Saturday, August 22, 2015

Mustard: An Ancient Condiment

Inspired by a recent roadtrip through Germany, and being an avid mustard consumer, I decided it was the perfect moment to investigate this tasty and versatile condiment in more depth...

First of all, there are very few places in the world that can match the sheer selection of mustard varieties that Germany has. I remember the very first time I laid eyes on the condiment section of a normal grocery store in Hamburg. Pardon the expression, but it really was a mustard-lover´s wet dream! I happily filled a large portion of my suitcase with a plethora of squeeze tubes, bottles and jars to bring back to Spain with me. 

In virtually any German supermarket, a dizzying array of Senf (mustard) can be found to fit any taste preference, accompaniment, recipe and mood. Furthermore, there are a number of regional styles, which I'll discuss later. 

Where did it originate? 

Although there are records of the Chinese cultivating mustard seed for spice usage more than 3,000 years ago, the Romans were the first known culture to experiment with the actual preparation of mustard as a condiment. They mixed unfermented grape juice, known as must, with ground mustard seeds to create "burning must" (mustum ardens) -- hence the English "must ard", as we know it today.

Curious as to what this original mustard may have tasted like? 
Ancient Roman Mustard Recipe

The Romans brought the custom of using table mustard to Gaul. King Charlemagne, an obvious fan of this imported product, recommended the cultivation of mustard seed throughout the realm. Dijon, France was once considered the mustard Mecca of the world. In the beginning, the name Dijon could only be used for mustards that had been produced in that region. Mustard cultivation and production gradually spread through Germany, and then to England around the 12th century.

How is mustard made?

The process begins with seeds from the mustard plant. The mustard plant itself has a sharp, pungent flavor, and the entire plant is edible. Mustard greens were a common sidedish at my house growing up. I loved the zesty flavor they added to a meal.
Mixing ground mustard seeds with water causes a chemical reaction between chemical compounds within the seed. Prepared mustards have a wide range of "heat" strengths and flavors, depending on the variety of mustard seed and the preparation method

Seeds from the white mustard plant (Sinapis alba) have a less pungent flavor than those of black mustard (Brassica nigra) or brown Indian mustard (Brassica juncea). The temperature of the water and concentration of acids, such as vinegar, also determine the strength of a prepared mustard. Since hotter liquids and stronger acids surpress the enzymes that affect the heat-producing compounds, spicy mustard is made with cold water, while hot water produces a milder condiment.
Despite popular belief, the bright yellow color of the common squeeze bottle mustard doesn't come from the seeds, but from the addition of tumeric root powder. Ground mustard seeds are actually a dullish gray-brown color.
Yellow mustard didn’t come along until the turn of the 20th century. In 1884, two brothers by the name of Robert and George French bought a flourmill in Rochester, New York after their previous flourmill upstate burned down. In 1904, George began experimenting with “creamy salad mustard”. He added turmeric to the traditional recipe for added presentation and color. Yellow mustard premiered at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 as a condiment to put on hot dogs to great fanfare. (Source:

For a more in-depth look, I strongly recommend this short video by the Discovery Channel:
How It's made: Prepared Mustard

German mustards

Despite the fact that there are amazing mustards found all around the globe, I guess my German partner would be disappointed if I didn't specifically mention some of his country's varieties in this article. 

There is no mustard they refer to in particular as being "German" mustard, in the way that the British refer to an "English" mustard. However, German recipes do tend to be less acidic than their American and English counterparts. 

When most people hear "German" mustard, a coarsely-ground sweet, mild blend usually comes to mind (bayerischer Senf). In the Bavarian region, this would be the traditional style, which is made with brown sugar, rather than vinegar. Anything other than this type of mustard on Weißwurst  (a soft white sausage) is considered sacreligiousOne of the most well-known brands of this region, and one of my personal favorites, is Händlmaier.  

The area surrounding Düsseldorf, another famous mustard region, has a signature style similar to Dijon mustard, but with more of a "kick" and darker in color. Unlike Dijon, this blend uses whole seeds instead of powder. Düsseldorf opened Germany's first mustard factory in 1726, and it is still a center of mustard production today. One of their most reknowned factories, Löwensenf, produces various grades of hotness. Of course, being a spicy food fan, my preference is their Extra scharfer Senf ! 

In Eastern Germany, the most popular brand of mustard by far is Bautz'ner Senf. It comes from the medieval town of Bautzen, where there is an entire museum dedicated to their famous product. These mustards tend to have a bit more "bite" that their Bavarian counterparts, but not as spicy as the those in Düsseldorf area.

In addition to these more traditional regional variations, the Germans have become masters of incorporating just about any flavor into their blends. One of my personal favorites is the Feigensenf (fig mustard), which combines especially well with most cheeses.

Speaking of delicious and unique flavors, one of my favorite artesenal blends comes from a family friend in Rutland, Vermont. Find his products here: Big Lenny's Mustards

Lenny's Vermont Maple and Apple Cider Honey mustards truly are a work of art, and don't last long in our house!               

Health Benefits of Mustard

Apart from the wide range of delicious culinary options mustard provides, and being surprising low in caloric content, mustard seeds are full of healthy properties:

  • Mustard seeds are very rich in phyto-nutrients, minerals, vitamins and anti-oxidants.
  • Mustard seeds are an excellent source of essential B-complex vitamins such as folates, niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, pyridoxine (vitaminB-6) and pantothenic acid. These B-complex groups of vitamins help in enzyme synthesis, nervous system function and regulating body metabolism.
  • 100 g of mustards provide 4.733 mg of niacin (vitamin B-3). Niacin helps lower blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
  • Mustard seeds contain flavonoid and carotenoid antioxidants such as carotenes, zea-xanthin, and lutein. In addition, the seeds provide a small amount of vitamin anti-oxidants such as vitamin A, C, and vitamin K.
  • The seeds are an excellent source of vitamin E, which is a powerful antioxidant that helps protect the skin from harmful elements.
  • Mustards are rich source of health benefiting minerals. Calcium, manganese, copper, iron, selenium and zinc are some of the minerals especially concentrated in these seeds. 

If you're curious about making your own mustards, these links can help get you started:

Guten Appetit!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Ají: The Kick in South American Cuisine

As a huge fan of spicy fare, my recent journey through South America wouldn´t have been complete without "ají". I enjoyed the regional differences between recipes, but certainly had my personal favorites.

Ají (pronounced Ah-HEE) is the Latin American word for all hot peppers. Used for centuries as a condiment and digestive stimulant, it is believed to have healing powers. Ají is traditionally used with every meal and is commonly incorporated into a regional sauce, which varies widely depending on the country and the personal taste of the chef. 

The sauces often contain tomatoes, cilantro (coriander), local spicy peppers and raw onions. Ají has been used in Andean countries, such as Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, since before the time of the Incas. Chile has its own milder blend, known as "Pebre", and Argentina has the "Chimichurri". 

I'd like the share a few of these tasty recipes with you...


Let's begin with the mildest of the options; the Chilean version, known as "pebre". 

The word pebre in Catalán means pepper of any type. According to sources, the origin of Chilean Pebre dates to the arrival of Catalán engineers and highly skilled masons, under the supervision of the Italian architect Joaquin Toesca, for the construction of the Tajamares de Santiago. Catalán workers made a simple sauce (salsa) using cilantro, oil, vinegar and salt, which they called "pebre" for its main ingredient; the ají. This was probably due to the lack of ingredients, like pine nuts and roasted almonds, to make Romesco sauce (a Catalán bell pepper sauce). Chileans love their pebre, and it's the most common condiment to accompany bread, meat or most other dishes.

I found this sauce to be very similar to the Mexican "pico de gallo"-- refreshing, but far too mild for my personal taste. 

Pebre recipe #1
Pebre recipe #2


Since Argentina is famous for its beef, Chimichurri was created as the perfect complement to grilled meat. It's not clear where the unique name originated, but it's made of finely-chopped parsley, minced garlic, olive oil, oregano, hot peppers (optional, but recommended) and wine vinegar. 
Best of all, it takes about 10 minutes to make!

Not only is it delicious, but also nutritious. Fresh parsley, the dominant ingredient in chimichurri, is an herb that not only has a distinctive and delicate flavor, but is also high in vitamin C, calcium, iron, vitamin A and carotenes. Combine that with the healing properties of fresh garlic and olive oil, and you've got one tasty elixir. Who needs all the extra sugars and artificial flavorings of BBQ sauce?

This is one of my personal favorite sauces to accompany steaks...or just about anything, for that matter! I´ve also discovered it makes a great addition to salad dressings. In my opinion, no BBQ is complete without it.

Authentic Chimichurri Recipe


Peru is a vast country and has dozens of variations of ají sauces. However, what impressed me the most was the diminutive "ají charapita"(Capsicum frutescens), which originates in the Peruvian Amazonian region of Iquitos. The people in this region are called ‘charapas’, which is a slang term describing the people’s laid back mentality. 

The ají charapita is not grown commercially, and is mostly harvested from wild plants or grown in back yards. While in the Iquitos region, I ate this tiny potent pepper whole, with just about any kind of dish, and am currently investigating how to grow it in my own garden. Unlike many spicy peppers, we found that the "charapita" spares you any painful side-effects the following day, which is an added bonus. This pepper is not only spicy, but has a delicious citrus flavor, similar to the habanero. It complemented the tasty local fish dishes to perfection. If you can find it where you live, you're very lucky, indeed!

Here are some recipes for Peruvian ají sauces:

Ají verde (made with jalapeños)

Ají amarillo paste (if you have access to the elusive yellow pepper) 


Ecuadorian ají also varies depending on the region. My personal favorite is made with "tomate de árbol" (tree tomato), which gives it a lovely yellowish color and fruity undertones. 

A tree tomato or tomate de arbol is a South American fruit that looks somewhat like a roma tomato, but pointier and with a thicker skin. Unfortunately, it's difficult to find the fruit outside of Ecuador, but a traditional ají sauce can also be made in its absence.  The main ingredients are hot peppers, onion, cilantro and lime juice, and is perfect to accompany ceviches, rice dishes and patacones (fried plantain fritters) 

Ají criollo

I recommend trying out some of these recipes to add a little kick, and South American flavor, to your own cooking. Stay tuned for more recipes and spicy tales from South America...


Interesting read:

Monday, January 12, 2015

Maple Syrup: A Sweet Discovery

Happy New Year!

This year I spent the winter holidays in beautiful rural Vermont, where I got an inside glimpse into the fascinating world of maple syrup production. 


During our stay, we were given a private tour of a friend's "sugar shack" (the wooden shed where the delicious syrup is produced), as well as tasty samples. We also visited the slightly kitch, yet informative, New England Maple Museum, which explains how maple syrup production has evolved since its discovery by the Native Americans. I'd like to share a little of its history with you...

What exactly is maple syrup? 

Maple syrup is a substance usually made from the xylem sap of sugar maplered maple, or black maple trees, although it can also be made from other maple species. In cold climates, these trees store starch in their trunks and roots before the winter; the starch is then converted to sugar that rises in the sap in the spring. Maple trees can be tapped by creating holes in their trunks and collecting the extracted sap. The sap is processed by prolonged heating to evaporate much of the water, leaving the concentrated syrup. Surprisingly, it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make just 1 gallon a maple syrup! 

The syrup is then filtered to remove sand-like particles. The filtered syrup is graded and packaged while still hot, usually at a temperature of 82 °C (180 °F) or greater. The containers are turned over after being sealed to sterilize the cap with the hot syrup. Packages can be made of metal, glass, or coated plastic. The syrup can also be heated longer and further processed to create a variety of other delicious maple products, including maple sugarmaple butter or cream, and maple candy or taffy.

A Brief History

Early settlers in the Northeastern U.S. and Canada learned about sugar maples from Native Americans. Various legends exist to explain the initial discovery. One is that the chief of a tribe threw a tomahawk at a tree, sap ran out and his wife boiled venison in the liquid. Another version holds that Native Americans stumbled on sap running from a broken maple branch.                                                                                      

Native Peoples continued to boil down the sap every spring using hollowed out logs into which the sap was poured and rocks heated in a fire were placed in to make the sap boil, thicken and harden into chunks of maple sugar. Early explorers recorded maple sugar as the only source of energy sustaining Native Peoples over the long hard winter months. They also developed rituals around sugar-making, celebrating the Sugar Moon (the first full moon of Spring) with a Maple Dance.
When settlers came with metal tools, they drilled small holes in the trees, whittled wooden spouts and replaced the wooden troughs used by Native Peoples with wooden buckets and covers. They made their maple sugar in large iron kettles suspended over a fire by wooden poles or tripods. Making maple sugar was common in Vermont, being some distance from any seaport where white sugar was imported.

As maple sugaring evolved, arches were built, containing the heat from roaring wood fires and holding large flat pans on top. Constructing buildings to house these “boilers” was the next step. Sugarhouses today still resemble those early structures with the characteristic cupola on the roof allowing the sweet maple scented steam to billow forth. Unfortunately, I won't be there to see the sap collection and evaporation process in person this year. 

The traditional evaporation process, via wood fire, is still used by many syrup producers in Vermont. While production methods have become more efficient since colonial times, the process remains basically unchanged. I noticed that most Vermonters take great pride in their product, taking maple syrup in their coffee instead of sugar and joking that their syrup is of much higher quality than that of their Canadian neighbors. I'm sure Canadians would beg to differ, but it's true that the Canadian region of Quebec holds roughly 75% of the global maple syrup production. Vermont is the largest U.S. producer, claiming roughly 5% of the industry. 
Which grade is right for you?

Maple syrup can be pretty pricey, so you'd better be sure you know what you're in for when you splurge on a bottle. Even directly from the source, expect to pay around $50 a gallon - and MUCH more if you're in Europe. Between all the grades and shades of maple syrup out on the market (not to mention the imposters below!), it can get a little confusing.

All maple syrup is graded according to scales based on its density and translucency.
One would expect "Grade A" to naturally be the best, however, it's really just a question of taste and usage. As you may imagine, the darker the syrup, the more intense the maple flavor. Darker syrups are more commonly used in cooking, while the lighter grades are mainly used directly, such as on pancakes. Personally, I prefer the stronger kick of the darker grades. 

Health Benefits of Maple Syrup

While both are calorie-rich, the main aspect that sets maple syrup apart from refined sugar is the fact that it also contains some minerals and antioxidants. Pure maple syrup contains small amounts of calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, copper and manganese. These minerals play essential roles in your body, including cell formation, immune support, maintaining healthy red blood cells, keeping bones and teeth strong, regulating muscle contractions and balancing fluids.
100 grams of maple syrup contains:
  • Calcium: 7% of the RDA.
  • Potassium: 6% of the RDA.
  • Iron: 7% of the RDA.
  • Zinc: 28% of the RDA.
  • Manganese: 165% of the RDA.

In my opinion, it's hard to find a dish that maple syrup won't compliment.

Interested in incorporating real maple syrup into your cooking? 
Try out some of these delicious recipes:

Maple Roast Turkey and Gravy  (my Thanksgiving standard)
57 Magical Ways to Use Maple Syrup  

I hope you all enjoy a sweet year ahead!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Catnip (aka "Kitty Crack")

As a faithful cat owner (aka "employee"), I dedicate this entry to all our little feline companions, who can also appreciate the wide world of herbs. 

What exactly is Catnip?

Catnip plants (Nepeta cataria and other Nepeta species) are members of the mint family and contain volatile oils, sterols, acids and tannins. These herbs are native to Europe, Asia and Africa, and were brought to North America by settlers. Nowadays, the plant is popular in herb gardens, especially of cat owners, and can be found growing in the wild as a weed.

An open bag is an empty bag...

Have you ever seen a cat under the effects of catnip?
No? Grab your popcorn--it's an entertaining show! Watch as it magically transforms your lazy kitty couch potato into a flipped-out ball of ecstasy.

Shortly after exposure to the dry or fresh leaves, they enter a temporary euphoric state in which they rub their heads and body on the herb or jump, roll around, vocalize wildly and drool. This response lasts for about 10 minutes, after which the cat seems to enter a buzzed stupor or "afterglow" and becomes temporarily immune to catnip's effects for roughly 30 minutes. Response to catnip is hereditary; about 70 to 80 percent of cats exhibit this strange behavior in the plant's presence. It tends to only affect cats that have reached sexual maturity (around six months old). Despite the wild "psychedelic" reaction it may induce, catnip is considered to be nonaddictive and completely harmless to our feline companions. 

How does it work its magic?     

Cats get high off catnip by inhaling the nepetalactone in the plant - a chemical which binds to receptors inside a cat's nose and stimulates sensory neurons in the brain. This appears to alter activity in several brain areas: the olfactory bulb, the amygdala and the hypothalamus, which plays a part in regulating emotional response. However, nepetalactone isn't the only chemical that triggers this reaction in cats. Others include actinidine and iridomyrcin, which are both found naturally in other plants. Tigers, lions and other large cats are also susceptible to these chemicals. 

So, why doesn't it have the same effect on us?

Our olfactory systems and brains are structured differently from those of cats. However, humans have been using catnip since the 1600's for other reasons. Europeans used the plant as a mild sedative by brewing tea with its leaves, smoking them or chewing them. It has also been said to cure flatulence, hives and toothaches. In the 1960's some users claimed it could be smoked as a substitute for marijuana and altered their state of consciousness, but scientists later determined it was just a placebo effect. 

Catnip oil can be used as a natural insect repellent and can be quite effective against termites and fleas. Concentrated nepetalactone is 10 times more powerful than DEET, the most widely used chemical repellent. 
Nowadays, catnip is primary grown for the benefit of our feline friends. 

Is your kitty a fan of the herb? Why not try growing it at home?


Time for an intervention...

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Za'atar: Jewel of Middle Eastern Cuisine

Many years ago, while working in the kitchen of a family-owned Lebanese restaurant in Portland, Oregon, I would watch the owner as he whipped up a heavenly flatbread that was sprinkled generously with a strange mix of spices, before being baked in the wood oven. He kept this aromatic blend in a cherished ceramic pot in the kitchen and told me that in his country it was known as "Za'atar".

What exactly is Za'atar? 
Za'atar (Arabicزَعْتَر‎ , also known as zaatarza'tarzatarzatr, zattrzahatar
zaktar or satar, is a generic name for a family of related Middle Eastern herbs. These include Origanum (oregano), Calamintha (basil thyme), Thymus (thyme), and 
Satureja (savory). 

Za'atar is also the name for a condiment made from the dried herb(s), mixed with sesame  seeds,  dried sumac, and often salt, as well as other spicesBoth the herb and spice mixture are popular throughout the Middle East, including Armenia, Iran, Palestine, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Libya, Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey and Morocco. In many families, unique blends are passed down from mother to daughter.

Will the real Za'atar please stand up?

Each country has its own unique blend that can vary widely in taste and color. Dried sumac, which has a tangy lemon flavor and deep red color, is especially common in Jordanian za'atar blends. Syrian za'atar is usally brownish in color, due to pepper and cumin. Lebanese may add dried orange zest for breakfast dishes, while Israeli blends may include dried dill. My personal favorite blend includes plenty of thyme, sumac and sesame seeds for a tangy, nutty taste.  

Healing properties

Like many spice mixtures in the Arab World, za'atar is high in anti-oxidants, which help prevent cancer and heart disease, among other illnesses. In the 12th century, the Spanish Jewish philosopher Maimonides is said to have prescribed it to his patients to treat a variety of ailments. Modern studies have concluded that he had good reason for this. Sumac is full of flavonoids, and thyme and oregano are packed with thymol (an essential oil), which has antioxidant, anticeptic and fungicide properties. 

Besides the health benefits, it is an extremely versatile condiment and can be sprinkled on just about any savory dish, including bread, hummus and other dips, meat marinades, soups, stews, etc

Za'atar's uses are practically limitless and as flexible as its ingredients!

So, why not experiment with this versatile spice blend into your kitchen?
Here are some ideas to get you started...

Make your own Za'atar blend:

Tasty recipes: