On a trip to Napa Valley a few years ago, I happened upon a spice shop. While sni ng my way through the endless selection of spices available, as any true culinarian would, I discovered something deliciously referred to as grains of paradise*. And like any knowledge-thirsty chef, the first thing I did was pop a few of these tiny reddish-brown grains into my mouth and bit into them. From the initial tingling on the tip of my tongue, I thought “pepper.” But once that sensation dissipated, the nish was surprisingly similar to that of cardamom and citrus. I decided I could not return home without taking a generous amount of this curious spice with me.
Grains of Paradise, better known in its native land of West Africa as Melegueta (or alligator) pepper, was very popular throughout Africa and Europe during the Middle Ages. It was commonly used as a substitute for black pepper, prescribed by doctors for digestive properties, because it was less irritating to the digestive system than black pepper. However, in the 18th century, its popularity in Europe dwindled, and it was reduced to a avoring for beer and sausage making. Little known outside of West and North Africa until recently, grains of paradise is gaining popularity in the U.S., due to some well- known chefs and widely-watched television cooking shows. And just like a few hundred years ago, it is still a popular and common ingredient used in the production of beer.
I recently spoke with Randy Doucet, brewmaster for the Aiken Brewery, who was only too willing to give me a lesson in the art of brewing beer and why grains of paradise is an important component of that process. “Grains of paradise is typically used in Belgium-style beer production, to o set the sweetness of those beers that can contain ingredients such as coriander, orange peel and honey,” he said. And according to Bobby Cannon, brewmaster for Samuel Adams, “We use grains of paradise in our Summer Ale. We nd that its spicy quality provides the perfect balance to the tropical fruit notes found in the beer.”
In my house any new spice or herb’s ultimate test is how it holds its own when paired with a steak. I deliberately used the grains of paradise as a substitute for pepper – yes, I sacri ced a steak for the sake of this experiment. e preparation was simple. I sprinkled both sides of a ribeye with kosher salt and lavishly applied fresh ground grains of paradise, then coated the steak with olive oil and grilled to medium rare. As I suspected, it tasted like a milder version of steak au poivre that left an aromatic hint on the palate. Perfection!
Since my California trip, I am constantly experimenting with this darling spice of the culinary world. Here are some recipes for you to try at home.
Let me know what you think!
*Since this is a specialty spice, grains of paradise is not widely available at retail outlets. Among other sources, it can be also be purchased at this website: http://www.chefbelinda.com/chef_belinda/spices.html
- 1 pound jumbo or colossal shrimp
- 1 teaspoon grains of paradise, ground 1/2 pound lump crabmeat, optional
- 4 tablespoons butter, melted
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 large garlic cloves, minced
- 1/2 cup white wine
- 2 cups fresh breadcrumbs *
- 2 tablespoons parmesan cheese, grated
- 1 1/2 teaspoons parsley, chopped
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper akes
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
- Lemon juice
- 1 pound Bucatini, or pasta of choice, cooked Alfredo Sauce (see recipe below)
* If using dry, processed breadcrumbs, increase the amount of butter and wine.
Preheat oven to 375°F. Peel and devein the shrimp, leaving the tail intact. To butter y them, make a slit along the back side, taking care not to slice all the way through the body. Sprinkle shrimp with the grains of paradise. Line a baking pan with aluminum foil, spray with nonstick spray and arrange the shrimp in a single layer.
Melt the butter over medium heat and add the olive oil. Add garlic and sauté until fragrant, soft and just beginning to turn golden – do not brown. Add the wine and cook for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the breadcrumbs, parmesan cheese, parsley, oregano, crushed red pepper, salt and black pepper. Mix well. If adding crabmeat, allow sautéed vegetables to cool before adding to the crabmeat.
Spoon even portions of the breadcrumb mixture over each of the butter ied shrimp. Using your ngers, gently mold each portion of stu ng around the shrimp. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the shrimp turn pink and opaque. Remove from the oven, sprinkle with lemon juice and serve immediately with the pasta.
- Makes 1 1/2 cups
- 1 pint heavy cream
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter
- 1 cup parmesan cheese, grated
- white pepper
- kosher salt
- parsley or basil, chopped
Heat cream over medium-low heat in a heavy saucepan.
Add butter and whisk to melt. Add cheese and stir. Cook approximately ve minutes until slightly thickened. Season with salt and pepper.
Add pasta and toss to coat the noodles
in the Alfredo sauce. Transfer to a warm serving bowl and top with more grated cheese and chopped parsley. Serve immediately with the stu ed shrimp.
Roasted Butternut Squash Soup with Scallops
Yield: 8 cups of soup
- 1 butternut squash (about 3-4 pounds) olive oil
- 1/2 large onion, cut in half and sliced 2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
- 3 1/2 cups chicken broth
- 1/2 teaspoon cardamom
- 2 tablespoons madeira, or sherry
- Salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste Scallops
- Grains of paradise, ground
- *Large croutons/crostini
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray 13 x 9 x 2-inch glass baking dish with vegetable spray. Cut squash in half lengthwise; and place, cut side down, in prepared baking dish. Bake until squash is tender, about 45 minutes.
Cook onions in olive oil in a medium pot over medium heat, stirring until soft, about
5 minutes. Add garlic and cook an additional 3 minutes. Add stock, cardamom and madeira and simmer uncovered, about 15 minutes.
Using a large spoon, scrape half of the squash into food blender; discard peel. Add
half of stock and purée until smooth, about 1 minute. Transfer to a clean pot and keep warm and covered. Repeat with second half of squash and stock. Bring to a simmer and season with salt and pepper.
Sprinkle scallops with grains of paradise and chill for 30 minutes. Heat oil in a skillet over moderately high heat until hot; then sauté scallops until just cooked through, about 2-3 minutes per side. Transfer to a paper towel.
Spoon warm soup into bowls. Add a crouton and cover with a scallop.
*For croutons: slice a baguette into 3/4” slices.
Toss with olive oil, granulated garlic and minced parsley. Place on baking sheet and bake in
400 degree oven for 8-10 minutes, until brown.
Belinda Smith-Sullivan is a food writer, personal chef, and pilot who enjoys exploring the “off the beaten path” culinary world. Her love of cooking and entertaining motivated her to give up a corporate career to pursue a degree in Culinary Arts from Johnson & Wales University. Now living in Aiken, she currently markets her own spice line called Chef Belinda Spices.Visit her blog at www.flyingfoodie.blogspot.com.