Exploring New World Spices
with Samuel Garrett
August 28, 2014
We’re wrapping up our summer of celebrating Latin flavors! Earlier this season, we introduced you to Cuban Island Spice, Caribbean All-Purpose Curry Powder, and Mapuche Style Merkén Seasoning. We explored Caribbean grilling and took you on a trip to Jamaica. Now, we’re closing out our Pura Vida summer by taking a closer look at our favorite spices native to the Americas: cocoa, vanilla, and chiles. These New World spices have become integral to various cuisines across the globe, and they are some of our favorites to cook with.
Cocoa dates as far back as 1000 BC to ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations, well before the “New World” was explored by European settlers. When cocoa was brought back to the “Old World” by these explorers, it was combined with sugar and milk to give us what we now know as chocolate. Cocoa comes from a tree (Theobroma cacao) and produces cocoa pods, which are processed to become chocolate, cocoa butter, and cocoa powder. Cocoa trees only grow in tropical regions and cannot be grown outside of a specific geographic range.
Cocoa powder is what we are most familiar with using to impart that recognizable chocolate flavor into our foods. Natural cocoa has been minimally processed, while Dutch cocoa has been treated with an alkali that helps to neutralize cocoa’s natural bitterness. The sweeter Dutch cocoa is a popular ingredient for baked goods and makes a great base for chocolate drinks.
When cocoa powder has been alkalized to an extreme level, the result is what we call black onyx cocoa powder. This produces a dark, purplish black cocoa that has very little bitterness and a much lower fat content. When using black onyx cocoa in baked goods, we recommend replacing 25 to 50 percent of the standard Dutch cocoa in a recipe with black onyx. Using this ratio will produce dark, rich baked goods without losing the moisture. If your recipe is too dry, increase the fat content by adding more shortening, butter, egg yolk or changing to heavier milk; whichever applies to your particular recipe.
Explore the different types of cocoa powders in these recipes:
Vanilla is another spice with roots in ancient Mayan and Aztec cultures. Like cocoa trees, vanilla grows only within a certain region, near the equator, and does not flourish anywhere else. There are a few different types of vanilla beans—Madagascar, Mexican, and Tahitian—each with a slightly different flavor profile.
Madagascar “Bourbon” vanilla beans are what commonly used in recipes. The “Bourbon” associated with Madagascar vanilla has nothing to do with bourbon the alcohol, but is actually a name for the islands that the vanilla beans originate from. These beans are perfect for flavoring ice cream or cookies. Certain savory dishes can even benefit from a dash of vanilla flavor. The Madagascar vanilla flavor can be described as rich and creamy, with moderate tobacco or licorice notes and a slightly woody and prune likeness.
Mexican vanilla beans are very similar to Madagascar; their flavors differ slightly due to their varied growing regions. Mexican vanilla is mellower than Madagascar, with a smooth flavor that can be slightly spicy to the nose. Mexican can be used interchangeably with Madagascar as their flavors are so similar.
Tahitian vanilla beans have the most distinct and unique vanilla flavor, one which people are most unfamiliar with. These beans have a rich, fruity flavor with many floral notes. They are bigger than normal vanilla beans and yield a large amount of seeds within each bean. Tahitian beans have a more delicate vanilla flavor and can easily be covered up during cooking with other flavors, if you are not careful. The best use for Tahitian vanilla is in recipes where the vanilla flavor can shine, like drinks, sauces, or glazes.
Here are some fun recipes using the different types of vanilla:
Chile peppers are native to the Americas, but once discovered by European explorers, they spread across the world and have become a staple in global cuisine. Chiles are known for their ability to add recognizable heat and spiciness to foods. The heat of every chile varies based on its level of capsaicin—the chemical that gives a chile its intensity.
One of the most well-known and widely used chiles is the jalapeño. This medium-sized chile pepper is commonly picked and consumed while still green, which means they have yet to completely ripen. Occasionally, they are left on the vine to fully ripen and turn a bright red color. When jalapeños turn red and are then smoked, they become chipotle peppers.
Jalapeños are not one of the hotter chiles, as they range only from 2,500 to 10,000 on the Scoville scale. For reference, the Scoville scale measures the heat and intensity of chiles from 0 for a bell pepper to over 1,000,000 for a scorpion chile. While the heat level of chiles can be measured, a person’s reaction to the heat can vary greatly. The more someone eats hot chiles, the more resistant they will become to the heat. For those who are used to eating very spicy foods, the jalapeño may not be that spicy; whereas if you are not used to eating chiles, the jalapeño might make your eyes water!
Jalapeños are versatile chiles and can be used in many applications. They are often used in salsas and other sauces for Mexican and Asian cuisine. You might also find them in various cocktails, like a Bloody Mary or margarita, in order to give a little heat.
Here are some of our favorite recipes using jalapeños: