Spice

Spice

By
Claire Thomson
Contains
10 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
ISBN
9781849499552
Photographer
Mike Lusmore

I keep my spices in an assortment of jam jars with masking tape labels etched boldly in black; their names stretching right around their middles. Some are familiar, household stalwarts, and some sound so exotic that their hastily scrawled name-tapes will stop me in my tracks; they make me want to revisit their smell and then I have to unscrew the jar and take a long, indulgent snort. Sometimes this moment will backfire and the potent contents (now up my nose) will catch me off guard and send me ricocheting around the kitchen in a fit of sneezes. Slipped in among these jars are tiny packets or slivers of tin foil wrapped tight with various powders, pods or seeds brought home from holidays. Their use is sometimes determined not by knowing their name but by where in the world they might have come from.

Not so much a spice rack, my collection of spices spills over a whole shelf, encroaching on the shelves above and below. Stacked up, two or three high, these jars are ever ready to topple. I need more spice shelves, but that would require a bigger kitchen. I could put all these jars out of sight, away in a cupboard, all forlorn. There they might sit, forgotten, their long ago use-by dates an indication of neglect. So, I can’t do this either. Instead, with pride of place, from near and far, my spice collection is one that prompts adventure, spurring diversity in my daily cooking, and always encouraging me to use here, there and often. With spices, you will never get bored with the food you cook.

Spices conjure up a different interaction with food and cooking from many other ingredients in the kitchen. In the search for perfume and nuance, spices encourage the cook to dig deep and to smell as much as taste. It’s a wonderful feeling to inhale an ingredient and to be transported to another place entirely. Not many ingredients can do this. Sniffing a cauliflower might give you a vegetal jolt of the fields in which it grew, a hunk of beef a whiff of the animal it once was, but chances are the smell will take you thousands of miles away from where you stand. Cinnamon quills might take you to the white sandy beaches of Zanzibar. Turmeric growing wild in the forests of south and south-east Asia. The sun-shrivelled jalapeño fields of Mexico.

In this chapter, I’d like to give you a spice shopping list. There are many spices not included in this, my hit list, and by all means buy others, but these are the spices I think necessary to the storecupboard and subject to the most thorough use. Buy spices little and often, keeping them vibrant and fresh for cooking with. From these stock spices, I’ve offered some spice combinations to assemble as and when needed, giving you some heady blends to experiment with.

Key to cooking with spice (and crucially, I’m including black pepper here, salt too for that matter) is to be deliberate when you use it. Aristotle knew a thing or two, and ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ is especially pertinent. Spices, like building blocks, give structure. They can help to balance a dish. A brilliant dish that includes spice is made great by the addition of spices from the beginning through to the end. Salt is used from the off to ease out flavour (with the exception of cooking pulses); an assertive grind of black pepper at the table gives a hypnotizing heat; using whole dried chilli or cinnamon quills to swell and permeate a dish as it cooks, or the crackle of cumin seeds in a tarka before any other ingredients are added, imbues the dish with smokiness and depth. Be confident. A dish should taste of the spices you use. Give spices their full workout – toast and grind them fresh for use where indicated. And lastly, my pinches are almost always generous and never really all that parsimonious.

Larder basics

sea salt

black pepper

whole allspice

cardamom pods

chilli flakes

cinnamon sticks/quills

ground cinnamon

cloves

coriander seeds

cumin seeds

fennel seeds

ground ginger

whole nutmeg

paprika, hot (picante), sweet (dulce) and smoked

saffron strands

Sichuan pepper

star anise

sumac

ground turmeric

vanilla pods

curry powder

five-spice powder

garam masala

herbes de Provence

ras el hanout

Key individual spices

Buy little and often from supermarkets, grocery stores or online. Choose shops with a high turnover of spices – freshness is key. Toast whole spices in a dry frying pan until fragrant, and add whole or grind fresh for use. On my shelves in small amounts and replenished often are:

Allspice

Buy the whole berries, toast and grind finely or use whole, remembering to watch out for them in the finished dish.

Black pepper

Always grind from fresh, coarse or fine, to your liking.

Cardamom

Buy whole pods, crush, remove the husk and grind the seeds or use whole, crushed, remembering to watch out for them in the finished dish. Black cardamom is worth seeking out for an intriguing and smoky cardamom flavour.

Chilli flakes

Dried chilli flakes (find a variety you prefer to use; I like Turkish red and black chilli flakes for a sweet hot or smoky heat).

Cinnamon

Use whole quills and also buy ground cinnamon. Pop whole quills in dishes as they cook to permeate, and use ground in cakes and such.

Cloves

Buy whole to toast and grind or use whole, remembering to watch out for them in the finished dish.

Coriander seeds

Whole seeds; toast and grind roughly or finely as you like or leave whole.

Cumin seeds

Whole seeds; toast and grind roughly or finely as you like or leave whole.

Fennel seeds

Toast, roughly crack, grind finely or leave whole.

Ginger

Buy ground ginger little and often (fresh ginger is also a fridge staple).

Nutmeg

Have whole nutmeg to grate as needed.

Paprika

Hot (picante), bittersweet and hot (agridulce) and sweet and mild (dulce) paprika are all wonderful and used to your taste; smoked (pimentón de La Vera) is a different seasoning and should be used more sensitively.

Saffron

Buy saffron strands to soak in a splash of warm water for 15 minutes and give them a gentle bash to release yet more colour and flavour. Use the saffron and the water.

Sichuan pepper

Despite its name, not a pepper but the seeds of the prickly ash. Worth sourcing some for its unique citrus flavour with a numbing tingly buzzing sensation. One of the five ingredients in 5-spice powder. Use whole or grind to a powder.

Star anise

Use whole mostly to permeate in cooking, or you can grind for use.

Sumac

Ground red-purple berries. Sour and aromatic, use as you might lemon for a tart fruity burst of flavour. Look for freshly ground sumac; the good stuff should leave an oily moist residue on your fingers as you take a pinch.

Turmeric

Buy ground turmeric powder, little and often. Fresh is sometimes available, but the powder is far more common.

Vanilla

Buy pods to split, and scrape out the seeds and sticky bits for use. Keep the scraped pods in jars of caster sugar for vanilla-scented sugar.

Ready-made spice blends

No shame in buying these powerhouse blends readymade and off the shelf – they are an easy shortcut to flavour. Find a brand you like and buy little and often. Do buy blends with a recent production date and a long sell-by date. Refresh frequently, keeping the blends tip-top.

Curry powder, hot or mild

Curry powder usually contains a mixture of turmeric, chilli powder, ground cumin, coriander, black pepper and ginger, all fine spices in their own right, mixed here for a general seasoning. Use as a base note and add extra spices as you wish.

Five-spice (chinese)

A terrific blend sometimes confused with allspice (a berry from the Pimenta dioica tree). Five-spice is a spurious name, given there are no typical five spices that make up the blend. Star anise and cinnamon will always feature, and often Sichuan pepper and others such as ginger, fennel, cloves and nutmeg. Use in Chinese and Vietnamese dishes.

Garam masala

There are many south Asian regional variations of masala. Garam masala is a northern Indian/Pakistani blend. Blend any combination of spices for your own unique masala, but a good garam is a great starting point.

Herbes de provence

An easy seasoning blend to flavour your food with a blast of the Mediterranean. Dried herbs are very different from fresh but I love their earthy pungency at times. Usual suspects in a good herbes de Provence might include any one of this heady selection of sun-soaked herbs: rosemary, savory, thyme, marjoram, sometimes lavender and fennel seeds. Lemon zest is fairly typical too.

Ras el hanout

From North Africa, ‘ras el hanout’ translates loosely as ‘head of the shop’, meaning the best spices on offer at any given time. Much like the garams of India, there is no definitive configuration for ras el hanout, and the combination can very much be down to the person making the blend. More than twelve and up to twenty different spices can be a common scenario, including cardamom, cumin, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, allspice, ground ginger, chilli peppers, coriander seeds, various peppercorns including long or cubeb, sweet or hot paprika, fenugreek, ground turmeric, dried rose petals, grains of paradise, fennel seeds, aniseed and galangal.

Recipes in this Chapter

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