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When I think back on 2010, I will remember it, in part, as the year when a lot of people, myself included, truly understood that chocolate and salt are sensational companions. Salted chocolates have been on the radar for a while now, but they seemed to break through into the mainstream only recently. As someone who has never had much of a thing for chocolate, I have been astonished by how much I enjoy it when it is salted.

When it comes to increased attention, you could say the same thing for cinnamon. Its time has come.

Always a popular spice, cinnamon is enjoying the limelight these days as being excellent for our health. A mere half-teaspoon of cinnamon each day is credited with everything from lowering LDL cholesterol and boosting memory and alertness to relieving arthritis pain and regulating blood sugar. Studies have shown that cinnamon inhibits the growth of many bacteria, including E. coli, and slows the proliferation of cancer cells. If you are someone who believes in so-called "super foods," cinnamon should definitely be on your list.

As an ingredient in cooking, cinnamon is nearly as versatile as pepper in the way it can insinuate itself into a broad array of dishes without eclipsing other elements. It is as delicious with chicken, lamb, beef, wild boar and venison as it is in bread, coffee cake, ice cream, apple pie and myriad other desserts. When combined with just three other ingredients, bread, butter and sugar, it becomes one of the finest comfort foods of all time, cinnamon toast.

Cinnamon is made from the inner skin, or bark, of trees native to Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka and China. Although intuitively it seems whole cinnamon sticks must contain great flavor than ground cinnamon, the opposite is true. Ground cinnamon has more flavor because the older bark used to make it contains more of cinnamon's essential oils. Stick cinnamon is made from younger upper branches.

Of the two main varieties of cinnamon, Korintje is what most of us know, though supermarkets tend to offer inferior B and C grades rather than the highly prized A grade. Cassia cinnamon, from Southeast Asia and China, is increasingly familiar. True cinnamon, which is to say Ceylon cinnamon, is less sweet with more complex flavors, including citrus notes, than either Cassia or Korintje.

There are now three good sources for spices in Santa Rosa, in addition to those markets, like Pacific and Oliver's, that carry quality products. Several months ago, Savory Spice Shop opened at the corner of D and Fifth streets in downtown Santa Rosa. Penzey's, which has a huge mail-order customer base, opened a market in Montgomery Village, near the Crepevine Restaurant.

A third source is Cook's Spices, Kim Cook's sweet little spice business. You'll find her at the Santa Rosa Farmers Market.

One of the benefits of having local sources devoted to spices is the knowledge of the business owner. If you aren't sure exactly what you want, just ask.

Some good things to do with cinnamon

- Properly made cinnamon toast is one of the most delicious bedtime snacks in the world. I toast good sourdough bread to a light golden brown and slather it with enough good local butter that there are two or three melted pools. Then I sprinkled a very thick layer of cinnamon sugar (about 1? teaspoons ground cinnamon to every 3 tablespoons of sugar) and let it stand for several seconds. Tip the toast over a bowl and shake off all the excess cinnamon sugar. Some people like a glass of milk alongside, but I think it is best with a flute of your favorite Brut or Brut Ros?

- After mixing a beaten egg with milk or cream and a few drops of vanilla for French toast, sprinkle a generous amount of cinnamon over the surface before dipping the bread in the mixture. Add more cinnamon after each dipping.

- When braising lamb shanks in red or white wine, add a couple of cinnamon sticks, which will impart a subtle, engaging perfume, to the cooking liquid.

- Make simple syrup (2 cups water, 2 cups granulated sugar, simmered over medium heat without stirring until the sugar is dissolved and the syrup is clear) and while it is still hot, add 2 or 3 cinnamon sticks and let steep at room temperature for 2 or 3 hours. Store in the refrigerator in a sealed jar and use to sweeten blood orange juice, lemonade, limeade or cocktails. It is also excellent when used to make citrus fruit compote (any mixture of peeled citrus segments with just enough simple syrup to balance the tartness, bitterness and sweetness).

- Combine ? cup brown sugar with 2 to 3 teaspoons (to taste) ground cinnamon and a very generous pinch of salt and sprinkle over broiled grapefruit or grilled bananas.

I love most kinds of dolmas. I developed these when I had a lot of merguez sausage on hand. I've kept making them because I love Franco Dunn's version of the sausage, which you'll find at the Santa Rosa farmers market.

Cinnamon-Scented Merguez Dolmas with Harissa and Yogurt

Makes 6 to 8 servings

? cup harissa, commercial or homemade (recipe follows)

30 to 40 preserved grape leaves, drained and rinsed

2 pounds merguez, preferably from Franco Dunn, casings removed

6 garlic cloves, minced

1/3 cup long-grain rice, rinsed

— Kosher salt

— Black pepper in a mill

? teaspoon chipotle powder or ground cayenne

? teaspoon ground cinnamon

— Juice of 1 lemon, strained

1 cinnamon stick, about 2 inches long

? cup lemon juice, from 1 or 2 lemons, strained

1? cups beef or chicken stock, preferably homemade

— Warm water

2 tablespoons minced cilantro leaves

2 tablespoons minced Italian parsley leaves

? cup plain whole milk yogurt, such as Bellwether or Straus

First, make the harissa chili paste if you do not have it on hand. This can be done a day in advance.

Fry the merguez in a medium saut?pan set over medium heat, stirring continuously with a fork to break up the meat. When the meat has lost its raw look, add the garlic and rice, cook for 2 minutes and season with salt and several turns of black pepper. Add the chipotle or cayenne and the cinnamon and remove from the heat. Stir in the juice of 1 lemon and set aside to cool to room temperature.

Line a Pyrex baking dish with grape leaves and set it near your work surface.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

To fill the grape leaves, set a leaf, dull side up and tip pointed away from you, on your work surface and set a generous teaspoon of filling in the center. Fold the bottom of the leaf up and over the filling, fold the two sides in, overlapping them, and then roll the bundle loosely towards the tip of the leaf. Set it in the lined baking dish, seam-side down. Continue until all of the filling has been used.

Tuck the cinnamon stick somewhere near the center of the dish, among the dolmas.

Put the harissa into a medium bowl and stir in the 1/4 cup of lemon juice and the stock. Pour the mixture over the stuffed grape leaves and add just enough warm water to completely cover them. Agitate the baking dish gently to combine the liquids.

Cover the dish with aluminum foil, seal it tightly and bake for 40 minutes.

Remove from the oven and let cool for 5 minutes, while you stir the cilantro and parsley into the yogurt, season it with a little salt and pepper and transfer it to a small serving bowl.

Use tongs to arrange the dolmas on a serving plate. Discard the cinnamon stick.

Serve the dolmas immediately, with the yogurt alongside.

If you prefer, you can grind all the ingredients by hand in a suribachi or molca jete.


Makes ? cup

2 ounces dried ancho chilies

6 large garlic cloves, peeled

2 teaspoons ground cumin

2 teaspoons ground coriander seed

2 teaspoons ground caraway seed

2 teaspoons Kosher salt, plus more to taste

? cup olive oil, plus more as needed

Put the anchos into a small bowl, cover with very hot water and let soften for about 15 minutes. When the anchos are soft and fully pliable, drain the water, remove the stems and seeds and put the chilies into the work bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade.

Set the garlic cloves, one at a time, on a hard work surface and use the flat side of a broad knife to crush the clove. To do so, hold the knife parallel to the work surface with the blade touching the garlic. With the heel of your other hand, press down on the blade until you feel the garlic give. Repeat until all of the garlic has been crushed.

Add the crushed garlic, the cumin, the coriander, the caraway and the salt to the food processor, cover and pulse several times, until the ingredients are reduced to small pieces.

Add the olive oil and run the machine until the mixture comes together as a smooth paste.

Taste the mixture very carefully (it may be very spicy, as anchos vary in degree of heat), taking the tiniest bit and touching your tongue to it briefly to check for salt. If it seems flat, add a half teaspoon or so of salt and pulse a few times.

Transfer the mixture to a glass jar; a wide-mouth half-pint canning jar is ideal. Store in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Michele Anna Jordan hosts "Mouthful" each Sunday at 7 p.m. on KRCB 90.9 & 91.1 FM. E-mail Jordan at michele@micheleannajordan.com. You'll find her blog, "Eat This Now," at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com/

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