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Ask a Foodie: What Did I See at a Chinese Market?

Ask a Foodie: What Did I See at a Chinese Market?

Q: I was at a Chinese market recently and saw a package with a name that just struck me as odd. Here’s a picture of it.

What is this?

What is this?

What is this stuff?

— J.L.

A. Yes, the name does seem odd — until you look at the Latin root of the word “semen,” which simply means “seed.” The full name refers to cassia seed, or cassia tora seed.

So, what is cassia seed? It’s a Chinese herb that’s said to help ease eye strain, lower blood pressure, detox your liver and cause weight loss by being a laxative. Of course, the FDA hasn’t said that, but it has been in use in China for thousands of years.

A story about the power of cassia seed can be found on

“According to legend, there once was an old Taoist priest who still had clear eyes and sharp ears though he was already more than 100 year old. Many people thus were attracted and down on their knees begging for the magic arts of longevity. To their surprise, this old Taoist priest said that he had no secret recipe at all but ate cassia seeds on daily basis.”

The package says to use “solely to season and/or make tea.” The website says you boil the seed with water, but adds that the end result tastes more like coffee than tea. If you don’t like the flavor straight, you can add “green tea, crystal sugar, medlar, or hawthorn,” it says.


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Ask a Foodie: Can You Eat Mountain Laurel?  (No!)

Ask a Foodie: Can You Eat Mountain Laurel? (No!)

Q: Mountain laurel smells like Grape Kool-Aid, but is it any relation to bay laurel? Can you eat it?

Mountain Laurel1— James

A: Do not eat mountain laurel, no matter how food-like it may smell, and it does smell like artificial grape candy, gum or Kool-Aid. It is highly poisonous. Make sure your dogs don’t eat it either.

Also, the leaves of the mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) may look like a bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), but they are not related.

So, just enjoy the gorgeous purple flowers of the mountain laurel while it’s in season, and leave the seasoning of your next stew to bay leaves.

For more information on The Dangers of Mountain Laurel Flowers, click here.

Another factor to bear in mind: The aroma of the mountain laurel may seem intoxicating, but don’t get too close to get a better sniff. Bees love their fragrance, too, and can often be found swarming the flowers.

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Ask a Foodie: What Is Pumpkin Pie Spice?

Ask a Foodie: What Is Pumpkin Pie Spice?

Q.: What does it mean when a recipe calls for “pumpkin pie spice”? Is this something special that I need to buy?


Season your pumpkin pie to suit your tastes.

Season your pumpkin pie to suit your tastes.

Pumpkin pie spice is a seasoning blend that you can buy in the store or you can make using the spices that you like in a pumpkin pie.

McCormick makes a version that features cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and allspice plus some “sulfiting agents” to keep it shelf stable. A 1-ounce container sells for about $3.65 at H-E-B.

If you’re only going to make one or two pies a year, you might as well make your own from scratch. Here’s where you can personalize the blend to suit your taste. Before you start, think about what flavors you like in your pumpkin pie. Ground cinnamon is practically a given, and ginger, too. But what about allspice? Would you rather have ground cloves? And what about using mace instead of nutmeg?

These variations will change the nature of your pumpkin pie (and possibly your warm spiced cider punch, if you want to season that), so the best bet is to taste the blend before you use it. If there’s too much ginger or not enough nutmeg, you’ll notice that even more so when your pie is served.

So, here are a couple of pumpkin pie spice blends to get you started. Make only small batches (you can half these recipes, again adjusting to taste), so you won’t have any leftovers that need preserving. Just remember to be careful with spices such as cardamom and clove, both of which can overwhelm everything they’re in. Start small and build those up.

If you’re looking for a little heat to add to your pie, try a pinch or two of Raz el Hanôut, a Moroccan spice blend made up of warm spices but with a a lively touch of heat on the finish. It’s made from ginger, black pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, mace, cloves, cayenne pepper and turmeric, and just a touch of that will give you a whole new way of enjoying pumpkin pie.

Pumpkin Pie Spice Blend I

2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons ground ginger
1 1/2 tablespoons ground nutmeg
1 1/2 tablespoons ground allspice

Mix spices together. Use in your pumpkin pie recipe as directed.

Makes 7 tablespoons.

Make your own pumpkin pie spice.

Make your own pumpkin pie spice.

Pumpkin Pie Spice Blend II

2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground mace
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

Mix spices together. Use in your pumpkin pie recipe as directed.

Makes a little more than 5 tablespoons.

Pumpkin Pie Spice Blend III

2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

Mix spices together. Use in your pumpkin pie recipe as directed.

Makes a little more than 5 tablespoons.

From John Griffin


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Ask a Foodie: How Do You Use Za’atar Seasoning

Ask a Foodie: How Do You Use Za’atar Seasoning

Q. I’ve encountered the term za’atar seasoning on menus and have also seen it in ethnic food markets. I know it’s a blend of some spices but don’t know how one would use it. Any suggestions?

A. We’ve seen this seasoning blend as well, and usually in a Middle Eastern Market. The blend has sesame seeds in it and also the brick-red sumac also used in cooking from these regions.  The third element to this mixture is what is interesting — it’s an aromatic variety of marjoram (M. syriaca) which is common in Jordon, Lebanon and Israel, says Aliza Green in her thorough “Field Guide to Herbs and Spices.” This marjoram is also called by the name “za’atar.”

Lemb Kebobs from Feast

Lamb Kebabs from Feast

In the countries mentioned above, the flavor is common in grilled lamb and flatbread and is often mixed with sumac, says Green, to spread on pita bread. We’ve also seen za’atar sprinkled on hummus or tossed into a salad of garbanzo beans, slivered green onion and tomato or sprinkled over feta cheese. You can also put it on a plate, pour over some olive oil and use it as a dipping sauce with pita bread.

Recently, we ordered a small plate at Feast Restaurant on Alamo Street in San Antonio’s King William area. Chef Stefan Bowers sprinkles the za’tar mixture on some tasty Ground Lamb Kebabs, then serves with a slightly spicy serrano feta dip, to good effect.

If you want to make your own blend, try Green’s blend, which she also suggests mixing with yogurt and using as a dip for raw vegetables: Combine 2 tablespoons dried crushed za’atar leaves (or crushed thyme, summer savory, oregano, marjoram or a mixture). Add 2 tablespoons roasted sesame seeds and 1 tablespoon ground sumac. Grind to a chunky paste and season wil a little salt, to taste. Store at room temperature. Za’atar’s flavor will begin to face after 2 months. Makes 1/3 cup. (From “Field Guide to Herbs and Spices.”)


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Ask a Foodie: What Do You Do with Bok Choy?

Ask a Foodie: What Do You Do with Bok Choy?

Q. Suggestions for what to do with bok choy? Do I eat the the stalk, leaf, or both?

— Valerie

Bok choy

Bok choy

A. Bok choy, occasionally spelled choi, is an Asian member of the cabbage family. According to, “Its white stalks resemble celery without the stringiness, while the dark green, crinkly leaves of the most common variety is similar to Romaine lettuce. The Chinese commonly refer to bok choy as pak choi or ‘white vegetable.’ Another common name is white cabbage.”

You can use it like cabbage in a stir-fry with water chestnuts, snow peas, carrots, celery and onions, not to mention your choice of meats or tofu. It would go well with pork, beef, chicken or shrimp. Add some basil and chile oil for a Thai-style dish that can be served over rice or with your choice of noodles added.

Even more simple would be to sauté it in your choice of butter, olive oil, coconut oil or bacon drippings. Treat it like brussels sprouts and toss in some bacon and a touch of orange zest for added flavor.

If you didn’t want to cook it, you could use it raw in a coleslaw. Bok choy is also good cut in half lengthwise, lightly oiled and seasoned and cooked, cut side down on the grill. And, you can juice it as well.

To get you started, here’s an easy recipe from “Joy of Cooking.” It calls for baby bok choy. If yours are a little larger, the cooking time will be longer.

Baby Bok Choy with Soy Ginger Sauce

4 baby bok choy
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon slivered peeled fresh ginger

Rinse the bok choy, then cut lengthwise in half.

Steam cut side down over boiling water for 4 to 5 minutes. Remove with a pair of tongs to a platter.

In a small bowl, mix soy sauce, vinegar, water and ginger. Spoon the sauce over the bok choy and serve. Allow 1 to 2 whole baby bok choy per person.

Makes 2 to 4 servings.

From “Joy of Cooking” by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker and Ethan Becker


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Ask a Foodie: Flavorful Soup Needs Substitute

Ask a Foodie: Flavorful Soup Needs Substitute

Dear Ask A Foodie:

I found a Lentil and Escarole Soup recipe that looks delicious, but I haven’t be able to find escarole. What might I be able to substitute? I haven’t found it in a farmers market either. — Marcia L.

Dear Marcia L.
This recipe looks wonderful, and there are some other greens you can use for escarole. Escarole is a type of chicory, related to curly endive. It is sometimes referred to as broad-leaved endive. This vegetable can be used as a salad green or, as your recipe indicates, cut up and used in a soup dish or with other cooked vegetables.



Other greens that could substitute for this recipe could be beet greens or Swiss chard. You could also try romaine lettuce. Or, if you like kale or other types of greens give them a try, too. I find the flavor of escarole to be mild with a touch of bitterness.

The photo on the right is of a green we picked up in Whole Foods on Sunday that was labeled as organic escarole.

Quarry Farmers and Ranchers Market’s vendor at 9-1 Farm, Fernando Vasquez, said he might be selling a little escarole in the next week or two before the weather warms up.

For a recipe for Lentils and Escarole Soup with Lamb Meatballs, click here.

Photographs by Bonnie Walker

Lentil and Escarole Soup with Lamb Meatballs cropped





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Ask a Foodie: What Can I Substitute for Corn Syrup?

Ask a Foodie: What Can I Substitute for Corn Syrup?

You can make a pecan pie without corn syrup.

You can make a pecan pie without corn syrup.

Q. I’m allergic to corn. What can I use as a substitute for corn syrup in a pecan pie?


A. A lot of people are avoiding corn these days for a number of reasons, including allergies. It’s worse than sugar when it comes to diabetes because of how unpredictable it can act in the blood stream. Plus, a great deal of corn these days is genetically modified, which a growing number of people refuse to eat.

A few more questionable characteristics are raised on FitDay. But so are some solutions.

“Corn syrup can be replaced by a sugar syrup,” the site says. “Combine one cup of pure cane sugar with 1/4 cup of water and heat over a low flame. Cool and use directly in a recipe. If preferred, cover the pan for three minutes to help remove sugar crystals, then add 1/4 teaspoon of lemon juice or cream of tartar to the pan and stir frequently until it reaches the soft ball stage (a drop of the syrup will form a ball when immersed in cold water). Cool and store in a sealed container at room temperature. It should keep for up to two months.

“Alternatively, add granulated or brown sugar to a recipe that calls for corn syrup, cup for cup, then increase the amount of liquids used in the recipe by 1/4 of the amount of sugar added.”

Of course, there will be a difference in flavor. Think about the differences between American Coca-Cola, made with corn syrup, and the version of Mexican Coke that is made with sugar.

But think about being able to have pecan pie this Thanksgiving with no allergic reaction. That’s the best response of all.

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Ask a Foodie: Can I Use a Bouillon Cube Instead of Court-Bouillon?

Ask a Foodie: Can I Use a Bouillon Cube Instead of Court-Bouillon?

Q: Can I use a bouillon cube in a recipe that calls for something called court-bouillon?

— A.B.

Bouillon cubes

Bouillon cubes

A: Court-bouillon is “a flavorful, aromatic liquid used for poaching fish and shellfish,” according to “The simplest court bouillon consists of nothing but salted water, and some traditional recipes call for a mixture of half salted water, half milk.”

Does that sound like a bouillon cube? Yes and no.

A bouillon cube, of course, is salty. If you read the ingredients, salt is generally the most common ingredient in the cubes. But there’s also a lot of bold flavor to most, which means they could swamp the flavors of your seafood.

Sure, you could water down that cube, but what are you left with? Not much.

So, do yourself and your family a favor and make your own court-bouillon. Most recipes are simple in the extreme, such as the following for Poached Salmon in Court-Bouillon, which comes from “The Mediterranean Slow Cooker” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $22) by Michele Scicolone. That’s right, it cooks itself in your crock pot.

“Poached salmon steaks have many uses,” Scicolone writes. “Serve them plain with some of the cooking broth, or chill them for seafood salad. My favorite way to serve this salmon, either hot or chilled, is with tzatziki, citronette (recipe follows) or pesto.”

Poached Salmon in Court-Bouillon

1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1 medium carrot, thinly sliced
1 celery rib, thinly sliced
6 whole black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
1 large fresh flat-leaf parsley sprig
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 cups water
6 salmon steaks, at least 1-inch thick
Freshly ground pepper

mediterranean slow cookerIn a large slow cooker, combine the onion, carrot, celery, peppercorns, bay leaf, parsley, a pinch of salt, the vinegar and the water. Cover and cook on high for 2 hours.

Sprinkle the salmon steaks with salt and pepper to taste and place then in the cooker.

Spoon some of the liquid over the top. Cover and cook on high for 30 minutes, or until done to taste. (To test for doneness, make a small cut in the thickest part. The fish should appear slightly translucent.)

Remove the salmon steaks with a slotted spatula. Serve them hot or slightly chilled.

Makes 6 servings.

From “The Mediterranean Slow Cooker” by Michele Scicolone

Herb and Tomato Citronette

Citronette is the French word for a dressing or sauce made with lemon,” Scicolone writes in “The Mediterranean Slow Cooker.” “This version has chopped parsley and tomato, too. You can also use it to dress salad or steamed vegetables.”

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Freshly ground pepper
1 small tomato, seeded and chopped (about 1/2 cup)

In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, lemon juice, shallot, parsley, and salt and pepper to taste. Let stand at room temperature for up to 30 minutes. Just before serving, whisk again and add the chopped tomato. Correct the seasonings and serve.

Makes 1 1/2 cups.

From “The Mediterranean Slow Cooker” by Michele Scicolone

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Ask a Foodie: What Do You Do with Swiss Chard?

Ask a Foodie: What Do You Do with Swiss Chard?

Q: Help! I’ve got Swiss chard and I don’t know what to do with it.


Swiss chard

Swiss chard

A. Swiss chard is a green that belongs the same family (chenopod) as beets, spinach and quinoa, according to The World’s Healthiest Foods: “Swiss chard is not only one of the most popular vegetables along the Mediterranean, but it is one of the most nutritious vegetables around and ranks second only to spinach following our analysis of the total nutrient-richness of the world’s healthiest vegetables.”

That’s means it’s great to eat — and a wonderful source of vitamins A, C and K — but it doesn’t tell you exactly what to do with it. The site recommends boiling it because of the high oxalic acid content, something to remember if kidney stones are as much of a problem in your family as they are in mine.

You could get similar results by blanching the leaves in boiling water for a couple of minutes and then finishing them off with a sauté, such as the recipe below, or in a casserole used as a substitute for spinach.

But you don’t have to cook the Swiss chard at all. You could eat it raw in a salad or a smoothie. You can even use it with or instead of basil in your favorite pesto recipe.

Here’s a recipe from that matches the pleasant bitterness of the greens with sweet onions. But you could vary the recipe by substituting a half-dozen anchovy fillets for the onions.

Swiss chard generally comes with a single colored rib, such as red, but there is a rainbow variety. No matter the type you grow or buy, remove the rib and use just the leaves.

Sautéed Swiss Chard with Onions

3 pounds green Swiss chard (about 2 large bunches)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 medium onions, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Black pepper

Rainbow chard

Rainbow chard

Cut stems and center ribs from chard, discarding any tough portions, then cut stems and ribs crosswise into 2-inch pieces. Stack chard leaves and roll up lengthwise into cylinders. Cut cylinders crosswise to make 1-inch-wide strips.

Heat oil and butter in a large heavy pot over medium heat until foam subsides, then cook onions and garlic with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper, covered, stirring occasionally, until onions begin to soften, about 8 minutes. Add chard stems and ribs, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper and cook, covered, stirring occasionally, until stems are just tender, about 10 minutes. Add chard leaves in batches, stirring until wilted before adding next batch, and cook, covered, stirring occasionally, until tender, 4 to 6 minutes. Transfer with a slotted spoon to a serving bowl.

Note: Swiss chard has a fairly high sodium level, so you may want to taste before adding salt.

Cook’s notes:

  • Chard can be washed, dried, and cut 2 days ahead and chilled in sealed bags lined with dampened paper towels.
  • Chard can be cooked 4 hours ahead and reheated over low heat on stove or in a microwave oven.

Makes 8 side dish servings.





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Ask a Foodie: Is Turmeric a Super Spice? How Do I Use It?

Ask a Foodie: Is Turmeric a Super Spice? How Do I Use It?

turmeric spoon 1I recently read an article about turmeric that said it can help you not get Alzheimer’s disease. I looked for recipes using turmeric but didn’t find any. Do you have recipes or some suggestions as for good ways to use it?  — M.M.

Dear M.M. Thanks for including the link to the article in your question. Turmeric contains a  substance called curcumin, which is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. As this article from the Mother Nature Network states, “Preliminary clinical studies are showing that curcumin helps reduce beta amyloid plaque in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s (and prevent plaque buildup in people who don’t have the disease).”

Turmeric is widely used in India as a spice in curry blends, and is also used in other South Asian cuisines. You could get turmeric in capsules from a health food store, or buy the spice in bulk, buy the gel caps and put together your own dietary supplement of turmeric.

Or, as scientists in the study reported in the Journal of Neuroscience did, find extracts of curcumin in pill form. (We can’t tell you now much to use — check out the research, consult with your doctor or a registered dietician or other nutrition expert for suggested amounts.)

To get some of the spice into everyday food, though, the obvious suggestion would be to eat some Indian curry each day! But, that is pretty powerful stuff and generally not a daily occurrence in the American menu.

Make this recipe, Indian New Potatoes with Turmeric for a spicy, healthy way to dress up potatoes.

Consider stirring stirring a half-teaspoon or so into a juice, especially vegetable juice or juice blends such as V-8 or tomato juice. Or, put some into a breakfast smoothie, add it to a spicy sauce or add it to condiments such as mustard or ketchup. Put it into rice or couscous, which will add flavor and add its golden color. It’s also good with beef, chicken and scallops.

Field Guide to Herbs & Spices

Turmeric is not spicy hot, and has an earthy taste with a slightly bitter aftertaste, says Aliza Green in her book “A Field Guide to Herbs & Spices, (Quirk Books, $15.95). It also can sometimes be found in fresh form in markets. It is a rhizome, and the individual pieces are called “fingers.”

“Turmeric has been valued for almost four thousand years in India, where it’s essential for curry dishes, but is also used as a cosmetic, as a dye, in traditional recipes and in religious ceremonies,” writes Green.

To read about using a certain type of turmeric (non-edible) in skin/beauty treatments, check out this article in, The Super Skincare Spice.


Photograph by Bonnie Walker/SavorSA



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