
As for ash trees from the Fraxinus genus, they do produce a fruit known as a samara. This appears to be a winged seed pod; as far as I know, they are not edible.
Margot from Vancouver B.C. asks if she can buy grains of paradise from SpiceLines:
Alas, no. At least not yet. My dream to have an online shop by the end of 2008.
In meantime, I referred Margot to www.theepicentre.com, a Canadian exotic spice and herb source which also has an informative encyclopedia. Grains of paradise is another pungent spice which is sometimes confused with pepper—synonyms include guinea or melegueta pepper.
According to Ian Hemphill’s Spice and Herb Bible, grains of paradise are the seeds of aframomum melegueta, a plant of the ginger and cardamom family native to West Africa. The tiny, hard, round seeds are very, very hot with slightly floral overtones and a mildly resinous aftertaste. In the 16th century, the spiced wine known as Hippocras was flavored with grains of paradise and Elizabeth I was said to have “a personal fondness” for the fiery seasoning. By the 19th century it had fallen out of use, although a new generation of foodies have made it a “must have” spice—probably because it can be hard to get. Hemphill notes that it is often one of the spices in the Moroccan ras el hanout and that its “peppery notes will be found in Tunisian stews spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves.” It is best to grind grains of paradise to a fine powder before using.
And finally, Mara wants to know if I could recommend a prepared mole paste.
This is a great question. Mexican mole—the word comes from molli, the nahuatl term for “mixture”--is a wondrous, cross-cultural blend of Old and New World ingredients which are roasted, ground and simmered together to make a rich sauce for chicken, turkey, beef, venison, pork and even certain fish such as red snapper. Depending up the type of mole—and there are many—it might include spices (cinnamon, cloves and peppercorns), herbs (thyme, marjoram and oregano), nuts and seeds (almonds and sesame) and various chiles, as well as vegetables and fruit.
My friend Susana Trilling, a cooking teacher and cookbook author in Oaxaca, Mexico, wrote a charming little book called My Search for the Seventh Mole, which chronicles her delectable hunt for the last, quasi-mythical mole of her adopted hometown—Oaxaca is known as “The Land of Seven Moles,” but the seventh turns out to be the special one each family makes for itself.
Mole is a complicated dish to make, and though I adore it, I find I only muster up the energy once or twice a year. Luckily, Susana also produces prepared paste for three kinds of mole: Mole Negro (Black) Oaxaqueno, Mole Coloradito and Mole Rojo (Red). The one I’ve tried--Mole Coloradito, which includes fruity guajillo and ancho chiles, along with cacao, spices, nuts, herbs and fruit such as plantains and raisins—was divine.
Zingerman’s sells Susana’s Negro and Rojo mole pastes under its own label, at $20 per 8-ounce jar. Currently it is sold out, but I’m told they expect a new shipment by February 10th.
Mole paste must be reconstituted with chicken stock and other ingredients. Here’s Susana’s recipe for Mole Negro using her paste.
MOLE NEGRO EN PASTA
Makes 4-6 servings or 3 cups mole negro sauce
3 cups chicken stock
4-6 pieces of chicken, skin removed if desired
Salt to taste
1 pound tomatoes (2 medium to large round or 4-5 plum), cut into quarters
_ pound tomatillos (5-6 medium), husks removed and cut into quarters
1 tablespoon sunflower or vegetable oil, or lard if desired
8 ounces mole negro paste
1_ ounces Seasons of My Heart Chocolate Oaxaqueño or other brand of Mexican chocolate,
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
In a heavy 4-quart stockpot, heat the chicken stock over high heat. Add the chicken pieces, lower the heat, add salt, and cover. Poach the chicken for about 30 minutes, or until the juice runs clear when pierced with a fork. Remove the meat from the stock and set aside. Strain the stock, skimming off the fat.
In a dry cast-iron frying pan, fry the tomatoes and tomatillos until they give off their juices, about 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the tomatoes, and then let the mixture dry out somewhat. Puree the mixture in a blender, adding up to _ cup stock to help release the blender’s blades. Strain the stock through a food mill or strainer.
In a heavy 2-quart saucepan, or clay cazuela, heat the oil, then add the mole negro paste and fry well over medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. When the paste is very hot, after 5 minutes, slowly add the tomato and tomatillo puree. Stir until well incorporated, about 5 minutes. Thin with the remaining stock, add the chocolate and sugar, and stir for about 20-25 minutes. It should be thick enough to just coat the back of a spoon.
Reheat the chicken in the stock.
Place a cooked chicken piece on each plate or wide soup bowl. Ladle a good amount of mole to cover the meat. Serve immediately with a stack of fresh corn tortillas or use to make Enmoladas de Mole Negro or Tamales Oaxaqueños.
Hints: Turkey or boneless pork shoulder can be substituted, or any combination of the three.