A few years ago I taught a Spice Tasting class at the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. It was a four-part series on The Silk Road, that ancient trade route that went from China to Rome in Antiquity and, eventually, all the way to the New World. On the evening of the class so many of my students responded to the knowledge we were sharing in the same way I did when I was conducting my research: it was humbling to realize that the world we live in today -- and in this case, especially the culinary world -- is so much richer because of those traders. The sheer volume of knowledge, textiles, music, food, and culture that criss-crossed continents is mind boggling. Thanks to them Cinnamon was brought to Europe. Thanks to them, Turmeric made its way from India to Afghanistan. And thanks to them, Ginger crossed Asia and insinuated itself into regional cuisines along the way.
Allspice is one of the New World ingredients that migrated east once Europeans discovered it. We've all been told that Tomatoes and Peppers come from the Americas, and some of us even stop to marvel at how much the Tomato has dominated Southern Italian cuisine ever since. But how many of you know where Allspice originated? It was on Christopher Columbus' second voyage west that these wonderful berries from the Pimenta tree caught the sailors' notice in Jamaica. By the end of the 16th Century the spice had sailed across the Atlantic and now featured confidently in many European and Middle Eastern dishes. In Europe, bakers began using it to flavor desserts and enriched breads, and sausage makers used it in abundance. But it was in the Middle East that it largely took hold in savory cooking, beautifully flavoring meat dishes, vegetable stews, and even tomato salads.
Its flavor mimics a blend of the warm spices of Cinnamon, Nutmeg and Cloves, and I can only imagine that until the first sackful of these dried berries arrived, most Middle Eastern cooks deftly combined that 'Holy Trinity' of spices to create food that was rich and satisfying. It must have been akin to a gift from the heavens when, all of a sudden, there was an ingredient available to them that provided them with a shortcut. And a delicious one at that.
The spice we know as Allspice is actually the berry of the Pimenta tree. Allspice berries resemble Black Peppercorns, and are sold whole or in ground form. In Jamaica, they use the wood to grill Jerk Chicken, but the Pimenta tree's affinity for its home climate makes it difficult to grow anywhere else. Still, having the spice at our disposal is wonderful enough, whether you are baking or cooking.
One of my favorite dishes using this heady spice comes from Palestine. It's called 'Rouz ou Lahmeh', or 'Rice with Meat'. It's not Paleo, but it deserves a place at your table every now and then. Served along side some garlicky-lemony-olive oily chicken and a salad, your guests will love what your table offers. Following is the recipe I use. It calls for ground lamb, but feel free to substitute beef or turkey if you prefer.
Rouz ou Lahmeh
½ lb Ground Lamb
2 cups Long Grain Rice, such as Basmati
3 TBSP Butter
3 TBSP Olive Oil
4 cups Chicken Stock, hot
2 tsps Salt
½ tsp Freshly Ground Black Pepper
3/4 tsp Allspice, ground
¼ tsp Cinnamon, ground
½ cup Pine Nuts
1. Brown ground lamb in butter. Add salt and spices and cook for approximately 2 minutes
2. Add rice and stir to coat with the lamb/spice mixture. Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil
3. Cover and allow to simmer for 20 – 25 minutes
4. Allow to sit for about ½ hour before serving
5. Meanwhile, sauté pine nuts in the olive oil until they are lightly browned
6. Mound rice on a platter and garnish with the pine nuts