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Cardamom: For sweet and savory

(CNN) -- Open a jar of cardamom and the scent is unmistakable, unstoppable -- strong, spicy and dreamy. It belongs alongside cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and allspice as a culinary scent that deserves to creep throughout the home during the holidays.

Cardamom is found as a flavoring in coffee, tea, or whipped with cream as topping for desserts. Mix it with mango, yogurt and ice for a quick smoothie. The versatile spice is often underused in world cuisine, but there are two very different regions that hold it dear -- India and Scandinavia.

In India and parts of Africa, cardamom pods are often left to stew in main dishes, imparting a delicate flavor.

  RECIPES
 

Memphis Chef Raji Jallepalli prominently uses cardamom in her garam masala spice mix and in many of the meat and side dishes of her French-Indian cuisine. Besides spiced rice and rich meats, cardamom remakes traditional European desserts of rice pudding and creme brulee.

London chef Jean-Christophe Novelli uses cardamom in an eggplant salsa and in an orange and cardamom reduction to flavor broiled fish, to glaze pureed carrots, or to poach fruit, in his book, "Your Place or Mine"(Clarkson Potter).

The seeds and pod of a flower native to India, cardamom takes several forms. Green cardamom is common to India, black cardamom to Africa, and white or bleached cardamom to Scandinavia. Cardamom is usually sold in the pod or seeds are ground and sold as powder.

In Scandinavia, ground cardamom makes its way into traditional cakes, delicate cookies and sweet yeast breads. Whole pods can be found warming in mulled wine (glogg), but never in savory dishes.

In the northern climate of Scandinavia, cardamom would have been an expensive exotic treat to use for the holidays, says Beatrice Ojakangas, author of several Nordic cookbooks. Settlers took their traditional recipes to the United States, making cardamom a classic Midwest taste.

Ojakangas recommends grinding cardamom seeds to powder with a mortar and pestle or spice grinder just before using to preserve flavor.

"The flavor is volatile. That's why you can smell it everywhere but not taste it," she says.

RELATED STORIES:
Review: 'Your Place or Mine,' By Jean-Christophe Novelli
August 30, 1999
Cookbook is bountiful tribute to Midwest fare
November 30, 1999

RELATED SITES:
StarChefs: Raji Jallepalli
Beatrice Ojakangas
Clarkson Potter/Publishers

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