“Abe Lincoln stunk of cumin.”
I’ve been carrying that opening line around in my head for years, though I didn’t write it myself. It was written by a classmate in a food writing class that I took about 10 or 12 years ago. I’ve long since forgotten the writer’s name, but the line has always stuck with me. It’s the sort of line that seems simple enough on first glance, yet, as I’ve found in the years since I first read it, is much harder to write than you might imagine. A short, simple sentence that at once stops you in your tracks with its nonsensicalness while at the same time conjuring an unmistakable scent/flavor memory. And it’s all the more appealing if, like me, you love the aroma and flavor of cumin.
My anonymous classmate’s piece was a review of a Middle Eastern restaurant. If I recall correctly, he had been to the restaurant for dinner, and that night, his clothes, hair, skin saturated with the scent of cumin, dreamed of Abe Lincoln. The two thoughts—Abe Lincoln and the smell of cumin—conflated into one seemingly unlikely scenario: Abe Lincoln stunk of cumin. The truth is, it’s remotely possible that Abe Lincoln did, at some point in his life, stink of cumin. The seeds of a flowering plant cultivated mostly in the Middle East, cumin was introduced to the Americas by Spanish and Portuguese colonists.
According to some sources, cumin seed—either whole or ground into a powder—is the second most popular spice in the world, coming right after black pepper. It is used to season savory dishes throughout South Asia, North Africa, the Middle East, and Central and South America. The flavor is similar to caraway, but with a touch more heat.
This grapefruit avocado salad—which plays the earthiness of cumin against the bright tangy citrus flavors of lime and grapefruit and the creaminess of avocado—is my most favorite use of cumin ever. It was inspired by a salad my mother first made for me probably more than 20 years ago. Her version, I believe, came straight from the pages of Edward Espe Brown’s Tassajara Recipe Book. I somehow managed to nick my mother’s original tattered and spattered copy of the book, so I can see that over the intervening years, I’ve adjusted the recipe slightly, more for simplicity than anything else since the recipe is pretty much perfect as originally written.
This is an extremely flavorful salad—the kind of side dish that sparkles all on its own—so it’s a fantastic accompaniment to, say, a simple roasted chicken, but it is also refreshing enough to stand up to very rich or very spicy dishes. It is right at home alongside a spicy molé or chili or a roasted leg of lamb with Middle Eastern flavors.
And not to worry, I’m pretty sure that making/eating this salad won’t make you (or any long-dead historical figures) stink of cumin. Well, maybe in your dreams.
- Zest and juice of 2 limes
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin
- ½ teaspoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon prepared Dijon mustard
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 1 head butter or Bibb lettuce, torn into pieces
- 1 ruby grapefruit
- 1 medium, ripe Haas avocado, diced
- To make the dressing, combine the lime zest and juice, salt, cumin, paprika, and mustard in a bowl or jar and whisk or shake to combine and dissolve the salt.
- Add the olive oil to taste and whisk or shake until emulsified.
- Place the torn lettuce leaves in serving bowl.
- Using a sharp knife, slice both ends off of the grapefruit, then stand the grapefruit on a cutting board and slice the rind off of the flesh. Hold the grapefruit over the serving bowl containing the lettuce leaves and slice the sections of the grapefruit into the bowl by slicing along side the membrane between the sections (so that the flesh drops into the serving bowl, leaving the membrane behind.)
- Stir the diced avocado into the dressing, then spoon dressing (including the bits of avocado) onto the salad (you may have extra dressing, but make sure you scoop all of the avocado bits out before refrigerating any extra dressing, which will last this way in the refrigerator, covered, for 2 or 3 days).
- Toss the salad very gently to coat evenly with the dressing and serve immediately.