Allspice: All purpose, but not all spices

Allspice is a victim of its own name. You can’t blame someone for seeing the word “allspice” and thinking that it is a blend of many spices — or even all spices. It’s a natural assumption.

But allspice is just one spice, a dried berry from a broadleaf evergreen tree that grows primarily on the islands of the Caribbean Sea and Central America. It got its English name, according to a book published in 1736, because it tastes like “all the other spices.”

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Usually, when people try to describe the taste, they limit the mixture of spices it resembles to cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Sometimes they also add juniper, ginger and black pepper.

What this means to the home cook is that allspice can be counted on to add an extra kick to practically everything. Whatever tastes good with cinnamon, cloves or nutmeg tastes even better (or at least just as good) with allspice. And it’s great in the sort of things you don’t necessarily associate with cloves or cinnamon too, such as soups, stews and vegetables.

The next time you make a chicken soup — or beef soup, or tomato — add a little allspice. Four or five berries will do for a gallon of soup, or one berry for every quart of liquid. Or if you are making a pot roast, stew or other braised dish, try three to five allspice berries for a lovely hint of the flavour of the islands.

And don’t forget to use it in desserts, too. Allspice is like cardamom; it is just as happy in sweet dishes as it is in savoury. Cookies, cakes, oatmeal and even applesauce all perk up a bit when sprinkled with ground allspice.

I decided to use it in three distinctly different ways: as part of a flavourful rub on roast chicken, in a spicy marinade inspired (and perhaps used) by the indigenous people of the Caribbean islands and in muffins made, surprisingly, with sweet potatoes.

Sweet potatoes? Yes, allspice also pairs well with all of your most popular orange vegetables — carrots, squash and sweet potatoes.

I made the chicken first, and I’m glad I did because as it was baking, a marvellous aroma of allspice permeated the kitchen. Cumin and paprika are also major parts of this dish, but the spice that you smell is allspice. And it is sublime.

The dish is wonderfully easy to make, too. You simply combine the spices (including garlic and onion powders and salt and pepper) with just enough olive oil to make a wet paste. This you rub all over the chicken and then roast it in the oven.

You don’t even have to wait. With most rubs, you want to let the spices sit on the meat for a while to let the flavours permeate the food. But this dish cooks so slowly that the meat has the chance to absorb the flavour from the spices while it cooks. It only roasts at 375 F, rather than the 425 F or so usually used to cook chicken, and the chicken winds up being surprisingly tender and moist, redolent of all the good things smeared on it.

The marinade I made is more old school, meaning that the meat has to soak up the flavour before it is cooked. This is especially true because I used it to make London broil and, as with other tough cuts of meat, London broil needs a good, long marination to make it tender.

The great thing about this marinade is that it could be used for any kind of meat or fish. But try it with a London broil and let the meat marinate overnight. It is astonishingly good. Your family or guests will go crazy for it — as long as they like their food spicy.

A version of the recipe apparently originally comes from the Arawaks, an indigenous people of the Caribbean islands and South America. The recipe has it all: It is a little sweet (brown sugar, molasses), a little salty (soy sauce), a little spicy (cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger along with the allspice), a little aromatic (onions, shallots, garlic), a little fruity (orange juice, red wine) and perhaps more than a little hot (scotch bonnet chile peppers).

I couldn’t find scotch bonnets locally, so I used habaneros instead. They are closely related and pack the same amount of fierce heat, but scotch bonnets are said to taste a bit fruitier. Because of the wallop of fire that these peppers contain, I removed the seeds before chopping them. But the meat did not turn out to be as spicy as I feared, because the heat was limited by the marinade. If you like it extra hot, try keeping the seeds in the sauce.

Ready for dessert, I also made sweet-potato muffins. I was a little uncertain about these as I was making them, because the shredded sweet potato clumped together, making the batter a bit weird.

I needn’t have worried. It eventually unclumped (a fair amount of stirring was involved) and became a recognizable muffin batter. They baked with no problem. And the taste? Superb. It tasted just like carrot cake, only one in which the carrots had been replaced by sweet potatoes.

You know that carrot cake flavour. It tastes like cinnamon. And cloves. And maybe just a hint of nutmeg.

 

Roast Chicken with Cumin, Paprika and Allspice

Makes: 4 to 6 servings

 

1 (6 to 6 1/2-pound) chicken

2 Tbsp olive oil

1 1/2 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp garlic powder

1 tsp onion powder

1 tsp ground allspice

1 tsp paprika

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp ground black pepper

1 large lemon, halved

Preheat oven to 375 F. Rinse chicken; pat dry. Place chicken on rack in large roasting pan.

In a small bowl, stir together the oil, cumin, garlic powder, onion powder, allspice, paprika, salt and pepper to form a paste. Rub spice paste all over chicken.

Roast chicken one hour. Squeeze juice from lemon halves over chicken; place lemon halves inside main cavity. Continue to roast until chicken is cooked through and thermometer inserted into thickest part of thigh registers 180 F, from 30 to 60 more minutes. Transfer to platter; let stand 15 minutes.

Recipe from Bon Appetit.

 

Sweet-Potato Muffins

Makes: 15

 

2 eggs

1 cup plus 2 Tbsp packed brown sugar

1/2 cup canola oil

1 tsp vanilla extract

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

1/2 tsp ground allspice

1/2 tsp salt

4 cups peeled, shredded sweet potatoes (about 2 large)

1/2 cup raisins

1 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease muffin tins to hold about 15 muffins.

Crack eggs into a small bowl and beat well. Add brown sugar, oil and vanilla, and whisk together until smooth.

In a large bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, salt and grated sweet potato. Make a well in the center and pour in the egg mixture.

Stir the egg mixture, gradually incorporating it into the sweet potato mixture. Stir in the raisins and walnuts.

Spoon the batter into the muffin tins; filling them to the rim will result in large caps. Bake 25 to 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.

Recipe from allrecipes.com.

Arawak Marinade
Yield: About 2 1/2 cups
6 green onions, chopped
3 Tbsp minced shallots
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp ground ginger
1 Tbsp ground allspice
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp salt
1 Tbsp brown sugar
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1/4 cup red wine
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 Tbsp molasses
2 scotch bonnet chile peppers, see note
Note: Scotch bonnet peppers are closely related to habaneros, which you can substitute if you cannot find the scotch bonnet. Both are among the hottest peppers in the world, so be very careful.
1. In a medium bowl, combine the green onions, shallots, garlic, ginger, allspice, ground black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, brown sugar, orange juice, vinegar, wine, soy sauce, oil and molasses.
2. Chop the peppers and add to the mixture. If you want it a little less hot, remove the seeds before chopping. Wash your hands thoroughly, then wash the knife and the cutting board.
3. Mix well, cover, and allow to sit for 1 hour. Stir again before using to marinate fish or meat. Marinate fish at least 30 minutes, chicken or pork at least 1 to 2 hours, or beef (such as for London broil) at least 4 to 6 hours or overnight. Discard marinade after use.

Recipe adapted from allrecipes.com

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