Tag Archive: Holiday

  1. Holiday Spices: Origins and Use

     

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    Ginger root offers one of the most classic holiday flavors. (image by Anna Frodesiak)

    Chilly winter holidays call for warm spices, especially spice rack all-stars like cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and ginger. Over the centuries these kitchen staples have inspired their share of drama–sparking wars, financial speculation and great journeys of exploration. That’s a lot to contemplate as you stir up a batch of holiday gingerbread.

    Mostly though, holiday spices conjure memories of delicious tastes and aromas. A few of us get our holiday spices from specialty vendors, but the majority of us buy them in jars from the grocery store. Those spice jars may be small, but when you open them, the aromas and tastes will transport you to kitchens in every era and all parts of the world.

    Scrumptious Cinnamon

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    Most don’t know that cinnamon stick is the inner bark of a tree. (image by Bertrand Thiry)

    Sweet, richly flavored cinnamon comes from the inner bark of several trees in the Cinnamomum genus. Arguably, the best cinnamon is Cinnamomum verum, native to Sri Lanka, and sometimes labeled as “Ceylon” cinnamon. Supermarket cinnamon is derived from the more assertively flavored bark of the related cassia cinnamon tree.

    Prized from ancient times, cinnamon is sold either in sticks (called “quills”) or ground form. It is an integral part of the spice mixtures sold as “apple pie spice” and “pumpkin pie spice”. Cinnamon loves company, especially fruits of many kinds, not to mention chocolate and coffee. It has been used in just about every kind of pastry, sweet bread and dessert—from comforting cinnamon rolls to rice pudding—as well as in savory dishes like tagines and biryanis.

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    Gingerbread tastes like the holidays. (image by Jessie Keith)

    Ginger’s Bite

    Ginger or ginger root, with its sweet/sharp flavor, comes from the rhizome of a tropical plant, Zingiber officinale, native to Southeast Asia. It can be used in many forms—fresh, dried, candied and crystallized. Everyone is familiar with its holiday star turn in gingersnaps and gingerbread, but it is also integral to German pfeffernüsse cookies. Crystalized ginger makes a great after-dinner sweet after heavy holiday meals. With its heat and sparkle, ginger works well with apples, pears, plums and pumpkin.

    If you live in a frost-free climate or have warm indoor space, you might want to try growing ginger at home. Start with a plump, fresh grocery store ginger root. If you grow your ginger in a container, fill it with a rich, high quality potting mix like Fafard® Professional Potting Mix with Resilience™. Soak the rhizome for a few hours, then plant, barely covering it with potting mix. Place in a sunny spot indoors or light shade outdoors, water regularly, and the ginger will eventually develop long, strap-like leaves. In about eight months you can harvest bits of the root, but it will take a year or two for the plant to sprout tall spikes of colorful flowers. In cold weather climates, bring ginger plants indoors before the first frosts and mist regularly to compensate for dry winter air.

    Holiday Plate

    Eggnog, gingerbread, and other holiday treats get their great flavor from holiday spices.

    Comforting Nutmeg

    The word “nutmeg” inspires visions of eggnog, custards and fruit pies, but its range is actually much wider. Familiar in whole and ground form, aromatic nutmeg is the seed of a tree, Myristica fragrans, native to the Banda Islands of present-day Indonesia. Nutmeg is inextricably linked to another spice, mace, which is made from the lacy red covering of the nutmeg seed. Dairy products get along famously with nutmeg in sweet or savory dishes. Cooking guru Julia Child used it liberally in her classic recipe for spinach quiche and also added a grating of fresh nutmeg to traditional béchamel sauce. On the sweet side, nutmeg is lovely in fruitcakes, bread pudding, quick breads and just about anything made with pumpkin, squash or sweet potatoes.

    Pomanders make great natural gifts. (image by Wendy Piersall)

    Pomanders make great natural gifts. (image by Wendy Piersall)

    Piquant Cloves

    Like nutmeg, cloves are produced by a tree native to the Indonesian island group once known as the “Spice Islands”. The cloves that we make into pomanders or insert in the rind of baked ham are actually dried, unopened flower buds harvested from an evergreen tree, Syzygium aromaticum. Cloves share membership in the myrtle family with allspice, a frequent traveling companion in holiday recipes. Like ginger, cloves have a sharpness and piquancy that is a particularly good complement to rich, unctuous flavors, like beef or pork. They are also a stock ingredient in spice blends for mulling cider or wine. Pear and plum dishes benefit from a hint of clove, while spice and fruit cakes would lack depth without them. Use cloves—whole or ground–carefully, the little buds pack a flavor wallop.

    Fresh spices taste best when ground or grated just before use. Store them in sealed containers away from direct sunlight. Ground spices lose flavor fairly rapidly, so use them up, lest they remain to haunt the cupboard like the ghosts of holidays past.

  2. All About Amaryllis

    The bright, bold blooms of Amaryllis add to the holiday festivities. (photo by Maureen Gilmer)

    The bright, bold blooms of Amaryllis add to the holiday festivities. (photo by Maureen Gilmer)

    Amaryllis are emblems of the winter holiday season, their bold, flamboyant flowers decorating everything from greeting cards to wrapping paper to the holiday table itself. Known botanically as Hippeastrum, they trace their origin to a number of Hippeastrum species that inhabit the anything-but-wintry forests and slopes of tropical South America. Plant hybridizers have interbred these species over the past 250 years, ultimately producing the showy-flowered, large-bulbed amaryllis hybrids that populate garden centers and bulb catalogs in fall.

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    Amaryllis, and other bulbs for forcing, can be found pre-forced or boxed for winter forcing.

    Purchased amaryllis bulbs put on a lavish display with ridiculous ease. Most come from overseas growers, who have conditioned the bulbs to provide immediate gratification upon planting. Take an amaryllis bulb, half-bury it in a free-draining potting mix (such as Fafard® Natural & Organic Potting Soil with Resilience™), add water, and – voila – it happens. Plump, spear-shaped buds arise on thick fleshy stems, achieving spectacular full bloom within a few weeks after planting.

    Many amaryllis are sold pre-installed in a plastic pot. More satisfactory, however, is a deep clay pot, which provides ballast to counterbalance the weight of the huge blooms. Plant the bulb with its top half exposed, to give the roots maximum growing space. Bright light and relatively cool temperatures (60 to 65 degrees F) result in stockier growth, which also discourages toppling. An east-facing windowsill is ideal.

    Bringing a purchased amaryllis to bloom is a cinch. Coaxing it to repeat the performance is a trickier proposition. To rebloom, the bulb needs a period of dry rest, approximating what its ancestors experience in the wild. In their native habitats in eastern Brazil and in the foothills of the Andes, most Hippeastrum species produce flowers and foliage during the spring and summer rainy season, becoming quiescent when the weather turns drier in fall and winter. Amaryllis hybrids in cultivation require a similar wet/dry treatment. Regular watering and feeding after bloom, followed by withdrawal of water in summer, will typically trigger a new round of flowering when watering is gradually resumed in late fall. Many amaryllis fanciers move their plants to a partly shaded outdoor location after the last frost date, bringing them back inside for their dry rest period. Plants generally do best if left in their containers and repotted only when absolutely necessary (once every 4 or 5 years should do).

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    Amaryllis ‘Dancing Queen’ is a pretty double form. (photo by Pam Beck)

    Hybrid amaryllis bloom in a variety of colors, sizes, and shapes. Best known are the large-flowered Dutch hybrids, with immense, wide-flaring, six-petaled blooms that owe much of their form and coloration to the red-flowered Bolivian native Hippeastrum leopoldii. Old-time favorites from this group include ‘Red Lion’ (introduced in 1958), pink-striped ‘Apple Blossom’ (1954), and white, crimson-edged ‘Picotee’ (1958). More recent introductions – such as velvety burgundy-maroon ‘Red Pearl’ and tangerine ‘Naranja’ – are gradually supplanting some of the old standbys. Also relatively new to the scene are a race of Dutch Hybrids that bloom in 4 to 6 weeks from planting, rather than the typical 8 to 10. These “Christmas-Flowering” amaryllis come in the customary range of whites, pinks, and reds.

    Other hybrid groups include double-flowered Dutch Hybrids (such as purple-red-striped ‘Double Record’ and pure white ‘Ice Queen’) and miniature amaryllis. The latter have the appearance of scaled-down Dutch Hybrids, bearing 3- to 4-inch (rather than 8- to 10-inch) blooms on somewhat shorter stems (10 to 16 rather than 18 to 24 inches).

    Hippeastrum aficionados have many more groups of hybrids to explore, as well as the species themselves. Selections and hybrids of the butterfly amaryllis, Hippeastrum papilio, offer several takes on its curious green and maroon, asymmetrical flowers (look for ‘Grafitti’ and ‘Papilio Improved’). Hippeastrum cybister has lent its narrow-petaled, spidery form to a growing number of hybrids including ‘Chico, ‘La Paz’, and ‘Emerald’. And trumpet-flowered amaryllis such as raspberry-striped ‘Santiago’ and candy-pink ‘Estella’ – with elongated, funnel-shaped blooms – are becoming increasingly available from bulb sellers.

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    Amaryllis bulbs at different stages of forcing. (photo by Maureen Gilmer)

    Gardeners in USDA zones 7 and warmer can even try amaryllis in the garden. Hardiest of all is St. Joseph’s lily, Hippeastrum x johnsonii, whose trumpet-shaped, crimson, white-starred flowers (on 2-foot stems) have ornamented Southeast U.S. gardens since the mid-nineteenth century. So, too, have the dazzling crimson blooms of oxblood lily, Rhodophiala bifida, which look for all the world like a dwarf amaryllis (indeed, the species was formerly included among the Hippeastrum). Both make wonderful subjects for gardens from the Mid-Atlantic southward, the trumpets of oxblood lily providing a late-summer echo of St. Joseph’s lily’s spring display. Dutch Hybrids (and many other Hippeastrum hybrids and species) are candidates for gardens in the lower South, where they’ll winter over with minimal protection.

    Whatever their season or place of bloom, few bulbs bring greater cheer than the members of the Hippeastrum tribe.

  3. Holiday Cooking with Fresh Ginger

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    Fresh ginger makes gingerbread cookies taste even better!

    Whether you cook something sweet or savory, fresh ginger (Zingiber officinale) has a traditional place at the holiday table. Its bright, spicy flavor adds something special to cookies, cakes, and festive starters that will encourage family and friends to keep coming back for more. The key is choosing the freshest roots from the store or (even better) your own potted ginger plant.

    Ginger is wonderfully easy to grow as a potted houseplant, if kept in a sunny window. Just provide it with a well-drained pot of fertile Fafard Professional Potting Mix, water moderately, feed monthly with an all-purpose water soluble fertilizer and you’ll be set. If planting ginger root for the first time, be sure to plant it with its horn-like buds facing upwards and sink it 1-2” below the soil’s surface. Store-bought roots will work very well or you can purchase plants from retail greenhouses like Logee’s. One choice cultivated variety is the Javanese ‘Sunthi’, which has smaller, more pungent roots, but it is hard to find in commerce.

    Starting with the good stuff always makes recipes taste better, so be sure to go for the firmest, nicest ginger roots for your holiday cooking. Here are several fresh ginger recipes that will make the best use of them:

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    Tart lemon glaze makes this moist, seasonal cake taste extra good.

    Fresh Ginger Cake with Lemon Glaze                

    This oil-based cake is very flavorful and moist. The addition of tart lemon glaze makes it even more decadent. Begin by buttering and flouring a bread pan and heating the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. All wet ingredients should be at room temperature.

    Wet Ingredients
    2 large eggs (room temperature)
    ¾ cup vegetable oil
    ¾ cup hot water
    ¾ cup granulated sugar

    Dry Ingredients
    2 cups cake flour
    ¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon
    ½ teaspoon ground cloves
    ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
    ½ teaspoon Kosher salt
    1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
    ½ cup packed, macerated fresh ginger
    1 tablespoon lemon zest

    Glaze
    ¼ cup fresh lemon juice
    1 teaspoon lemon zest
    ½ cup powdered sugar

    Directions

    Combine all of the dry ingredients (except the sugar) in a sieve over a large mixing bowl and sift the ingredients. Next, add all the wet ingredients, except the ginger, lemon zest, and eggs, to another large mixing bowl and whisk until smooth and light.

    Combine the molasses mixture to the dry ingredients and fold in the ginger and eggs, using a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, until fully combined. Then transfer the batter to the baking pan. The cake should be baked for around 45 minutes.

    Test the cake with a bamboo skewer and make sure it comes up clean before removing the cake. Before the cake cools, whisk the glaze ingredients together, skewer holes across the top of the cake and pour the glaze over the top—allowing it to sink into the cake and harden. Once cool, take a knife along the cake edges and remove the cake from the pan.

    Gingerbread with Fresh Orange Zest

    This fresh gingerbread tastes extra good with the addition of orange zest.

    Crisp gingerbread ready for decorating!

    For years I sought out the best gingerbread recipe and finally settled on a conglomerate of recipes gathered from a variety of places.

    Wet Ingredients
    ¾ cup salted butter
    ¾ cup sugar
    ¾ cup dark molasses (not black strap!)
    ¼ cup warm water
    1 tablespoon fresh crushed ginger
    1 tablespoon fresh orange zest

    Dry Ingredients
    ½ teaspoon baking soda
    1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
    ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
    ¼ teaspoon cloves
    ¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
    A healthy pinch of salt
    3 ¼ cups sifted flour

    Directions
    Cream butter and sugar until fluffy then mix in the molasses and water. Sift the dry ingredients then add them to the wet until fully combined (be sure not to over mix).

    Flour your hands and pull the dough together into a flattened ball and chill for at least 12 hours. Before you roll the cookies, preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Flour up a board and pin and cut your dough in two. Roll out the dough to around 1/4 inch thickness. Be sure to keep the board and pin floured to stop the dough from sticking.

    Cut out your shapes and reroll any excess dough, though try not to overwork it as this results in tough cookies. Place the rolled cookies onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper and bake for eight to ten minutes, depending on how large or thick your cookies are. The less baked, the chewier the cookie. Allow the cookies to cool before decorating. Royal icing is the best for decorating and gel food coloring provides the deepest colors.

    Roasted Eggplant Dip with Ginger

    This yummy fresh eggplant dip is a little smoky and a little spicy.This creamy, nutty, gingery eggplant dip tastes great with pita, crackers, and fresh vegetable crudités.

    Ingredients

    1 large, fresh Italian eggplant
    3 tablespoons almond butter
    1 tablespoon full fat Greek yogurt
    4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
    2 tablespoons macerated ginger
    1 clove finely minced garlic
    1 teaspoon ground coriander
    1 teaspoon ground cumin
    1 teaspoon ground fennel seed
    1 teaspoon paprika
    1 tablespoon flatleaf Italian parsley
    Salt and pepper to taste

    Directions

    Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Remove the top of the eggplant, cut it in half and place it flat side down on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Roast it until it is completely soft. This should take around 45 minutes. Once cooked, allow the eggplant to cool. Scoop out the soft eggplant and add it to a food processor. Briefly heat the coriander, cumin, and fennel seed in a heated pan with two teaspoons of olive oil—a minute or two should be enough. Add all of the ingredients to the food processor and pulse the dip until smooth—adding salt and pepper to taste.

    This dip tastes best if the flavors are allowed to marry for sein the refrigerator. Bring it to room temperature before serving.

  4. Enjoying and Growing Pecans

    Pecan fruits in their natural form. (photo by Roger Culos)

    Pecan fruits in their natural form. (photo by Roger Culos)

    In many American households, Thanksgiving just wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without pecans. Whether in the shell, or roasted, or lacing the syrupy matrix of that Southern staple, pecan pie, this most American of nuts is a near-must for the holiday table.

    The story of pecan’s journey to the Thanksgiving table begins, fittingly, in the forests of North America. Native from the central Midwest to northeastern Mexico, Carya illinoinensis (as pecan is botanically known) is a towering presence in rich lowland forests throughout its range, growing to a lordly 180 feet tall (and supported by a massive trunk that can reach 7 feet in diameter). American Indians prized and often planted the nuts, thereby increasing the species’ abundance and distribution. European settlers followed suit, cultivating Carya illinoinensis not only for food but also for furniture, tools, and firewood. Pecan-growing went commercial in the nineteenth century after farmers learned to propagate superior varieties from cuttings (rather than growing random plants from seed, as formerly). Today, United States nut-growers from the Southeast to southern California harvest and sell hundreds of millions of pounds of pecans annually, supplying some 80 percent of the world’s crop (with Georgia, Texas, and New Mexico leading the way).

    Pecan pie is an expected seasonal treat at the Thanksgiving dessert table.

    Pecan pie is an expected seasonal treat at the Thanksgiving dessert table. (image by Joe Hakim)

    Not all of this pecan poundage is the same, however. Scores of pecan varieties have entered cultivation since the mid-nineteenth century, each differing in various important characteristics such as nut quality, hardiness, climatological preferences, disease and pest resistance, and precocity (i.e., bearing age). Moreover, recommended cultivars for commercial and home use vary markedly from one region to another (most agricultural extension services provide lists of the best cultivars for their respective states).

    Southeast gardeners who would like to experience the thrill of growing their own pecans might want to try:

    ‘Elliott’, noted for its exceptionally flavorful, relatively small pecans, borne on disease-resistant plants.
    ‘Gloria Grande’, which bears annual (rather than alternate-year) crops of large, thick-shelled nuts.
    ‘McMillan’, a disease-resistant, precocious, prolific bearer of medium-sized nuts.

    Natural and OrganicVarieties for Southwest and southern California gardens include:

    ‘Apache’, whose large, thin-shelled nuts are reliably produced each year.
    ‘Western’ (‘Western Schley’), widely grown for its sweet-fleshed, prolific pecans.
    ‘Wichita’, an alternate-year bearer of tasty, medium-sized nuts.

    Whatever the region or cultivar, pecans require ample space, hot summers, and USDA Zone 5b or warmer winters, and grow best in fertile, well-drained, humus-rich soil (sandy or heavy soils can be amended with a rich compost such as Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost Blend). Pecan flowers ripen most of their pollen before or after they’re ready to receive it; consequently, for maximum production plant at least two cultivars with different pollen seasons. Most cultivars begin bearing within several years of planting, their green-husked fruits splitting to disgorge the brown-shelled, sweet-fleshed prizes within.

    Pecan aficionados who can’t grow their own – but would like a sampling of named varieties (rather than the anonymous, uniform offerings of their local grocery store) – can shop at mail-order retailers such as Bass Pecan Company and Georgia Pecan Farms. In pecan-growing regions, a few commercial orchards still operate retail stands, where shoppers can browse through piles of freshly harvested pecans in search of the perfect variety for their holiday pies. For cooks who take their Thanksgiving pecans seriously, nothing could be closer to culinary bliss.

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    Pecan trees are tough, beautiful, and produce lots of pecans once mature. (image by Bruce Marlin)