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Fenugreek: The forgotten spice. August 3, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. I’ve been a fan of fenugreek since grad school. It was during my pre-vegetarian days, I was getting my second Master’s degree, and I was in my first-ever apartment! True, I had no car and had to walk a mile to get groceries, but hey, I could finally cook exactly what I wanted to eat, not what some school cafeteria thought the student population in general wanted to eat.

Admittedly, what I wanted to eat wouldn’t have made it onto most health lists. I never ate (and never eat) breakfast; I’m just not hungry before 10 a.m., and discovered early on that if I ate breakfast, I ate exactly as much for lunch as if I didn’t eat breakfast. Why waste the calories?

But in those grad-school days, what I made myself for lunch, every single day, was a bacon and tomato sandwich. In my part of the South, you wouldn’t dream of adding lettuce to dilute a bacon and tomato sandwich. It had to be made just so: with two slices of white “balloon bread,” lots of Hellman’s mayonnaise, juicy slabs of tomato, tons of salt (and pepper, if desired), and plenty of rich, crispy, crackly bacon. At my parents’, I’d put four slices of bacon on my sandwich; in my apartment, I piled on eight. Yum!!!

That was all I’d eat ’til supper, when I’d bake a skin-on chicken breast with daubs of butter and an herb or spice. Rosemary was a favorite; so were fennel seeds. And so were fenugreek seeds. After an hour at 350 degrees, the chicken was thoroughly cooked, infused with butter and flavor thanks to the herb or spice of the evening, with a luscious, crackly skin. I’d eat my chicken breast with a salad and vegetable, maybe green beans or a baked potato or baked sweet potato or carrots. Simple but so good!

Such was the life of the grad student. After grad school, I became a devout vegetarian, but never lost my taste for fenugreek seeds, which smell and taste of rich caramel with a touch of celery and perhaps just a hint of licorice. (I’ve always loved caramel.) For me, sauteing the whole fenugreek seeds in oil to bring out their rich flavor, or baking them in butter as with the chicken breasts, is the ideal way to cook them. But you can also use ground fenugreek seeds if you’re the type who prefers ground cumin to whole cumin seeds, for example, or mustard powder to whole mustardseeds. It’s really a texture thing.

Whichever you prefer, try fenugreek with curried or roasted carrots, on roasted sweet potatoes, over roasted cauliflower. It’s a great addition to any curry, or sauteed mushroom dish, or simply swirled into hot basmati rice with butter and salt (we like RealSalt) or Trocomare (hot herbed salt). (Try this with plain Greek yogurt for a simple, soul-satisfying meal, or add dal and chutney, and maybe those curried carrots, for a real Indian feast.)

But fond as I’ve been of fenugreek seeds all these years as a mild, caramelizing, warming spice, it never occurred to me that the leaves were also edible. Not until I saw them, conveniently frozen and cubed, in a local Indian grocery. Called methi, the fenugreek leaves are traditionally added to the greens-and-cubed-cheese dishes, saag paneer and palaak paneer. (Paneer is a mild Indian block cheese, sort of like fresh mozzarella or extra-firm tofu or farmer’s cheese, that is cut into cubes for these dishes.) The methi adds the perfect touches of bitterness and flavor to the normally mild greens, like spinach, that form the basis of these dishes.

Having recently encountered a recipe for saag paneer that called for spinach and methi leaves, I eagerly purchased a bag of frozen methi cubes and got to work. I loved that you could just shake out the cubes you needed and reseal the rest. And I loved the flavor and depth they added to my saag paneer, a favorite dish that I love over rice or as part of a real Indian meal. To think that fenugreek would enter my culinary life twice! I urge you to try both seeds and leaves and see what you think. They could become your secret kitchen weapons!

‘Til next time,

Silence

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