Cinnamon has really been on my mind lately. I know, I know, it’s such a common little spice, and most of us know precisely what to do with it. Toss it with sugar on buttered toast or shake it onto a bowl of oatmeal. But listen, it is not what you think. First, I like its ubiquitous quality and I like the idea that we all think we know how to use it. But I’ve been adding cinnamon to so many unusual dishes lately and with much success. Let’s think outside the jar for a minute and talk about new uses for that perfect, accessible spice you’ve been taking for granted.
Few folks would think of adding cinnamon to their tuna and tomato salad but not me. Cinnamon pairs well with tomatoes and you can feel free to throw a half-stick of it into a tomato sauce when you’re feeling clever and strange. (And don’t forget to add a whole, peeled carrot to the sauce for added sweetness.) Cinnamon doesn’t strike the sauce as you might think but is subtle and smoky. Think of that traditional combination of nutmeg and red meat and tomatoes in a ragu sauce. It’s not too far fetched to consider using cinnamon in the same way. Throw a cinnamon stick into your next pot of beef stew and see if you can pick up that wonderful flavor. What else? Cinnamon loves lemon and you could make a smooth lemony, cinnamon sauce and toss with fresh pasta noodles. Think of the Moroccan tagine and find the scent of cinnamon, along with many other aromatic spices, accompanying things like chicken and chickpeas.
Best of all is that cinnamon is considered one of the most healing of spices. It can relieve diarrhea and nausea, counteract congestion and aid circulation. It warms the body and enhances digestion, especially the metabolism of fats, among other uses.
You can see now why I’ve had cinnamon on the mind. You read a lot about unusual, exotic spices like saffron and cardamom, but we all know cinnamon and have a bit of it on the shelf. It’s important now more than ever to take a look at some of the most common foods that sit patiently in your fridge door or in the pantry and consider them in new ways. Start with that jar of cinnamon by adding it to a tomato-based sauce or to a chicken and lemon dish. Here’s a recipe to try from the great Claudia Roden:
Syrian-Style Chicken with Orzo (Jaj bel Lissan al Assfour) serves 6
1 large onion (chopped), 2 tbls sunflower (or neutral) oil, 1 chicken (about 3 1/2 lbs), 4 cloves garlic (sliced), 2 teaspoons cinnamon, 1 teaspoon crushed cardamom seeds or fresh ground, 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger, salt and pepper, juice of 1/2 lemon, 2 cups orzo, 2 tablespoons butter
In a pan large enough to contain the chicken, fry the onion in the oil until soft. Put in the chicken, and pour 4 1/2 cups of water (it will not cover the chicken entirely). Add garlic, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, salt and pepper. Simmer for 1-1 1/2 hours with the lid on, until the chicken is so tender the meat falls off the bone, turning the chicken over once halfway through. Take out the chicken, and when it is cool enough to handle, cut it into pieces.
Bring the sauce to the boil, add the lemon juice, and throw in the orzo. Cook for 8-10 minutes, or until tender, adding boiling water-about 1 cup-if necessary, and more salt and pepper. Stir in the butter and put the chicken pieces back into the pan, over the pasta. Heat through before serving. The pasta becomes soft rather than al dente.