ON THE SHELF

CARAWAY SEEDS
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The Independent Culture
HALF-FORGOTTEN on the spice shelf, many of us have an ingredient that was bought for just one dish only, and then abandoned ever after. This week, an unlabelled jar of small, brown striped seeds caught my eye. Each handsome seed was slim, curved and ridged in ochre yellow, but still they defied identification. Yet when I unscrewed the jar, the sweet and slightly aniseed aroma and then the woody, carroty taste revealed them as caraway.

I once sowed a handful of caraway seeds in my herb garden which grew into pretty fern-leaved plants very like chervil; compared with the seeds the leaves had a muted caraway flavour but they went well with in a salad of young leaves. At the end of the summer the white flowers produced a crop of seeds which when dried replenished my kitchen supply.

Few people are indifferent to the flavour of caraway. But adored or loathed, it is an important spice in European cooking: German rye breads, Dutch cheeses and Austrian cakes would lose their true character without caraway seeds, and Hungarian food would be unthinkable without them - caraway is the essential spice in the national dish of paprika-rich gulyas (goulash).

Now somewhat out of favour in British cooking, caraway seeds were once hugely popular: in Shakespeare's time it was de rigueur to accompany baked pippins with a dish of the seeds; Elizabethan cooks also candied them to make digestive "comfits". The last craze for caraway was a century ago in the speckled seed cake much loved by the Victorians.

In that wonderful cornucopia, The Cookery Book of Lady Clark of Tilly- pronie (£19.95 reprint by Southover Press, 2 Cockshut Road, Southover, Lewes BN7 IJH), Lady Clark includes Carraway (sic) Biscuits: "To 1lb of flour add half the weight of butter and sugar, and carraway seeds to your taste. Mix up well with a little milk, roll out very thin, prick, cut into shape, and bake in a quick oven."

The seeds can be used whole or ground to a fine powder - which is easily done with a pestle and mortar, or for speed with an electric coffee-mill, ideally one kept specially for grinding spices. To release the full flavour of the seeds, they should be heated in a lightly oiled pan over a high heat until they make a popping sound. Alternatively, caraway seeds are added early to the cooking liquid in a dish so that they soften in the heat.

Winter dishes of braised vegetables such as cabbage, potatoes and onions are all flattered by the warm, musky flavour of caraway seeds. The spice will also make an unorthodox but satisfying addition to colcannon - the Irish dish of mashed potato and boiled cabbage. And a rich, thick beetroot soup is all the better for a garnish of soured cream or plain yoghurt sprinkled with caraway seeds and chopped chives.

For serving with grilled or boiled sausages - English, Dutch or German ones - I recommend a pan of diced dessert apple, cabbage and walnuts braised in cider and seasoned with caraway seeds.

BRAISED APPLE, CABBAGE AND WALNUTS

A well-tempered and sharply-sweet cabbage dish that reheats well. Serve plain as a vegetable dish to accompany meat, especially sausages, or partner with yoghurt and crusty bread as a vegetarian main course.

Serves 2-4.

1lb/450g green or white drumhead cabbage

1lb/450g red-skinned eating apples

1 medium red onion

2-3tablespoons butter or sunflower oil

14 pint/150ml medium dry cider

1 tablespoon honey

1 teaspoon caraway seeds

salt

4oz/100g walnut halves or pieces

12 pint/300ml plain yoghurt(optional)

Remove the stalk from the cabbage and any leaves that may be damaged, if necessary, then wash and drain it well. Shred the cabbage finely, quarter the apples, remove the cores, and chop the fruit.

Soften the onion in half the butter or oil in a heavy-bottomed pan. Stir in the apple and cabbage, add the cider, the honey, the caraway seeds and a little salt.

Bring to the boil then cook stead-ily, stirring now and again, for 15- 20 minutes until the apple is fully cooked but the cabbage has softened yet retains a slight crispness. The cooking juices should have reduced to a depth of about half an inch . Check the flavour and season or sweeten according to taste.

Meanwhile, melt the remaining butter (or heat the oil) in a small pan, add the walnuts and stir over a moderate heat for 3 minutes.

When you are ready to serve the meal, spoon the walnuts over the cabbage and apple mixture, and serve with plain yoghurt and hunks of crusty wholemeal bread.

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