Here is the wildest, craziest, most mind-blowing fact about cardamom: Not only is it a spice that is used in both savory and sweet dishes, it is an important ingredient in the cuisines of India, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Scandinavia.
If geography is not your strongest suit, what makes the fact so bizarre is these areas are nowhere near one another.
It is more than 4,000 miles from India to Norway. It is more than 5,300 miles from Vietnam to Sweden. Jordan is more than 2,500 miles from India and is 2,200 miles from Sweden.
In other words, cardamom has leapfrogged around the world, dropping little bombs of intense and aromatic seasoning wherever it goes. It is not used much in American kitchens, but given the fact that it plays equally well with side dishes, main courses and dessert, perhaps its time has come.
Cardamom is a little bit sharp, a little bit sweet and a little bit rock ’n‘ roll. A couple of seeds on your tongue can be marvelously refreshing. It is sometimes used to flavor tea, such as chai. And rice pudding simply wouldn’t be rice pudding without it.
For my exploration of cardamom, I decided to make five dishes that highlight the various aspects of the spice.
One of my favorite methods of cooking chicken is to marinate it in yogurt with spices and then grill it – or saute it or bake it. The yogurt makes the meat tender and juicy, and it also tempers the spices. You can get a lot of flavor this way without overpowering the meat.
I decided to try it with cardamom, also adding allspice and nutmeg. Vaguely similar in taste, but also decidedly different with unique flavors of their own, the three spices blended in a way that was, as I’d hoped, complementary.
Grilling the meat over indirect heat would be ideal, lending the meat an additional smoky taste to play off the other flavors, but I decided to do the next best thing. I seared it skin-side down on a cast-iron grill pan, flipped it over, then put the pan into a 400-degree oven. If you don’t have a grill pan, you can do the same thing with any oven-safe skillet.
I cooked it that way, too, which was equally delicious. But you have to watch it while searing, because the yogurt has a tendency to char.
Because cardamom goes so well with basmati rice, I decided to make two dishes that use it – one of them as the feature, the other as a backdrop.
Jeweled Rice is perhaps the most amazing rice dish I have ever made. You start off with basmati rice – already good – and then you stuff it chock full with a host of other things that make it even better.
I’m talking here about pistachios and almonds. I’m talking orange peel and julienned carrots, cooked together in a light syrup to make them slightly sweet. I’m talking about plumped-up raisins and dried cranberries. And I’m not just talking about cardamom, I’m also talking saffron, onion, cumin and turmeric.
Yes, it is a lot of work. Yes, it is totally worth it.
Besides, you can make the most complicated part a day or two in advance. Then, when it is time to serve it (and it is so beautiful you'll want to serve it to company), all you have essentially to do is to cook the rice.
The other basmati-based dish is a slight variant on the Indian classic Chana Masala. It is vegan – if you are interested in such things – it is easy and it is simply wonderful. For that matter, it is also wonderfully simple.
Chana Masala is a dish of chickpeas simmered in chopped tomatoes and a lot of spices. The version I made, which comes from the food editor of Bon Appetit, uses only a handful of spices. So technically it is less of a masala – a mixture of spices – than it might usually be, but it is excellent nevertheless.
Simply saute onion with cardamom, garlic, ginger and curry powder. When the onion is soft, add chickpeas and tomatoes, and simmer until you can’t stand to wait any longer. Then serve over basmati rice and garnish with cilantro.
Because cardamom is so good in baked goods, I also decided to double up on desserts.
Cardamom and pears go together like peanut butter and jelly, like bagels and lox. But I did not want to go the traditional route of poaching a pear in wine and cardamom, I was looking for something a little out of the ordinary.
What I found was extraordinary indeed: Pear and Cardamom Upside-Down Cake. The cake itself is spectacular; with a small amount of cardamom in it, it is one of those batters you won’t be able to stop eating even while it is raw. But the piece de resistance is what goes on top, or rather, on the bottom while you are cooking it.
First, you make a simple caramel of butter and brown sugar. This you pour into a well-buttered cake pan (it is very important to butter it well, to keep the caramel from sticking). They you lay slices of pear, preferably Anjou, in an overlapping pattern on top of it. What is left of the batter that you haven’t eaten goes on top of that, and the whole thing is cooked and then turned upside for your dining pleasure.
The other dessert would be great for the holidays, but that does not lessen how good it is right now, too. As the name indicates, Chewy Molasses Cookies are chewy and rich with the flavor of molasses.
But what makes them really stand out are the spices: cinnamon, ginger and, of course, cardamom. They really make the cookies pop.
They are absolutely addictive. Cardamom will do that to you.