Category Archives: Tips & Tutorials

Za’atar Spiced Fried Okra

Okra is a polarizing vegetable. Blame it on the slime.

Okra (which likely originated in Africa) contains mucilage, a sticky substance that turns to slime when okra is stewed or boiled.

Gumbo wouldn’t be gumbo without the thickening properties (and flavor) of okra and filé powder (the ground root of sassafras).

And while I love gumbo as much as the next person, I really can’t sink my teeth into a plate of stewed okra.

But fried okra? Now that’s a different story. Somehow, frying okra removes the slimy goo, or at least puts it in the background — where it belongs.

What remains is the green taste of the okra, delivered with a delicious crunch.

Why am I writing about how to fry okra?

Because it’s so easy: slice, toss, fry.

And because I can’t get past the slimy texture otherwise, and this okra from Seacat Gardens looked too fresh to pass up.

Seeing how I never leave well enough alone, I rummaged through the pantry looking for something to jazz up the okra.

I came across a za’atar spice blend I bought from Flavorbank, a spice company based in Tucson, Arizona. It’s used in both North African and Middle Eastern cuisine.

Za’atar is a mixture of dried thyme, oregano, sumac, and sesame seeds, and has a green, earthy flavor, along with a citrus note from the sumac — perfect to enhance the green taste of okra.

A pinch or two of cayenne is there just to liven things up.

Because of the sticky nature of okra when sliced, it doesn’t need a batter, although if you’re so inclined, you could dunk the sliced okra in mixture of egg beaten with a splash of milk before tossing in the spiced cornmeal.

The batter would even further disguise the grassy taste of the okra, but I like that herbal taste.

Fry the okra in peanut oil for even more flavor. The oil must be hot before you add the okra, or the okra will just absorb the oil and taste greasy.

Once the oil is hot, it only takes about 5 minutes before the okra turns golden brown. Like more crunch? Let it go for a minute or two longer before removing to drain on paper towels.

And there you have it: how to fry okra.

Slice… toss…  fry…

Okra doesn’t have to be polarizing — it just has to be fried.

Za’atar Spiced Fried Okra

(printable recipe)

Serves 6

1-1/2 pounds okra
1 cup yellow cornmeal
2 tablespoons za’atar spice blend*
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Peanut (or vegetable) oil for frying

1. Wash and pat dry okra pods. Slice crosswise into 1/4-inch rounds. Set aside.

2. Toss cornmeal with the za’atar, salt, cayenne and black pepper in a medium bowl.

3. Toss the okra in the cornmeal mixture until every slice is coated.

4. Heat enough oil to come up about 1/4-inch in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil is shimmering (but not smoking), it’s ready.

5. Shake off excess cornmeal from okra before frying.

6. Fry okra in batches, careful to not overcrowd the pan. Fry until golden brown, about 5 to 7 minutes. Don’t stir the first few minutes, but once the okra starts to brown, stir to promote even browning.

7. Remove from oil with a slotted spoon and place on paper towels to drain.

*za’atar is a blend of dried thyme, dried oregano, sumac and sesame seeds. If you do not have za’atar, you could substitute an equal amount of another herb blend, such as Italian herbs or herbs de Provence.


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Redux – Fire Roasted Tomatoes

It’s not tomato season for much of the country but here in Arizona, several farmers are already bringing their tomatoes to the farmers markets.

Here’s a previous post I wrote on how to fire-roast tomatoes and how to use them.

Time to fire up the grill.

Leave a comment

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Elizabeth’s Nuts

Some friends and I recently dropped by Elizabeth’s house and as we caught up on who was doing what in the Valley, I nibbled on a bowl of nuts on the counter in her earth-friendly “green” kitchen.

As my second handful of nuts went down, I stopped talking — because something extraordinary was going on in my mouth. Flavors were swirling and I was distracted by the song and dance flitting across my tongue.

You may be wondering who Elizabeth is.

She founded The Scottsdale Culinary Institute in 1989 (and sold it nine years later). I count my lucky stars to have attended the school when it was still under Elizabeth’s watchful eye, with small class sizes and dedicated chef-instructors.

Elizabeth thinks of all SCI graduates as her “kids” even though some of those “kids” weren’t technically kids when they attended her school.

“What did you put in these nuts?” I asked.

“Oh, they’re so easy it’s silly,” she said and waved me off. I begged her to share the flavors because I couldn’t stop eating them.

“Just some brown sugar, red pepper flakes, salt and whatever herbs and spices you feel like,” she said. “And an egg white. That’s it.”

Elizabeth’s herb and spice combination was coriander, fennel and fresh rosemary. I didn’t have fresh rosemary handy, so I substituted the mandarin orange dust I wrote about here.

You can use any herbs or spices you feel like, just keep the brown sugar, red pepper flakes and salt constant.

The amazing thing about these almonds is that there is no added fat. None. Zippo.

So the only fat is what’s in the nuts. One ounce of almonds contains…oh, never mind. It sounds like a really big number for two tablespoons of nuts.

Just know that it’s much, much less than the same amount of macadamia nuts and nut fats are among the healthiest fats. If you must know, go here.

An egg white whisked with the spices is all the binding these nuts need.

The almonds will be all shiny when folded into the spiced egg white.

Spread them in a single layer and roast until the egg white is dry to the touch and the almonds smell toasted.

The nuts lose their shiny coat after roasting. As tempting as the smell may be, wait until they cool to serve them — they taste much better when they have time to cool and crisp up.

Elizabeth says she always has a tin of nuts on the counter, just in case anyone happens to drop by.

Like a car full of former students.

Elizabeth’s Spice Roasted Almonds

Adapted from Elizabeth Leite

Makes 3 cups

3 cups raw almonds
1 egg white
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 teaspoons red pepper flakes*
2 teaspoons crushed fennel seeds (use a mortar and pestle)
2 teaspoons crushed coriander seeds (or ground)
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon coarse flake sea salt (or kosher salt)

Heat the oven to 300° F. Spread the almonds in a single layer on a lined baking sheet.

Roast for 15 minutes. Remove from oven (leave oven on) and cool for 10 minutes.

Whisk the egg white until frothy and then whisk in the remaining ingredients (brown sugar through salt).

Fold in the cooled nuts and toss until evenly coated.

Spread the nuts on the baking sheet and return to oven for 12 to 15 minutes, stirring once halfway through. The nuts are done when the egg white is dry to the touch and the nuts smell toasted.

Cool completely. Store in an airtight container.

*I find that 2 teaspoons of red pepper flakes is just enough to give you a noticeable, throat-warming kick. Use less (or more) depending upon your personal heat preference.


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Buttermilk Pancakes with Quinoa

What can you do with a cup of leftover, cooked quinoa?

Make pancakes.

Oh sure, we could do any number of things with the “supergrain” (see last post) but folding the protein-rich quinoa into buttermilk pancakes tops our list.

We love fooling ourselves into thinking we’re eating something really healthy.

Quinoa is healthy, so technically, we are improving the nutritional content of these pancakes, right?

That’s our story and we’re sticking to it.

I have no idea why I’m talking “we” when I mean “me.”

Anyway, I started with the buttermilk pancake recipe from The Great Ranch Cookbook, and just folded in a cup of cooked quinoa.

Which immediately deflated the fluffy batter. Oh, well.

So these pancakes aren’t big and fluffy, but they are tender, and now, thanks to the quinoa, they have a more interesting texture.

We love them. (And this time, I do mean we.)

Quinoa Pancakes

Makes 12 (4-inch pancakes)

1 cup flour*
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg, lightly beaten
1-1/4 cups buttermilk (or sour milk**)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup cooked quinoa
3 tablespoons melted butter, divided
Maple syrup

Whisk the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt together in a medium bowl.

Whisk the egg, buttermilk and vanilla extract together in a small bowl until well blended.

Pour the buttermilk mixture over the flour mixture and stir until just combined.

Fold in the quinoa and then fold in 2 tablespoons of melted butter.

Heat a nonstick griddle or skillet over medium heat. Brush skillet with reserved melted butter.

Ladle scant 1/4 cupfuls of batter onto hot griddle. Cook until bubbles appear on the surface and the edges start to dry about 3 minutes. Flip and cook another couple minutes, until pancakes are cooked through. Keep warm in a low oven.

Serve with warm maple syrup.

*If you want to go all crazy-healthy, replace up to half the flour with a whole wheat flour.

**To make sour milk, stir 1 tablespoon lemon juice into milk and let sit a few minutes until thickened.


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Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Quince Butter, Bergamot Peel

June Taylor products are hot, hot, hot. Sizzling hot.

Seems everywhere I turn, I’m seeing them in a magazine, on a newsflash, or on my doorstep.

I can explain that last one. I ordered three of JT’s products because, as it has been well documented here and there, I can’t seem to stay away from gourmet items.

I ordered Quince Butter ($14), Candied Bergamot Peel ($12) and Rose Geranium Syrup ($18) after spotting June Taylor’s products in the Food 52 Shop (both a hallowed and dangerous place for people like me.)

I wanted to make something using all three products, but after tasting each of them, I realized that was too ambitious, even for me.

Sometimes chefs have the tendency to wrap too many flavors together, when really, less is more.

So I settled on the quince butter and the bergamot, combined with sweet potatoes. I’ll save the syrup for another post. It needs something simple to let its unique flavor shine through.

Roasting sweet potatoes is one of the easiest preparations, so that’s where I started. I wanted to make a sauce from the quince butter and then top the mixture with the bergamot peel.

Pretty straightforward. Simply peel the sweet potatoes, and cut them into 1-inch rounds.

Layer them in a buttered baking dish, preferably one that can go from oven to table, like this pretty Emile Henry.

The bergamot orange (which is yellow in color, not orange) is small, very acidic, and used mainly for its essential oil (in the peel) in everything from perfume to confections to tea — Earl Grey tea, specifically.

I steeped 1 bag of Earl Grey in a small amount of water, making a strong tea, in essence, to enhance the sauce, thinking it would tie the quince butter and bergamot peel topping together.

The tea went into a small saucepan with the quince butter and some real butter. There is no butter in fruit butters coming from a jar. They’re called “butter” because the fruit is cooked down to a thick puree that can be spread, like soft butter.

Wanting to keep the flavors from becoming too muddled, I resisted the temptation to throw in a bunch of spices, although you certainly could. You could throw in some booze, too, and normally, I would have, but it was early and I wasn’t thinking straight, so I didn’t.

I did throw in a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg because, well, I couldn’t resist the urge completely.

The quince butter, tea and real butter boil together just long enough to thicken and meld together. I really should have added some brandy or Grand Marnier; what was I thinking? Instead, I tarted it up with a splash of apple cider vinegar.

The thickened fruit butter mixture is spread over the sweet potatoes and then the pan goes into the oven.

You should know that the sauce is sparten on purpose. You could increase the quantities a bit if you want lots of sauce after roasting, but again, I was showing restraint, still wanting the flavor of the sweet potatoes to come through.

I promise this need for restraint will pass.

While the mixture is bubbling away in the oven, I chopped the bergamot peel — finely — with a knife. I tried to use my mini-food processor, but I was only successful in knocking off the sugar coating. The peel resisted the blade. Guess I wasn’t the only one resisting today.

A chef’s knife and a little elbow grease soon made mincemeat out of the tough, fragrant peel.

To add a bit of texture, I chopped some toasted pecans to sprinkle on top along with the chopped bergamot.

Now the dish can go to the table, in its pretty baking dish, for everyone to ooh and ahh over. Visually appealing, yes, but for me, it’s the taste that deserves cooing.

From the earthy sweet potatoes to the tart quince butter to the unique taste of the bergamot, this dish brings a little sophistication and a lot of complex flavors from just a few, simple, expensive, gourmet products.

But you’re worth it, aren’t you?

Roasted Sweet Potatoes
with Quince Butter and Bergamot Peel

Serves 4 or 5

1 Earl Grey tea bag
1/3 cup boiling water

2/3 cup June Taylor Quince Butter
1 tablespoon butter (+ 1 teaspoon for buttering pan)
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
Pinch of nutmeg

2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch rounds
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1/3 cup chopped toasted pecans
2 tablespoons finely chopped bergamot peel

Heat the oven to 375º F. Steep the Earl Grey tea in the 1/3 cup boiling water and set aside for 5 minutes. Discard tea bag and pour tea into a small saucepan with the quince butter, real butter, vinegar and pinch of nutmeg. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to a simmer. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring frequently.

Butter a large baking dish with a teaspoon of softened butter. Lay the sweet potatoes in a single layer, fitting in as many rounds as you can.

Pour the reduced quince butter mixture over the top and spread evenly with a spatula. Cover with foil and place in the oven. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until the potatoes are almost but not quite fork tender. Remove the foil and continue roasting for another 10 to 15 minutes, or until the potatoes are fork tender.

Remove from oven and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Now sprinkle with pecans and bergamot peel and serve.

NOTE: Let’s just say, for example, you don’t have June Taylor’s products on hand, but you like the idea of this dish. You can substitute the quince butter with apple butter, and the candied bergamot peel with regular candied orange peel.


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Cauliflower Puree

Do not adjust the color on your monitor. That cauliflower is indeed, that yellow. It’s called a “cheddar cauliflower.”

You’d think I wouldn’t care for cauliflower since it’s in the same family as Brussels sprouts. But so is kale, and I love kale.

I must like cauliflower. I keep writing about it.

I especially like this orangey-yellow cheddar cauliflower. Not because it tastes dramatically different than white cauliflower — it doesn’t. I like it because it’s colorful.

I decided to steam it, puree it, and pair it with sun-dried tomatoes and Parmesan. Cauliflower is bland by itself, so it needs strong flavors to perk it up.

I prefer steaming over boiling when making vegetable purees. Why?

The resulting puree is less watery. Boiled vegetables take on a lot more water than what’s naturally present in the vegetable. Steamed vegetables don’t.

A food processor won’t puree the mixture as smooth as a blender, but you’d need a lot more liquid than what I’m using here to get a blender (even a Vita-Mix) to puree this mixture.

If this was The French Laundry, we’d be pressing this puree through a tamis for an ultra-smooth puree.

Fortunately, it’s just Chef Gwen’s kitchen, and we’re not going to that much trouble. The food processor will do a good enough job.

Minced sun-dried tomatoes with fresh parsley and put a dollop on top. You could mix it right in, but it looks prettier as a garnish. Just because we’re not a top restaurant doesn’t mean we don’t want our food to look good, right?

Either way, it tastes way better than plain old steamed cauliflower. In fact, it tastes just like a fancy-schmancy restaurant side dish.

Pureed Cauliflower with Sun-Dried Tomatoes & Parmesan

Serves 4

1 head cauliflower
1/4 cup chicken or vegetable stock
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
2 or 3 tablespoons heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes, drained and minced
2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Cut the cauliflower into florets. Steam until tender, about 15-20 minutes.

Place florets in a food processor. Pour in stock and puree. Scrape down sides.

Sprinkle with Parmesan, drizzle with cream and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Puree again until smooth, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl once or twice.

Return puree to a pan and gently reheat over low heat until hot.

Taste and add more salt or pepper if desired.

Portion onto four plates and garnish with sun-dried tomatoes and parsley.


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Mandarin Orange Dust

I am a sucker for anything gourmet. Unusual ingredients are a particular weakness (see bamboo rice.)

It all started with a tweet from a Seattle chef I admire and follow on Twitter, @ChefReinvented (Becky Selengut). She was catering a party for 60 and tweeted her menu, including this little gem:

Seared wild U.S. prawns with tangerine dust, New Mexico chiles and smoked paprika aioli.

Tangerine dust? All of a sudden, I’m fixated on getting my hands on some tangerine dust.

A quick glance around the kitchen and I spot a 5-pound box of  Cuties®. So they’re not tangerines, but I thought, why not?

For the record, tangerine is much sexier sounding than cutie.

The Cutie is a type of mandarin orange — a Californian clementine — as is the tangerine, the satsuma and the Dancy.

Cutie Dust just doesn’t have the same ring as Clementine Dust. Or Tangerine Dust for that matter.

The clementines need to be sliced whisper-thin, but after a few, painfully slow slices with my knife, I quickly figured out I had better things to do with my Sunday. I dug out the mandolin.

Technically it’s a Japanese Benriner, the only one I’ve found (sorry France and Germany) that slices food so thin you can see through it.

Adjusting the mandolin to cut as thin as possible, each clementine produced 10 or 12 slices, not counting the first couple of slices or the last little bit, as I stopped before I sliced my finger tips off.

Funny thing, this particular mandolin has the words “watch your fingers” printed in English and Japanese.

I’m guessing that the Japanese words say the same thing. They could say something entirely different, like “we only printed the English words ‘watch your fingers’ for the careless English-speaking people, but we know you, our slice-savvy Japanese customers, know when to stop.”

Or something like that.

I laid the slices in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet and stuck them in a 200ºF. oven for about 3 hours.

If you don’t slice them as thin as I did, it might take a little longer. They should be brittle when they come out of the oven, but don’t let them get too brown or they’ll taste burnt.

At this point, they make a nice little potpourri garnish. Throw in a couple cinnamon sticks and call it a day.

But I was after the culinary profit of dust, so I crushed a handful and put them in a spice blender with a big pinch of sugar and small pinch of kosher salt.

Chef Becky had warned me that they might be bitter without cutting with a little something. This is especially true if using thicker skinned tangerines instead of thin-skinned clementines.

Several grinds later, a pretty powder:  clementine dust.

It looks like ground ginger, only brighter. The taste? Intense. Like an orange to the 10th degree. Exquisite.

Four clementines yielded 1/4 cup of powder, er, dust.

I’m thinking about making some more, stashing them into little spice tins to give to friends for Christmas and Hanukkah.

Dusting scallops with this angelic powder just before searing sounds like a fabulous idea. So does mixing it into a dry rub for ribs or maybe adding a teaspoon to a vinaigrette to punch up the flavor.

What do you think about adding a teaspoon or two to a pound cake or muffin batter? Or maybe sprinkling on top of ice cream, or folding a teaspoon into whipped cream?

The possibilities are endless…and flavorful and fragrant.


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Cranberry Orange Compote

My cranberry sauce doesn’t come out of a can. (although it did for a number of years).

Now it comes with a little booze (shhh!) Just a little port and a splash of the most syrupy, orangey liqueur, Grand Marnier.

And some brown sugar. (or white sugar, really, it doesn’t matter).

Bring the berries, port and sugar to a boil. (Save the Grand Marnier for later.)

While the berries are coming to a boil, chop a quarter of an orange, peel and all. Really fine.

Really, really fine.

The orange makes the compote thicken. I’ve see recipes calling for even more orange but a quarter seems to be the right balance. Well, that and the Grand Marnier.

After the compote thickens, take it off the heat and add dried cherries. Or dried cranberries. Or dried chopped figs. Or dried fill-in-the-blank fruit.

And throw in some toasted walnuts. But don’t add them until you’re ready to serve it so they stay crunchy.

You can just sprinkle them on top if you like. Or mix them in. Your call.

Serve it in a pretty bowl. Or an ugly one, if that’s what your mother-in-law gave you and she’s coming to dinner.

Cranberry Orange Compote

Makes 3 cups

1 (12-ounce) package of fresh or frozen cranberries
1 cup dark brown sugar (or light brown, or white, we don’t discriminate)
1/2 cup ruby Port wine
1/4 large navel orange, finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup dried cherries, or cranberries or other dried fruit
1 generous tablespoon Grand Marnier
1/2 cup chopped, toasted walnuts or pecans

Stir cranberries, sugar and Port together in a heavy saucepan and place over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil. Stir in chopped orange, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt and reduce heat to a simmer.

Simmer until cranberries burst and mixture thickens, about 12 minutes.

Remove from heat and stir in dried fruit. Cool to room temperature. Stir in nuts just before serving.


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Tuscan Kale


Tuscan… Cavolo Nero… Dinosaur… Laciniato. These all are names I’ve seen — in grocery stores, farmers markets and cookbooks — for the blackish-green, rough, wrinkly kale.


It’s easy to see why it’s called Dinosaur, since the leaves are roughly textured, but this kale defies it’s rugged appearance. It is actually quite tender. Not as tender as Swiss chard or spinach, but it is more tender than say, mustard greens. And, it doesn’t have the grassy taste of some greens.

Because it’s tender — and doesn’t taste like grass — it’s a great green to eat raw, even though you can cook with it. In the past year, I’ve seen chopped kale salads appear on several restaurant menus, including Phoenix’s Gallo Blanco, as ensalada cortada. Gallo Blanco mixes chopped kale with other shredded cabbages, Manchego cheese, avocado and crunchy corn nuts and dehydrated peas.


Like all greens, Tuscan kale should be thoroughly washed and dried. Cut the tough stems out. Roll the leaves into a long cigar shape and slice crosswise into ribbons (you might remember this is the chiffonade technique). Now your kale is ready for whatever you chose to make.

For chopped salads, cut the ribbons into smaller pieces. For adding to stews or pastas, you can just use the ribbons without further cutting.


Tuscan kale is a blank canvas. You can put any flavor spin on it you want: Mexican, Asian or Italian. Traditionally, since it is an Italian green, it’s paired with Italian flavors, like white beans, pancetta, pine nuts and balsamic vinegar.

Later this week, I’ll have a recipe for you: a Christmas Kale Chopped Salad, using some of the season’s best ingredients.

In the meantime, here are a couple of recipes for cooking with Tuscan Kale:

Got a Tuscan kale recipe, too? Leave a link in the comments.


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Fresh Ground Cardamom

Two reasons why you shouldn’t buy pre-ground cardamom:

1) It’s expensive

2) It has a shelf life shorter than Bruce Willis’s singing career


Granted, it’s a pain to grind your own, but the payoff is in the taste — and the aroma.

Grind only as much as you need for your recipe. A tablespoon of pods should yield two teaspoons of ground cardamom, give or take.

I know what you’re thinking, and no, you can’t just grind the whole pod. Unless, of course, you’re the type that doesn’t peel ginger before grating either.

But really, who am I to judge? I grew up eating Frito Pie.


Toast the cardamom pods in a dry skillet over medium heat for 2 or 3 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally, if you really want to intensify the flavor.

Place the cardamom pods in a mortar (or just put them on a cutting board) and smash with a pestle to crack open the pods.


Spread the cracked pods out, so you can pick out the shells and discard. Don’t drive yourself to drinking by trying to get every last little shard of shell. This is good enough.


The seeds are rock hard, so instead of putting them back into the mortar, I put them in my spice grinder (just an old Krups coffee grinder I retired from coffee grinding and use only to grind spices now).


Whirl the seeds in the grinder for 30 seconds or so, just until you have a fine powder.


Remove the lid of the grinder and watch everyone within 20 feet swoon with ecstasy. Fresh ground cardamom is the most fragrant spice ever, and it has been known to make me weep with joy.

Please don’t skip over recipes that call for cardamom, thinking it’s too expensive. I bought a 3-1/2 ounce bag of green cardamom pods at an Indian grocery for $2.29. The pods will last for at least a year, maybe longer.

As tempting as it might be to grind a bunch at once — don’t. That defeats the purpose.

Besides, don’t you want to watch everyone fall to the floor when you lift the lid off the spice grinder? That only happens when you grind your cardamon seeds fresh from the pod.

More information about Cardamom:

Some recipes sites that feature Cardamom:




If you have a recipe that calls for cardamom, please share — just leave a link in the comments.


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