Cinammon enriches the depth of flavor in many recipes.
In this country, cinnamon makes its mark in sweets. But elsewhere in the world this spice once used in perfumes by the Romans is decidedly savory, showing up repeatedly in curries, stir-fries and grilled meats.
Which makes cinnamon an excellent ingredient for expanding your culinary repertoire. While there are several styles of cinnamon, from Vietnamese to Mexican canella, they can be divided into two major categories, best identified by their quills (sticks), writes Harold McGee in his book “On Food and Cooking.”
The first, traced back to Ceylon or Sri Lanka, is the product of the dried inner bark of the cinnamomum tree and is light brown in color, lightly sweet and when dried rolls into one familiar stick.
The second, native to China and Vietnam, is commonly called cassis and is darker, stronger in flavor and forms a stick with a double roll, McGee explains.
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Use of cinnamon has been traced back to the early days of China and the Middle East, and even is referenced in the Old Testament. The spice route brought cinnamon to Europe, then on to the United States and Mexico.
“Nearly every culture on this planet uses cinnamon sticks,” says Nirmala Narine, of Nirmala’s Kitchen, who travels the world in search of spices.
In Africa, it is a key ingredient in Moroccan tagines and the fiery Ethiopian spice mix berbere. In the Middle East, it flavors lamb and chicken. In India and Pakistan, it is added to the pungent spice blend called garam masala. In Mexico, it adds depth to chocolate.
Grated or whole, cinnamon is versatile and easy to experiment with. Add a few dashes to your favorite meat rub. Saute a stick with onions for your next batch of chili. Or toss in a few sticks with some wine when slow-cooking brisket. (Remove the sticks before serving.)
Here it adds depth to a savory stew native to Tibet.
CINNAMON BEEF STEW
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 cup plain yogurt
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon curry powder
2 teaspoons garam masala
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons powdered ginger
3 pounds flank steak, cut into 3/4-inch-cubes
2 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter) or extra-virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 cinnamon sticks, roughly 2 inches each
3 bay leaves
2 small tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced
Salt, to taste
1. In a large bowl, combine the yogurt, paprika, curry powder, garam masala, soy sauce and ginger. Add the beef and turn to coat. Cover the bowl and refrigerate to marinate several hours or overnight.
2. When ready to cook, in a Dutch oven over medium-high, heat the ghee or oil. Add the onion and garlic, then saute until translucent, about 5 minutes.
3. Add the cinnamon sticks and bay leaves, and continue to cook until the onions brown, about another 5 minutes.
4. Add the beef, marinade and tomatoes. Increase heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer, uncovered and stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes.
5. Reduce heat to a low simmer, cover and cook for another 40 minutes.
6. Remove the cinnamon sticks and bay leaves, then season with salt.
Recipe adapted from Nirmala Narine’s “In Nirmala’s Kitchen,” Lake Isle Press, 2006