Whats the difference:Investigating the Differences Between Cocoa Powders

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Ah chocolate. What could be better? As an avid baker I recently started experimenting with one of my favorite chocolatey desserts: classic chocolate cake. I got into my research mode, started  looking at recipes, weighing the pros and cons of buttermilk versus sour cream, and I found myself asking one big question: Dutched cocoa and natural cocoa, what’s the difference? Continue reading

Warming Dal for a Winter Day

spice house dal recipe

What’s better on a cold winter’s day than a hot bowl of soup for dinner? Not a whole lot, except maybe a bowl of hot dal. There are many variations of this creamy lentil dish throughout India, with each region having their own recipes and methods. The recipe below is somewhat of a mish-mash of a few recipes, accounting for what I had on hand. This dish is great with basmati rice or a hearty naan, roti or other bread.

This recipe makes enough for 4 or 2 with some leftovers.

 

Ingredients

2 cups yellow or green lentils (or a combination of both). Soak these overnight. If you don’t have time, soak for an hour or two while you prepare the other ingredients.

3-4 large carrots, diced into small pieces

1 large yellow onion, diced into small pieces

2 tablespoons of freshly grated ginger

3 cloves garlic, diced into small pieces

2-3 tablespoons hot curry powder, to taste (or swap out sweet curry powder if you don’t want too much heat)

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon cayenne (heat-averse people should skip this ingredient)

1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon salt

5 cups water

1 avocado (optional – not a traditional ingredient)

Directions:

Heat the olive oil in a large soup pot on medium heat. Add the onions, garlic, ginger and some salt. Stir for a few minutes, until the onion becomes translucent. Add all the spices and stir occasionally for the next 5 minutes to bring out their flavor. Drain the lentils from their water and add them and the carrots and the rest of the salt to the pot. Add the water. Bring the mixture to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Let the dal simmer for the next hour and ten minute to hour and a half. If the water is gone after an hour and ten minutes and you have a nice, thick consistency, try a spoonful and decide if the carrots and lentils are soft enough to be eaten. If they’re not, add another half cup of water and let simmer for another 20 minutes.

Although it’s in no way traditional, I love putting a sliced avocado on top of my dal. I also use making dal as an excuse to buy some Indian beer – Kingfisher is my favorite.

Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for about a week.

 

Healthy Banana Nutella Cookies

Most of us have been faced with the dilemma of dealing with a few rapidly ripening bananas and understand the tension between not wanting to waste good food while also not wanting to put overly soft, brown bananas on top of our morning cereal. After my partner and I both purchased a full bunch of bananas on the same day, I found myself staring down at half a dozen soft, spotted pieces of the yellow fruit and debating what I would bake to use them up. Bananas are wonderfully versatile in baking, as their soft consistency doesn’t create the worry of getting the fruit soft enough to be enjoyable (like apples), but aren’t so juicy that one must compensate for the extra liquid by adding other ingredients (like with blueberries). I quickly found a recipe for banana cookies in my recipe tin, copied down during the year of so I spent building out this tin’s collection as a college student. Since I had just purchased some hazelnut paste (basically unsweetened Nutella), I decided to incorporate it into the recipe. I added the claim of “healthy” to this recipe after modifying the original to include less sugar and more banana, as well as more oats. I find that with a little experimentation, one can always decrease the amount of sugar and increase the amount of redeeming ingredients, and luckily, I got it right on my first try with these cookies.

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Healthy Banana Nutella Cookies

Ingredients:

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Simple and Versatile Thai Curry

I am a huge fan of simple, delicious meals that are easy to make a ton of and make great left overs, aiding in that endless quest for more time during the business of life. Of the various meals I make with the intent of eating a few times throughout the week and freezing a portion of for later, Thai curry is one that stands out from the crowd due to the fact that it gets even better with time. It’s great the day you make it and even better a few days later, when the spices have had time to seep into the coconut milk and become more rich and complex.

Thai curry is also a favorite because of its versatility – almost any vegetable that’s in season and available at the farmer’s market will fit in nicely, and you can even rely on it in winter when we’ve got little more that potatoes and carrots lining the tables of the winter markets. You barely need a plan when going into it, and the only thing you really need to worry about is buying the right amount of cans of coconut milk for how much you want to make. And, of course, that you have some Thai Red Curry Powder on hand. This is a great seasoning with medium heat, and it’s the only thing I use in my curry recipe other than a generous helping of salt at the end (for things like this I like some good old standard Kosher salt).

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Our Spices Travel to Camp Denali, Alaska!

CD_lodge_and_Denali_WWe love to talk with our customers in the store, we enjoy hearing what they plan on making with the spices and seasonings they are buying. Often we go home wanting to cook what we chatted about most during the day. Internet orders also have the ability to intrigue us. When we sent our second large order this year to Camp Denali, in Denali National Park in Alaska, we just had to look it up. What were our spices doing here? Why would a camp need the highest quality spices? They sent us this wonderful write-up.  And bonus, they included a recipe, how amazing!  This curry soup would be perfect for our now chilly Midwestern weather. We love the relationships we have with our customers;  they are one of the most rewarding experiences of being  small business owners. We hope to one day deliver a package there in person. Thank you to author Teresa Floberg and Kristen Vawter for the following lovely post. Lots of fun recipes in their site also. Continue reading

Last Salad of Summer

Though the days remain muggy and blistering, the nights are cooling off and the sun is setting earlier – we are in the twilight of summer. Soon the city will be a crisp swirl of colored leaves and we’ll be making up for the lack of warmth with fires and hot drinks – but until then, I’ll be making this salad multiple times a week, a salad I call the last salad of summer.

Summer Salad

I’ve written before about my obsession with local, in-season tomatoes, and you can bet that I’ll be buying them from the farmer’s markets up until the very end of their all-too-short season. This salad recipe is simple – when you have flavors this good, there’s not much need for anything flashy.

This salad is raw, vegetarian, and vegan if you don’t include the cheese. Give it some variety by throwing in other vegetables you have on hand – half of a shredded carrot, small cubes of summer squash varieties, and bit of cubed onion, for example, would all be great additions.

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Summertime Guacamole and an Ode to Local Tomatoes

TIMG_0001omatoes have finally arrived at the markets, marking a period of time that I’ll spend plotting my week around visiting Chicago’s markets and co-ops on various days of the week, knowing that each tomato purchase is only going to last me a day or two. Tomatoes – especially those mixtures of summer sungolds, purple zebras, and baby romas – may just be my all-time favorite local food.

I went my whole childhood adamantly hating tomatoes, picking them off of sandwiches and ignoring them in salads, only to realize, my sophomore year of college, how much I had been missing out. The problem was that I had been eating pale, flavorless, ghosts of real tomatoes my whole life. I was an active Slow Food UW member during my time in at UW-Madison, and was there that, finally, not willing to be called out my cool local food-obsessed friends, I had my first in-season, locally-grown tomato. It was like a warm little piece of sunshine that exploded its flavor in my mouth – it was the ghost of tomatoes past reincarnated into a living, breathing, incredibly flavorful, naturally sweet little piece of happiness.

Ever since then, I’ve been obsessed with tomatoes, and look forward to them arriving at the markets and dread their inevitable disappearance. While they’re here, I find ways to work them into almost everything I make. In my opinion, tomatoes are among a small number of foods that easily illustrate the difference between local and non-local food. Potatoes or broccoli seem roughly the same regardless of how far away they came from or when they were grown, but tomatoes are different.

Guacamole, of course, begs to have tomatoes included, but this brief period of the summer is the only time I actually include them. Few things are better on a hot Chicago summer day than some fresh chips and guacamole with a refreshing beer – except, of course, that same guacamole with some locally-grown tomatoes thrown in.

Summertime Guacamole with Local Tomatoes

Ingredients:

3 avocados

1/2 of a purple onion, diced into small pieces

10 small tomatoes of any variety (such as sungolds, purple zebras or baby romas), halved or quartered depending on size

2 tablespoons ground Cumin Powder

2 teaspoons salt

3 – 5 sprigs of cilantro (to taste), chopped

1/2 of a lime (for juice)

3 tablespoons sour cream or plain yogurt (optional)

Directions:

Slice open the avocados and remove the pits (an easy way to do this is to use a heavy knife to strike the middle of the pit, hard, so that the knife gets stuck in it, then pull the knife away pit and all. Scoop the flesh out and put it into a large bowl, then mash with a fork. Mix in the salt, cumin and lime juice. If you’re going to add sour cream or yogurt (which give the guacamole a wonderful creaminess), stir it in at this point. Finally, gently stir in the onions, tomatoes and cilantro. Taste by trying on a chip. Enjoy on a patio or deck with a refreshing summer beer.

Bacon. Just Bacon.

BaconI’m not going to wax poetic about bacon. That’s been done by better poets than I.

I’m also not going to go on and on about how bacon makes everything better, even though there’s math to prove it. (Okay, so the results are a little overstated.)

I will even ignore the idea of bacon as the gateway meat for ex-vegetarians, even though there’s a possible evolutionary reason.

The simple fact of the matter is that bacon is delicious and at the end of the day, that’s all that really matters. Just ask these guys.

The toughest part of curing bacon at home is finding pink curing salt #1. Pink curing salt #1, formerly known as Prague Powder #1, is table salt mixed with a bit of sodium nitrite to help inhibit bacterial growth. Coincidentally, the Spice House carries pink curing salt #1. This should not be confused with pink curing salt #2, which also has the addition of sodium nitrate and is used for long cures. (Think dried sausages like Spanish chorizo.) Pink curing salt #1 is for shorter curing times for foods meant to be eaten relatively quickly. Both are colored pink to avoid confusion with table salt, and should not be confused with pink Himalayan salt.

The recipe below is for what’s known as green bacon. After roasting, it is ready to eat. Just cook it normally. It can also be hung to dry or smoked after roasting, both of which will help preserve it longer. Or, cut it into one pound pieces, wrap well in plastic, put it into a freezer storage bag and freeze.

Bacon cureHome Cured Bacon

Mix dry ingredients well. Rub thoroughly into pork belly. Put the pork into a resealable two gallon plastic bag along with any leftover rub. Lay flat the refrigerator and turn over daily. Liquid will begin to accumulate in the bag as it gets drawn out of the meat. When the meat feels firm remove from the refrigerator. (7 days for thinner pieces, 10 days for thicker.)  Rinse and pat dry.

Roast at 200° until the internal temperature reaches 150°, about 90 minutes.

Let cool and wrap in plastic. It will keep in the refrigerator for about a week, or in the freezer for about two months.

Wildwood Flower

hibiscus

We’ve recently added a powdered version of everybody’s rooster hot sauce, Sriracha. (Well, “everyone,” except for that neighborhood in California.) After many, many requests we also put an Ethiopian blend, Berbere into the lineup. But, the newcomer I’m most excited about is hibiscus. I’ve mentioned before that I had a career in beverage once upon a time. Given the way my mind still works, I know more intuitively how to work with hibiscus than I do with the Sriracha or Berbere. (Let’s be honest, I’m being lazy, the hibiscus was just way easier for me to work with.)

Hibiscus tea, common in West Africa, the Caribbean and Central America, is most commonly seen here in Chicago in Mexican restaurants as agua de Jamaica. (pronounced: hah-MY-kah) Steeping hibiscus in hot water imparts a brilliant red color shockingly fast and has a surprisingly tart flavor.

I recently wrote about grenadine and that got me thinking about using hibiscus in a similar manner. Where the grenadine has some darker flavors, a hibiscus syrup is going to be at the other end of the spectrum with flavors that are wonderfully bright. Substituting hibiscus syrup for grenadine isn’t a huge leap. While the profiles are different, the flavors hit a lot of the same notes. A cocktail made with hibiscus instead of grenadine will be different, but far from unpleasant. (It’s got the added bonus of being more kid-friendly. I’d use this in a Shirley Temple over the grenadine.)

In the grenadine post I mentioned a handful of cocktails: the Clover Club, Jack Rose and Ward 8. Try hibiscus instead.

Or try some in your coffee. Trust me. I used to be a professional.

Hibiscus Syrup
(yield approximately 3 ½ cups)

Tie hibiscus in a double layer of cheesecloth. Add sugar, water, hibiscus and salt to a medium sauce pan over high heat. Stir to dissolve sugar. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Discard hibiscus. Stir in citric acid.

Cinnamon And Spice In Vienna

When thinking about Austrian cuisine, spice is not the first thought that comes to mind. While it is not one of the world’s spice capitols, my trip to Vienna did allow me to see first-hand the spices that are regularly used. One Viennese merchant at a specialty spice shop explained that the use of spices, including ethnic blends, are piquing the interests of the local inhabitants at an ever increasing rate, perhaps due to the increase in international travel and migration.  I was pleasantly surprised when visiting the Naschmarket (a market in the city center teeming with restaurants, specialty food stores and a plethora of food stalls all lined up waiting for the hungry) had row after row of spice stands stocked with blends and pure spices of all sorts. This certainly supported my Viennese spice merchant’s claim!

Spices and herbs at the Naschmarket in Vienna

Spices and herbs at the Naschmarket in Vienna

In addition to the ubiquitous black peppercorn, caraway is a classic element in sauerkraut and cinnamon, nutmeg and mace are no strangers to traditional Austrian baked goods. Let’s focus on one of my favorite spice, cinnamon. Now, as a dutiful Spice Houser, I would usually be very particular in clarifying whether I am referring to Ceylon cinnamon (true cinnamon) or cassia cinnamon, and if cassia, which variety thereof (due to differences in flavor and strength.)  While Ceylon cinnamon is common in European cuisine (in America we typically use the word “cinnamon” liberally and are accustomed to cassia cinnamon), I noted that Indonesian Korintje cassia cinnamon (the variety most commonly used in the U.S.) was the variety sold most frequently at the Naschmarket.  So, please pardon my lack of cinnamon specificity in this blog (although as a cinnamon enthusiast, I believe there is usually room for personal preference as long as the cinnamon is fresh!)

In Austrian baking, cinnamon is a favorite spice used to help sweeten treats. Many desserts (or snacks) can be found at kaffeehauses (Viennese coffee houses) all throughout Vienna. Cinnamon is used in abundance in Christmas cookies, as well as in some of Austria’s classics including Linzer Torte, apfelstrudle (apple strudel) and zimtschnecken (cinnamon rolls). As it was not Christmas time when I was in Vienna, Christmas cookies were not available. But for the sake of this blog, I made sure that I sampled the apple strudel and cinnamon rolls.

Apple strudel at a coffee house in Vienna

Apple strudel at a coffee house in Vienna

Apple strudel was available at every coffee house and bakery that I visited. This was of no surprise as it is considered the national dish of Austria. It was advertised at many restaurants and sold at street stands, tempting those who passed. One of my coffee house samplings was topped with a dusting of powdered sugar. It was flaky, fresh and the cinnamon, while present, was a fairly delicate note (I suspect Ceylon cinnamon was employed).

The cinnamon rolls were not as easy to find as the apple strudel, but I did not leave Vienna empty handed. My cinnamon rolls were wonderfully soft and gooey (not like a Pilsbury or Cinnabon roll, but still gooey). While it did have a sugary glaze, it was not frosted with icing. As you would expect, the cinnamon was much more prominent than in the strudel. While I am not sure which variety of cinnamon was used for the rolls I ate, at the Spice House we advise the use of the sweet and spicy Saigon cassia cinnamon (of which I am particularly fond since it has a high volatile oil content, meaning lots of flavor and aroma) for cinnamon rolls.

Needless to say, as a cinnamon lover, I was not disappointed in the baked goods available in Vienna and was pleased to learn about the increasing use of a broader range of spices in Austrian cooking.