It’s an exciting and wonderful thing to cook with a new ingredient for the first time. There’s that lovely thrill of discovery and invention. And sometimes, there’s a sharp ‘ping’ of recognition, when a new ingredient or spice turns out to be something unknown you’ve loved (unknowingly) for a long time. My exhilarating new culinary discovery (and long-lost unknown love) is nigella seeds. A packet of nigella seeds, which I bought on impulse at a Turkish grocer after reading up on Middle Eastern flatbreads, has been sitting, untouched, in my cupboard since November. I was a little intimidated by them, and I didn’t realize that they had a use outside of baking. But last week the lovely Nisha Katona, Indian chef extraordinaire, tweeted a short You Tube video on using nigella seeds with winter vegetables. (She added them to leeks.) She told me later on, “Nigella is a very kind vegetable spice. She just gets on with bringing the best out of veg – kindly.”
Since then, I’ve been itching for an excuse to try adding nigella seeds to vegetables. When I saw beautiful Brussels sprouts on Upper Tachbrook Street yesterday, it was as if someone had laid down a gauntlet. I’m really pleased with the combination of flavours I put together, and it’s a dish I know I will repeat. It’s the kind of dish you cook with the happy certainty that someone will say, “I LOVE these Brussels sprouts.” (Today that someone was me.)
So, for the uninitiated, nigella seeds! What are they like? They’re a confident, nutty low note that adds depth and a bit of resonance to vegetable dishes. (And yes, I recognized them immediately.) They’re sort of like the bass clarinet in an orchestra – unobtrusive, but clear and assertive. Visually they’re beautiful, like very black sesame seeds. This dish combines sautéed finely shredded Brussels sprouts (one of my favourite ways of cooking them) with nigella seeds, sesame oil, hot mustard, chilis, and sweet citrus. It’s a nice winter dish that tastes like spring. Enjoy!
1 pound (about half a kilo) of Brussels sprouts, tough outer leaves and stem discarded, and finely shredded. (You can use a food processor to do this, or you can slice them youself.)
2 tablespoons sesame oil
½ teaspoon nigella seeds
½ teaspoon hot dry mustard (preferably English)
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1 small green spicy chili, seeded and finely sliced into rings
3-4 small sweet seedless oranges, such as clementines or tangerines, peeled, sectioned, and chopped or sliced into chunks
Heat one tablespoon of sesame oil over medium-high heat in a wok or heavy-bottomed frying pan. Fry the nigella seeds until they sputter (being careful not to burn them), and then add your Brussels sprouts all at once.
Cook, tossing frequently, until the sprouts start to become glossy but are still crisp. Add the salt, mustard powder, rice wine vinegar, and sugar, and continue to cook until the Brussels sprouts are crisp-tender, the flavours are incorporated (about three to five minutes), and any liquid has evaporated.
Transfer immediately to a bowl. In the same wok or frying pan (or use a different one!) heat the remaining tablespoon of sesame oil and fry the sliced chili until crisp and bright green (no more than 15-30 seconds). Toss with the Brussels sprouts, and then top with the oranges.
You can toss to combine, or if you wish you can serve the oranges as a garnish on top of individual plates. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Makes 4-6 servings as a side dish.