Make the most of culinary herbs and spices.

All About Turmeric

by Sandra Bowens

"There is also a vegetable which has all the properties of true saffron, as well the smell as the color, and yet it is not really saffron."  These are the words Marco Polo used to describe the turmeric he saw growing while on a tour of China in 1280.


We probably know turmeric best today as the spice that gives curry powder its brilliant yellow color.  The distinct taste, an earthy sort of gingered pepper, is important to the flavor of many curries as well.


Turmeric has long been used as a coloring agent for textiles, often as a substitute for the far more expensive saffron. In its own right, however, turmeric is valued by Asian cultures as a skin dye for tradition and health.  Indonesian bridal couples may color their arms with it for the wedding ceremony and Malaysian women coat the skin on their stomachs with turmeric after childbirth.  Others use it as a cologne, for complexion enhancement or to prevent female facial hair.  Medicinally, turmeric is still used today in Asia for stomach, digestive and liver ailments and as a tea of milk and sugar for treating colds.


Although native to China, this perennial member of the ginger family is also grown in tropical areas of India and South America.  Botanically known as Curcuma longa, the plant has long leaves surrounding conical spikes where small flowers form. The spice comes from a part of the plant you cannot see when it is in the ground.


Like ginger, turmeric is a rhizome (underground stem) that grows into fleshy "fingers."  To begin the lifecycle, segments of these fingers are planted.  Approximately ten months later when the foliage above the ground has died, the fingers are dug up by hand.  Although an acre may yield about 15,000 pounds, they will lose nearly three-quarters of their weight as they cure.  This process will span about two weeks as the freshly-dug turmeric hands are boiled, cleaned, dried in the sun and then polished.  It is then sorted and graded for market.


Unless you live in an area where turmeric is produced, you are most likely to find it available in the ground form.  Store the powder in a glass jar since it has a tendency to "melt" regular plastic over time and keep it in a dark place because it is sensitive to light.


With its beautiful golden color and sharp musty odor, turmeric is interesting to cook with.  The flavor is intense, warm and spicy but sweetly pleasant, so add it to your recipes in small increments. Besides curry powders, turmeric works well with chicken, eggs, rice, seafood and sauces. It is a common ingredient in mustards and pickles.  A small amount of turmeric stirred into sour cream makes a luxurious dressing for cold shellfish.


The pasta recipe below makes silky golden noodles as well as the stuffed ravioli as we in the recipe.  Try cutting the pasta into ribbons and serving it in an herbed butter sauce to highlight the beauty of the color.


 Cheese Ravioli with a Simple Tomato Sauce


For the filling:


1 container (15 ounces) ricotta cheese

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

2 heaping Tablespoons fresh thyme leaves

1 egg

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 batch Turmeric Pasta, recipe follows

1 egg, beaten



For the sauce:


3 Tablespoons olive oil

2 large shallots, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon dried oregano

2 cans (15 ounces) diced tomatoes in juice, "petite cut" if available

Extra virgin olive oil, for garnish if desired

Chopped parsley, for garnish if desired



Combine the filling ingredients in a small bowl; set aside.


Divide the turmeric pasta dough into portions that will be of a comfortable size to work with.  Roll each portion into paper-thin strips 4 1/2 inches wide.  Brush lightly with the beaten egg.  Place heaping teaspoonfuls of the filling along the bottom half of the dough leaving 1-inch between each.  Fold the top half of the dough down over the filling.  Use the sides of your hands to cup the filling and expel as much air as possible before pressing down edges to seal.  Use a pastry wheel, or pizza cutter, to even the two folded edges and then roll between each ravioli.  Check to make sure they are well sealed as you transfer them to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.  Continue until you have used all of the filling.  Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil as you prepare the sauce.


In a large skillet over medium-heat, heat the olive oil until it shimmers.  Stir in the shallots and oregano.  Cook, stirring almost constantly until the shallots just begin to brown.  Stir in the canned tomatoes.  Reduce the heat and keep warm until the ravioli is ready.


Adjust the heat under the boiling water to maintain a strong simmer.  Carefully drop in the ravioli, 8-12 at a time.  Cook for 3 minutes, stirring gently every now and then.


To serve, spoon a bit of the tomato sauce into a pasta bowl.  Top with 6-8 ravioli and spoon a bit more sauce over it.  Drizzle with the extra virgin olive oil and parsley, if using.


Makes 6-8 servings  (4 dozen ravioli)



Turmeric Pasta Dough


1 cup semolina

1 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon turmeric

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup warm water, plus more as needed


Toss the dry ingredients together in a medium mixing bowl.  Stir in the 1/2 cup water.  When mixture is too stiff to stir with a spoon, begin kneading in more water, 1 Tablespoon at a time, to form a firm but pliable dough.


If rolling the dough out by hand, continue kneading a few minutes more.  Divide into four or more portions and roll to desired thickness with a rolling pin.  Keep dough covered when not working with it.


If rolling the dough through a machine or hand cranked roller, divide dough into four or more portions; keep them covered when you are not working them.  Feed each portion into the machine set on the largest number several times, folding the dough into thirds after each time through.  Proceed with rolling into desired pasta form.


Yield: 4-6 servings


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