Seasonings: It's fenugreek

A few years ago in New York, there was a fuss about a strange maple-syrup aroma permeating the city. Well, investigators found the culprit: fenugreek seeds.

Ah yes, these lovely seeds pack quite a punch in terms of taste and, as is now so obvious, aroma. I recall that when I was a child, with every birth in the family the grandmothers would immediately make the new mom increase her intake of fenugreek. Apparently, it helps with milk production. Who knew?

The small, caramel-colored, flat, square seeds are commonly used in Indian and North African cuisines. The hard seeds work best when slightly toasted or soaked in water for an hour or so. When using them, toast only those you'll use immediately and only lightly, or bear the wrath of a horridly acrid taste. Also, be stingy with this seed; too much can be bitter.

Raghavan Iyer is a teacher and acclaimed author of "660 Curries" (Workman Publishing, 2008), which has several recipes using this wonderful ingredient. I spoke with him about fenugreek seeds and leaves.

"I love the heady aroma of fenugreek leaves, dried or fresh -- musky, strong and perfumed," Iyer said. "They yield a flavor parallel to none, and can often be the only headliner in a dish. The dried seeds evoke an 'ooh, curry' response from my students, since it is an essential spice in commercial curry powders. I love the hint of bitterness the seeds impart."

Iyer offered some tips on using fenugreek:

  • -- Stir a handful of the fresh chopped leaves into a stew of potatoes and garbanzo beans.
  • -- Simmer a pot of homemade tomato sauce with a drizzle of clarified butter and crushed dried leaves.
  • -- Flavor steamed green peas with dried or fresh fenugreek leaves, salt and a hint of cream for a great side dish.

I have a particular soft spot for fresh and dried fenugreek leaves, also called methi. The fresh leaves are petite and pretty and have a delightful taste. Dried leaves -- often my go-to ingredient when something I am cooking just tastes blah -- smell divine. Ask New Yorkers!

"When choosing fresh leaves," Iyer said, "look for leaves that are bright green and perky. Once they start to fade, the leaves acquire a light yellow color. They resemble watercress leaves and can be quite muddy due to the fact that they grow very close to the ground."

The fresh leaves are best used immediately. Be sure to wash them well. You can also purchase frozen fenugreek leaves from Indian grocers. In most curries, they can be substituted for fresh ones.

Dried fenugreek leaves can be stored for up to a year, if not more. Use your nose: If they smell good, use them.

A friend of mine likes to crush the dried leaves to a powder and mix it into mashed potatoes. Everybody loves them, she says, but no one can figure out that elusive flavor.

The seeds can be stored up to two years. Ground fenugreek loses its potency very fast, so toast and grind the seeds as you need them.

ROAST CHICKEN WITH FENUGREEK

Try this recipe from my book, "Modern Spice" (Simon & Schuster, 2009).

3- to 4-pound whole chicken

1 teaspoon salt, plus more for seasoning the bird

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more for seasoning the bird

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus melted butter for basting

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

2 tablespoons dried fenugreek leaves, crushed

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Fit a rack into a roasting pan.

Take chicken and remove the giblet package for another use. Trim any excess fat or skin from the chicken. Rinse the chicken and pat it dry, or it will produce steam when you roast it. Lightly season the bird's inside cavity with salt and pepper. Set chicken on the roasting-pan rack.

Combine the room-temperature butter, the teaspoon each of salt and pepper, the crushed red pepper flakes and the fenugreek leaves in a small bowl; mix to incorporate. Rub this mixture liberally all over the chicken and work it under the skin as well.

Turn the chicken breast side down on the rack. Roast for 20 to 30 minutes, until the skin begins to brown. Turn the bird breast-side up and begin basting it with melted butter (to taste). Roast for 5 minutes.

Again baste the bird all over with melted butter. Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees and bake for 45 to 55 minutes more, or until the chicken's juices run clear. For a well-browned chicken, finish it for a few minutes on the "broil" setting, watching closely. There's no need to reposition the oven rack.

Transfer the chicken to a platter and let it rest for about 10 minutes. Serve drizzled with pan juices, if desired. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Contact Monica Bhide at monica(at)monicabhide.com.  Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com

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