If ever asked, I would be really hard pressed to name my favorite spice (as The Mistress of Spices, I naturally love them all!). Without a doubt though, cardamom would be somewhere near the top of my list. This aromatic spice is found in the form of green, brown or black pods which when split open, reveal little clusters of tiny black seeds on the inside. The whole pods are commonly used in rice and meat dishes, as well as coffees and teas, in Indian, Persian and Middle Eastern cuisines, while the little black seeds, finely ground into a powder, are a key ingredient in many desserts and sweets from that part of the world.
Having grown up in an Indian family, I can't imagine my mom making rice dishes such as peanut pulao or mint and carrot biryani without first sauteeing cardamom pods, cloves and cinnamom sticks in hot oil. Cardamom is also a feature of all her best desserts, such as creamy rice pudding (kheer in Hindi, payasam in Tamil) or the Indian cashew or coconut "fudge" known as burfi. Sulty afternoons during visits to India wouldn't be complete without a siesta OR a good cup of masala tea (chai), richly flavored with cardamom, ginger and cloves. Cardamom also shows up in the spice mixture known as garam masala that is used by Indian cooks, in which it is a key element.
When I visited the "spice island" of Zanzibar in the middle of the Indian Ocean a few years ago, I was delighted to see cardamom growing in the wild. On a "spice tour" of the island, our guide Omar showed us that the cardamom plant (the most common form of which is known in Latin as elettaria cardamomum) has leafy shoots rising from a thick creeping stem. Flowers grow on short spikes issuing directly from the stems. These flowers produce the angular little fruits which bear the dark, richly aromatic cardamom pods. The pods are collected green (usually three years after initial planting) and then sun-dried. Omar explained that cardamom originates in Sri Lanka and South India but that it is now widely cultivated in many other places as well. It is considered to be one of the most anicent and valued spices, coming in as the third most costly after saffron and vanilla!
Like most spices, cardamom is said to have many medicinal properties. The green variety, in particular, has been used in South Asia to treat teeth and gum infections, to prevent and treat throat problems, congestion of the lungs and pulmonary tuberculosis, as well as inflammation of eyelids and digestive disorders. Cardamom is also said to have been used to break up kidney and gall stones and even as an antidote for snake and scorpion venom. Wow!!!
Though I wasn't thinking about all of that history and science at the time, cardamom found its way into a panna cotta that I made recently. My first experience with this creamy Italian dessert was several years ago at a fundraising event in Washington DC organized by Share our Strength, a great organization which works to combat child hunger in the U.S. I've since enjoyed panna cotta on trips to different trips to Italy and have always told myself that I would try my hand at making it one of these days. When I found this recipe for Vanilla Panna Cotta by Michael Symon for Food Network Magazine, I decided to give it a try and give it an Indian spin, substituting a teaspoon of freshly ground cardamom powder for the vanilla bean called for in the recipe. With a couple of other tweaks, this panna cotta had a perfect combination of creamy texture and a pop of warm Indian flavor from the cardamom. Served with some fresh, ripe mango, it makes for a luscious and very rich dessert!
CARDAMOM PANNA COTTA (adapted from Michael Symon for Food Network Magazine)
2 cups heavy cream (crème entière in France)
1 teaspoon of freshly ground cardamom (see step 1 below)
1/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin
1/2 cup reduced-fat milk
1/2 cup Greek or Bulgarian yogurt
Sliced or diced fresh mango
1. Use a handful of black cardamom seeds which have been removed from their pods. Place in a coffee grinder and grind to a smooth powder. Set aside 1 teaspoon, reserving the excess in an airtight container for another use. You can use store-bought powdered cardamom as well, but I highly recommend grinding your own for the best results.
2. Place the cream in a saucepan. Add the freshly ground cardamom and sugar and bring to a simmer over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally.
3. Sprinkle the gelatin over the milk in a bowl and let stand until the gelatin softens, about 7-8 minutes. Stir the gelatin mixture into the hot cream mixture until dissolved, then stir in the yogurt. Divide among four custard cups or ramekins, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until set, preferably overnight.
4. Dip each custard cup or ramekin three-quarters of the way in warm water and then invert onto a nice serving plate, running a knife around the edges to loosen if need be. Serve with sliced or chopped fresh mango.