Cinnamon: Flavor That Grows On Trees

You may be surprised to find out that you - yes, you - may have eaten tree bark recently, maybe even today. Cinnamon comes from the bark of either Cinnamomum zeylanicum (named for its native habitat of Sri Lanka, formerly called Ceylon) or C. cassia, which grows in southeast Asia and parts of China.

Cinnamon sticks are cut from the narrow branches, and the bark naturally curls into tight, round shapes - just like wrapping paper when it's taken off the tube. The same phenomenon that makes wrapping presents harder makes stirring cider easier. Cinnamon powder is cut from older, thicker bark, and is consequently stronger in flavor.

You might wonder who first thought of trying to flavor food with bark, but whoever it was did it a long time ago. The ancient Greeks used the spice, and the historian Herodotus described what is undoubtedly the most innovative way to gather cinnamon. Although the trees grew in inaccessible mountain regions, there were birds that gathered the sticks for their nests. The Greeks would entice the birds with heavy pieces of meat, which would be taken back to the nests. The combined weight of birds and meat would be too much for the nests, which would fall to the ground and put the cinnamon branches within reach.

Fortunately, these days you can get it at the supermarket.

Cinnamon and sugar have forged a popular partnership, but cinnamon can also be used solo in savory dishes:

  • Make an all-purpose spice rub with cinnamon, coriander, cumin, and a little olive oil. Use it when roasting or grilling chicken, pork, or vegetables.
  • Season carrot or squash soup with cinnamon and buttermilk.
  • Add cinnamon and hot paprika to couscous with chickpeas and lamb sausage.
  • Marinate lamb or beef in olive oil, black pepper, allspice, and cinnamon.
  • Serve pork tenderloin with sweet potato puree spiced with onion, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
  • Add cinnamon and a little coconut milk to a mild vegetable curry.
  • Cook chickpeas with a variation of berbere, an Ethiopian spice mix made with chiles, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and nutmeg.
  • Make a brown rice pilaf with shallots, cinnamon, and raisins. Add finely chopped fresh parsley just before serving.
  • Add a cinnamon stick to flavor your holiday cranberry sauce.

Who knew you could get so much out of tree bark?

Curried Chicken Breasts With Walnut-Raisin Sauce

1 teaspoon curry powder
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 large skinless, boneless chicken-breast halves (about 1 1/2 pounds)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 small yellow pepper, cut into matchstick-thin strips
1 teaspoon chicken-flavor instant bouillon
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped
1/4 cup dark seedless raisins
1/2 small bunch spinach (about 1/4 pound)

1. On a sheet of waxed paper, mix curry powder, black pepper, cinnamon, 2 teaspoons flour, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Use to coat chicken-breast halves.

2. In 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat, in 1 tablespoon heated vegetable oil, cook chicken-breast halves, turning them once, until golden brown on both sides and juices run clear when chicken is pierced with a knife, about 6 minutes; remove to plate; keep warm.

3. In drippings remaining in skillet and 1 tablespoon additional hot salad oil, cook onion, yellow pepper, and 1/2 teaspoon salt, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are golden brown and tender.

4. In cup, with fork, mix bouillon, sugar, 1 tablespoon flour, and 1 cup water until blended; stir chicken-broth mixture, toasted walnuts, and raisins into vegetable mixture in skillet. Over high heat, heat to boiling; boil 1 minute.

5. To serve, arrange spinach leaves on 4 warm dinner plates; top with chicken. Spoon sauce over chicken.

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