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Holding all the cardamoms: A spice whose time has come

Here is the wildest, craziest, most mind-blowing fact about cardamom: Not only is it a spice that is used in both savory and sweet dishes, it is an important ingredient in the cuisines of India, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Scandinavia.

If geography is not your strongest suit, what makes the fact so bizarre is these areas are nowhere near one another.

It is more than 4,000 miles from India to Norway. It is more than 5,300 miles from Vietnam to Sweden. Jordan is more than 2,500 miles from India and is 2,200 miles from Sweden.

In other words, cardamom has leapfrogged around the world, dropping little bombs of intense and aromatic seasoning wherever it goes. It is not used much in American kitchens, but given the fact that it plays equally well with side dishes, main courses and dessert, perhaps its time has come.

Cardamom is a little bit sharp, a little bit sweet and a little bit rock 'n' roll. A couple of seeds on your tongue can be marvelously refreshing. It is sometimes used to flavor tea, such as chai. And rice pudding simply wouldn't be rice pudding without it.

For my exploration of cardamom, I tried some dishes that highlight the various aspects of the spice.

One of my favorite methods of cooking chicken is to marinate it in yogurt with spices and then grill it — or saute it or bake it. The yogurt makes the meat tender and juicy, and it also tempers the spices. You can get a lot of flavor this way without overpowering the meat.

I decided to try it with cardamom, also adding allspice and nutmeg.

Vaguely similar in taste, but also decidedly different with unique flavors of their own, the three spices blended in a way that was, as I'd hoped, complementary.

Grilling the meat over indirect heat would be ideal, lending the meat an additional smoky taste to play off the other flavors, but I decided to do the next best thing. I seared it skin-side down on a cast-iron grill pan, flipped it over, then put the pan into a 400-degree oven. If you don't have a grill pan, you can do the same thing with any oven-safe skillet.

I cooked it that way, too, which was equally delicious. But you have to watch it while searing, because the yogurt has a tendency to char.

Because cardamom goes so well with basmati rice, I decided to make two dishes that use it — one of them as the feature, the other as a backdrop.

The Indian classic Chana Masala is vegan — if you are interested in such things — and it is easy and imply wonderful. For that matter, it is also wonderfully simple.

Chana Masala is a dish of chickpeas simmered in chopped tomatoes and a lot of spices. The version I made, which comes from the food editor of Bon Appetit, uses only a handful of spices. So technically it is less of a masala — a mixture of spices — than it might usually be, but it is excellent nevertheless.

Simply saute onion with cardamom, garlic, ginger and curry powder. When the onion is soft, add chickpeas and tomatoes, and simmer until you can't stand to wait any longer. Then serve over basmati rice and garnish with cilantro.

Because cardamom is so good in baked goods, I also decided to double up on desserts.

Cardamom and pears go together like peanut butter and jelly, like bagels and lox. But I did not want to go the traditional route of poaching a pear in wine and cardamom, I was looking for something a little out of the ordinary.

What I found was extraordinary indeed: Pear and Cardamom Upside-Down Cake. The cake itself is spectacular; with a small amount of cardamom in it, it is one of those batters you won't be able to stop eating even while it is raw. But the piece de resistance is what goes on top, or rather, on the bottom while you are cooking it.

First, you make a simple caramel of butter and brown sugar. This you pour into a well-buttered cake pan (it is very important to butter it well, to keep the caramel from sticking). They you lay slices of pear, preferably Anjou, in an overlapping pattern on top of it. What is left of the batter that you haven't eaten goes on top of that, and the whole thing is cooked and then turned upside for your dining pleasure.

The other dessert would be great for the holidays, but that does not lessen how good it is right now, too. As the name indicates, Chewy Molasses Cookies are chewy and rich with the flavor of molasses.

But what makes them really stand out are the spices: cinnamon, ginger and, of course, cardamom. They really make the cookies pop.

They are absolutely addictive. Cardamom will do that to you.

Chana Maasla

Makes 4 servings


1 onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, sliced

2 tablespoons chopped ginger

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 cardamom pods

1 teaspoon curry powder

1 (28-ounce) can peeled whole tomatoes

1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, rinsed

Salt and pepper

Basmati rice, for serving

Chopped fresh cilantro, for serving

Cook onion, garlic and ginger in oil with cardamom and curry powder until onion is soft, 8 to 10 minutes. Add tomatoes with their juices and chickpeas and simmer until soft, 25 to 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with rice and cilantro.

Per serving: 265 calories; 10g fat; 1.5g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 10g protein; 36g carbohydrate; 6g sugar; 4g fiber; 525mg sodium; 90mg calcium.

Recipe from Bon Appetmt

Yogurt Spiced Chicken

Makes 4 servings


1 whole chicken, cut up, or 3 to 4 pounds of chicken pieces

1 cup plain yogurt

1/2 teaspoon allspice

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg (freshly ground is best)

1/4 teaspoon cardamom

Salt and pepper

Rinse chicken and pat dry.

In a large bowl, combine yogurt, allspice, nutmeg and cardamom. Add chicken pieces and mix until chicken is thoroughly coated. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Arrange grill for indirect heat or preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Knock or brush off as much yogurt marinade as you can. Liberally sprinkle both sides of the chicken with salt and pepper.

If using grill, place chicken skin-side-down on the grate away from the coals or flames, and close the lid. Cook white meat 25 to 30 minutes, turning once. Cook dark meat 45 to 55 minutes, turning once.

If using oven, heat a grill pan or heavy, oven-proof skillet very hot on the stove. Spray with nonstick spray (or add a little oil), then place chicken skin-side-down on the pan. Cook until seared and brown, but do not let it burn, about 2 to 3 minutes. Flip chicken and place pan in oven. Cook white meat 25 minutes or until done; cook dark meat 45 minutes or until done.

Per serving: 390 calories; 22 g fat; 6 g saturated fat; 145 mg cholesterol; 45 g protein; no carbohydrate; no sugar; no fiber; 135 mg sodium; 30 mg calcium.

Recipe by Daniel Neman

Pear and Cardamom Upside-down Cake

Makes 8 servings


11/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon cardamom, see note

3/4 cup (11/2 sticks) butter, room temperature, divided

3/4 cup packed golden brown sugar

2 firm, ripe pears, preferably Anjou

1 tablespoon lemon juice

3/4 cup granulated sugar

2 eggs, room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup milk, room temperature

Note: For better flavor, use freshly ground cardamom (from about 6 to 8 pods).

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter a 9-inch round cake pan.

Sift the flour, salt and baking powder together. Stir in the cardamom and set aside.

Melt 1/4 cup butter (1/2 stick) in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the brown sugar and stir for 2 to 3 minutes, until the sugar has melted and combined with the butter. Pour the mixture into the prepared cake pan, spreading it to reach the sides.

4. Peel the pears, cut in half and remove the core and stem. Cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Arrange the pear slices in a slightly overlapping circle around the cake pan, starting at the outer rim. Finish with several slices in the center. Sprinkle the pears with the lemon juice. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside.

5. Beat the remaining 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter in the bowl of an electric mixer until soft and fluffy. Add the sugar and beat until smooth. Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition. Beat in the vanilla, scraping down the sides of the bowl when needed. Add 1/3 of the flour mixture, 1/2 of the milk, another 1/3 of the flour, the rest of the milk, and the rest of the flour mixture, beating after each addition just until combined.

6. Gently spoon the cake batter on top of the pears, smoothing out to the edge of the pan and making sure the cake batter fills in around the pears.

7. Bake until the top is a deep golden brown and a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Place the cake on a rack to cool for 5 minutes in the pan.

8. Run a small spatula or knife around the edge of the pan and invert onto a cake plate, leaving the pan on the cake for 10 minutes. Carefully remove the pan. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Per serving: 445 calories; 19 g fat; 12 g saturated fat; 95 mg cholesterol; 5 g protein; 65 g carbohydrate; 44 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 245 mg sodium; 80 mg calcium.

Recipe from the Los Angeles Times.