The recipe was for an Aztec Corn Soup, and it called for 4 rounded teaspoons of cumin.
Cumin is not one of those spices I cotton to. When it’s out of balance (as it would be if I had used 4 teaspoons of it in any one dish), it reminds me of a smelly armpit. Sorry, but that’s not my idea of anything tasty.
I was debating including any at all. Then I remembered how good cumin is in chili and some Middle Eastern stews when incorporated thoroughly into the dish. So, I thought I would add just 1 teaspoon to see what the creator of the recipe had in mind. I could always add more later, if it needed it.
S0, I had to find my cumin. And that’s where things got messy.
A force greater than me, however, decided that cumin might not make it into the stockpot. That entity goes by the name of my spice cabinet. I have a three-shelved cabinet filled to overflowing with all manner of herbs and spices, dried chiles, extracts, toothpicks and who knows what else.
It’s the extraneous items that make it hard to find the jars I use regularly, including cinnamon, vanilla and cayenne pepper.
I once had a method to the madness. I cleaned the cabinet out a couple of years ago and arranged everything in order of what I use. The rose water went to the back. The almond extract was moved to the front. Red dye, for those red velvet cakes people demand all too often, stayed up front. Dried Indian gooseberries went to the back.
Except somehow all the jars seemed to have gotten mixed up. The jackfruit extract had no business being with ground savory. The za’atar was with black sesame seeds. Then there was a jar of mustard seed from my mom that could easily predate me.
I know some spices don’t age well. Saffron is best used as young as possible. Dried basil and oregano lose their flavor, especially when not stored well. But that isn’t true across the board. So, you won’t find me among those who throw out spices every year or every three years. I have a jar of curry with a tablespoon or two at the bottom that dates back to the 1980s. The last time I used some, a year or two ago, it tasted, well, like curry to me. Not curry that was reaching its 30th birthday, either.
I just smell it or even taste it before using and decide at that point.
That is, if I can put my hands on it. The hunt for cumin was so lengthy that I just started grabbing jars at random in search for what I needed. Pretty soon, the entire counter top beneath the cabinet was covered with jars of various sizes and colors, and I still hadn’t found it. And I knew for a fact that there were at least two jars of ground cumin and one jar of cumin seed in there dating to chili cookoffs in the past.
Given my fondness for the spice, you should have guessed already where I found it. At the very back of the top shelf, lurking behind a jar of mixed pickling spice.
So, into the soup it went. But only one teaspoon. I just couldn’t risk the rest.
A little while later, the soup finished cooking, and I processed it in my food processor until broth and vegetables were one. It wasn’t pretty. You’ll find no photos of the finished product here, even with the sprinkling of chopped cilantro on top. But the flavor was largely good, and I will make again.
Except there was still too much cumin in it.
I made a note of that on the page in the cookbook. And I’ve placed the cumin seed at the back of the cabinet again. Don’t tell any one, but this time it’s behind the pandan aroma paste.