Sometimes the simplest things really are the best. A mix of green beans, walnuts, walnut oil, and grains of paradise is one of those simple things. Well, it's simple if you can easily get your hands on walnut oil and if you're lucky enough to locate grains of paradise. We do have walnut oil in a few of our grocery stores here, but that may not be common in other places. The spice grains of paradise was another matter. I hadn't even heard of it before I read Amanda Hesser's Cooking for Mr. Latte. In that book, she mentioned it several times, and one mention in particular was in a dish of haricots verts with walnuts and walnut oil to which she suggested adding small potatoes. A few weeks ago, there was a party at Rain Lily Farm in Austin celebrating Hesser's new book The Essential New York Times Cook Book. When she signed my copy of the new book, I mentioned to her that I had been trying to find grains of paradise because I'd become so curious about it. She encouraged me to keep looking. When I got home, just for fun, I checked to see if this spice was used in any dishes in the new book of over 1,000 recipes from the New York Times. The index led me to page 30 for a Bloody Paradise which is a bloody mary cocktail made with grains of paradise. Hesser wrote in the intro to that recipe that she had become obsessed with the spice in 2000 and was (jokingly) sure Americans would become convinced they couldn't live without it. Well, one did. As luck would have it, just two weeks ago, Austin got its very own, brand new Savory Spice Shop. Let me just say that I now have easy access to not just grains of paradise but also tomato powder, various cocoa powders, a plethora of chile powders, and peppercorns of every color.
So, what are grains of paradise anyway, you may be wondering. I turned to my deluxe edition of the Food Lover's Companion which I received as a review copy last year. In the spice glossary, grains of paradise are defined as "small, brown, round seeds indigenous to the west coast of Africa and used as a spice. Though hot and pungent, this spice has an exotic spicy quality that hints of ginger, cardamom, coriander, citrus, and nutmeg." Hesser uses it interchangeably with black pepper. In the top right photo below, black peppercorns are on the left and grains of paradise are on the right. The grains need to be ground just like black pepper, and I placed mine in a spare peppermill for easy use. Kurt and I tasted ground grains of paradise side by side with freshly ground black pepper. We found the two spices to be similar with grains of paradise seeming less hot and more herby with a slightly stronger, almost piney flavor that's also found in black pepper. I detected a faint suggestion of nutmeg in it as well.
I prepped the green bean dish just as it was described in Cooking for Mr. Latte. I used CSA green beans, rather than haricots verts, which were blanched, drained, and dried and then tossed with toasted walnuts, roasted potatoes, walnut oil, and ground grains of paradise. It was a delicious combination of flavors and textures set off by an interesting spice. The dish couldn't have been simpler once I knew exactly what the spice was and where to find it. Hope you're having a simple and splendid holiday week. Happy Thanksgiving!