Cloves: Spicing Up Your Holiday

The holidays conjure up images of togetherness, goodwill, and brotherhood - and food, lots and lots of food, plus plenty of drinks. Ham and turkey, cookies and pies, mulled wine and cider, eggnog, fruitcake, mincemeat, gingerbread - what could such a varied list have in common, besides holiday affinity? Cloves, that's what.

Cloves are the dried flower buds of the tree of the same name, native to Indonesia but also grown in southeast Africa, where most of today's harvest comes from. Their presence in Europe goes back more than 1,500 years, and the Chinese used cloves even earlier. If you lived in China circa 100 A.D., and you were lucky enough to see the Han emperor, etiquette required that you keep a clove in your mouth to sweeten your breath.

But even if you don't count breath-freshening, cloves are one of the most versatile spices in your cabinet. They can be sweet or savory, spice up food or drink, and be used in dinner or breakfast foods.

Cloves come two ways: whole and ground. Use the whole kind for flavoring liquids such as hot drinks or marinades. You can use the whole ones in other dishes, but they have to be strained or picked out - don't eat them. Ground cloves can be used in almost any dish, from barbecue to baklava.

  • Add ground cloves to pumpkin anything: pie, soup, ravioli, or bread.
  • Make a tomato-based beef stew flavored with ground cloves, cinnamon, and smoky chipotle peppers.
  • Mull red wine or cider with whole cloves, star anise, a cinnamon stick, and a little honey. Or, for a change, try mulling a mixture of mostly Madeira and a little Grand Marnier.
  • Exploit cloves' affinity for red wine in other ways - add them to poached pears or a red wine sauce for pork, duck, or game.
  • Roast a pork tenderloin (or pork chops) with a spice rub of ground cloves, cumin, allspice, garlic, and a little olive oil.
  • Stud a lemon peel with whole cloves, and steep it in warm whiskey for a hot winter cocktail.
  • Use ground cloves in your chili, and try lamb instead of beef.
  • Give your holiday ham a professional look: Score the outside with little diamonds, and stick a whole clove in the center of each.

Uncle Hal's Mulled Wine

1 teaspoon orange zest, without pith
1/2 lemon, cut crosswise
2 cinnamon sticks
two 3-inch-long spruce tips (the skinny parts from the ends of spruce) or one 3-inch sprig of rosemary
5 whole black peppercorns
2 whole cloves
1 star anise
1 quart wine (a Pinot Noir or something more fruity) or apple cider

Wrap all the aromatics (first seven ingredients) inside a piece of cheesecloth, and tie it into a sachet with string. Put the cider or wine and the sachet into a 2-quart saucepan and, over medium-low heat, bring just to simmer. Don't heat too quickly or wine/cider will react oddly. Let simmer for just two minutes, then strain and squeeze the excess liquid from cheesecloth. Serve hot.

Optional elegant touch: If you use apple cider, finish the drinks with a little Grand Marnier, rum, or Champagne after removing from heat.

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