Question: What is cardamom? What is the best way to use it in cooking?

Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) is a member of the ginger family that is used heavily in Indian cooking but often shows up in Scandinavian recipes as well. Rather than using the root, as is done for most spices of the ginger family, it's the under-ripened dried fruit that's prized – a pale green or white pod swaddling pungent dark-brown seeds.

One sniff of this exotic spice is liable to stop you dead in your tracks. What is that smell, you'll likely ask yourself, so elusive and compelling at once? Break open the crepe-papery skin of the pod and about 20 seeds are released, along with a heady fragrance tinged with the earthiness of black pepper, a sweet spiciness reminiscent of clove or cinnamon, and the verdant aroma of fresh camphor. Holding the delicate pod in the palm of your hand, it's hard to believe that this tiny fruit, no bigger than a kidney bean, can pack such a punch.

Cardamom has been a tradable commodity in India and Sri Lanka for at least a thousand years. The Oxford Companion to Food lists cardamom as the third most expensive spice in the world, after saffron and vanilla. It was used for flavoring wine in medieval Europe, along with other spicy-sweet plants. This wine was probably somewhat like the Indian chai tea that's been adopted in American culture. Packed with essential oil, cardamom also has been used to make perfume throughout the centuries.

As for the question about how to use it, my answer is: Very sparingly. A little goes a long way. It is best to buy this spice whole and grind it yourself, since the essential oils start to evaporate as soon as it's ground and continue to dissipate over time. I find cardamom to be the secret weapon for making brown rice palatable; but remember to crush the seeds of a SINGLE pod into the mix for an added dimension. Cardamom also makes an interesting ingredient for spice cakes, as is sometimes done in Scandinavian baking. Try recipes for both:

Brown Rice with Cardamom
(Adapted from Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon)

2 tablespoons butter
1 cardamom pod, seeds released and lightly crushed
1 cup brown rice
2 cups water
1/2 teaspoon salt

Melt butter in a medium saucepan until the foam starts to subside.
Add crushed cardamom seeds and stir, allowing the fragrance of the cardamom to infuse into the butter.
Add the rice and keep stirring until the rice is coated with butter and begins to turn milky.
Pour in the water and salt, bring to a rolling boil, then cover and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook until liquid has absorbed into rice – about 45 minutes. Try not to peek, as removing the lid will release steam and slow the cooking process. If you need to add more water and recover after 45 minutes, by all means, do so. Add about 1/4 cup at a time, and check every 10 minutes until the rice is tender and liquid is absorbed. Remove from heat and fluff with a fork.

Cardamom Scones

2 cups all purpose flour
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons chilled butter, diced
3/4 cup chilled buttermilk
1 large egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom; use seeds from about 10 pods ground with a mortar and pestle
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon milk

Mix flour, 1/3 cup sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl. Add chilled butter and cut in with a pastry cutter until the largest pieces are about the size of sunflower seeds.
In another bowl, whisk buttermilk, egg yolk, cardamom, cinnamon, lemon zest and vanilla extract.
Add to flour mixture and stir until dough comes together in large clumps. Gather into a ball and knead gently two or three turns. Press into disc and cut into eight wedges.
Place directly on nonstick baking surface (I use a half sheet pan with Silpat), and then refrigerate for about an hour.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Remove prepared scones from the fridge and brush with milk. Sprinkle on the remaining one tablespoon of sugar. Bake 20 minutes, or until toothpick inserted comes out clean. Eat with clotted cream.

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