Caraway tastes like home. At least, it does if home was Polish like mine, or German, or any sort of northeast European. The warm, toasty balance to sour fermented cabbage; the potent, aromatic, bitter kick in akvavit or kummel; the satiating richness of a good rye loaf: all owe their powerful emotional associations to this humble little fruit. And caraway also tastes like fall; the smoke of burning leaves, damp October earth, and even a little bit of minty chill are all present in its flavor for me. Since the cold weather is coming soon in our part of the world, I’d like to share some of my favorite ways to use this warming spice, along with a bit about it’s biology, history, and even (bear with me) its chemistry.
We think of caraway as a seed, but it’s actually a dried fruit; the tiny seeds are nestled within the familiar, deeply-grooved ovals we see studding a loaf of rye. Part of the incredibly diverse and flavorful parsley family, or Apiaceae, which also gives us anise, cumin, coriander, celery, fennel, dill, and carrots, caraway has often been confused with its cousins – especially fennel and cumin. In fact, around Europe many names for caraway mean something like “German cumin” or “wild cumin.” But though they look somewhat similar (caraway is much darker – a burnished, glossy brown like stained walnut), you’d never confuse them in a side-by-side taste test. In fact, stop by our store and try it!
Although no one member of the Apiaceae is a straight substitute for another, it can be illuminating to dial a recipe along a chain of family relationships; a bread or sausage recipe that calls for one will likely be wonderful – and wonderfully different – with another. Also, since so many members of the family have different useful parts, I find that caraway pairs beautifully with its cousins: roots like carrot, parsnip, and celeriac, braised celery stalks, and sautéed carrot greens. My recipe for Pork Stew with Caraway, Apple & Sweet Potato (below) makes use of a generous helping of celery for this reason.
Caraway really shines when it’s visiting another powerhouse food family. It’s association with members of the cabbage family (or Brassicaceae) is long-standing; it’s essential for sauerkraut and boiled cabbage, but try it with roasted cauliflower or Brussels sprouts; the caramelization of dry heat cooking really brings out the best in these much-maligned veggies, and caraway pushes them to hitherto unsuspected levels of deliciousness. Or top a turnip puree with some browned, crispy nuggets of slab bacon fried with a bit of whole caraway – winter won’t stand a chance.
As a final enticement (at least to an admitted spice geek like me), caraway’s essential flavor is tied up with a fascinating chemical mystery. The principle flavor compound in the spice is known as carvone (taking it’s name from the Latin for caraway, carum carvi), but carvone is what’s known as a chiral molecule, meaning it comes in both a right-handed or a left-handed form. This means that identical combinations of atoms with identical bonds come together in two mirror image arrangements. Through mechanisms still poorly understood, the caraway plant produces mostly the left-handed version of the molecule. Even more wonderfully, our tongues can instantly tell the difference between the two versions; right-handed carvone is the principal flavor in spearmint!
I’ll leave you with my favorite caraway recipe; one that really showcases how well it fits with other fall flavors.
Pork Stew with Caraway, Apple, and Sweet Potato
2 lbs pork shoulder, cut in ¾ inch cubes, trimmed of excess fat (reserve the fat)
2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
3 stalks celery, cut into ⅓ ince slices
3 Granny Smith apples, peeled and cubed
3 small onions, peeled and diced
¼ cup dark rye flour
3 tsp. caraway seeds, divided
½ tsp. ground caraway
2 tsp. french thyme
salt and pepper to taste
40 fluid ounces chicken stock or low sodium chicken broth
Dice the reserved fat and put it into a dutch oven with a sprinkle of salt and a little water. Render the fat over medium-low heat, stirring and adding a little water as necessary. You should be left with golden-brown, crunchy nuggets of crackling and some clear pork fat in the pan. Add one teaspoon of caraway seeds and toast until aromatic; then remove the cracklings and most of the caraway with a slotted spoon and set aside on a paper towel to drain.*
Mix the rye flour and ground caraway. Season the pork cubes with salt and pepper, then dredge them in the rye flour, shaking off any excess. Brown the pork in batches in the rendered fat, being careful not to crowd the pan (you don’t want to cook the pork, here, just sear the outside). If necessary, add a little oil to the pan as you go. Transfer the pork with your slotted spoon to a paper-towel lined plate.
Sweat the onions in the remaining fat with a little salt, being sure to scrape up any yummy brown bits clinging to the pan (the moisture released by the onions will help you do this). When onions have softened, add celery, the remaining caraway seeds, the browned pork, the thyme, and the stock or broth. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook for 25 minutes.
Add apple and sweet potato, then cook for 15-20 minutes more, stirring occasionally, until the pork is tender, the stew is thickened, and the sweet potatoes and apples are soft. Adjust salt and pepper, then ladle into bowls, topping each with a spoonful of the reserved cracklings and toasted caraway. Serve with hearty slices of (what else?) caraway rye.
* you can omit this step if you don’t have any reserved fat, would rather just use vegetable oil, or don’t like yummy, golden brown pork cracklings for some reason.