Recently, I tackled the project of reorganizing my kitchen cupboards and drawers. I still have a lot of work to do (I suspect this is a never-ending project), but I learned a lot about myself. Particularly about how I manage my spices and seasonings.
Not surprisingly, once I dug into my former spice cabinet, I discovered I bought a lot of spice mixes that had only been used once, maybe twice. Most were years old, which lead to me seriously consider how I handle my spice, herbs, and other seasonings. Mostly, I mix my own…taking a bit of this, a bit of that, and coming up with a flavor profile that really suits me.
About a week later, a friend — one of the best cooks I know — confessed that she’d been making her grilling spice blends. Like me, she used to buy lots of different products; like me, she was going her own way. Unlike me, she makes hers in larger portions so she’s always ready to go.
Needless to say, she is much smarter than me.
I will note that spices and herbs are inherently gluten free. Unfortunately, some commercial blends are not.
As you read through the various recipes, you’ll notice a few recurring items. I find there are spices I use all the time — whether I’m cooking Indian dishes, Mexican, Thai, or Moroccan — and I buy these whole in large quantities. I stole my husband’s old coffee grinder (hey! I bought him a nice replacement, that he promptly replaced with something even better), cleaned it out, and use it constantly for grinding spices.
A word of advice: if you make your spice blends in large-ish quantities, store them in a cool, dry place to keep them fresh. They should be good for about six months. Salt-based blends may last a bit longer.
- Citrus Salts: Mix the zest of a lemon, orange, or grapefruit with salt. It’s really that easy. If you’re making your own zest, let it dry thoroughly (air dry or on the lowest setting in your oven) before mixing with the salt. Start with a 2:1 salt to zest ratio, and work from there. It’s amazing with fish, rice, veggies, and, of course, as a finishing salt on salads.
- Garam Masala: Masalas are Indian spice blends, and this basic recipe can be used as a starting point for all sorts of flavor blends. It packs very little heat, which makes it perfect for sprinkling over rice, tossing with roasted veggies, or even as the basis for homemade chai. 1 teaspoon ground cumin, 1 teaspoon ground coriander, 1 teaspoon ground cardamom, 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, and 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves. Cayenne or chipotle pepper is optional. I use an old coffee grinder to grind the whole spices. Remember to toast your cumin and coriander seeds before grinding to release all the flavor!
- Italian Herb Blend: This is your basic blend for pasta sauces, mixing into meatballs, dusting over socca, or as a base for meats. 2 tablespoons dried rosemary, 2 tablespoons dried thyme, 2 teaspoons garlic powder, 2 teaspoons marjoram (confession: I don’t always use this because, well, I don’t buy it often), and 1 teaspoon dried sage.
- Japanese Seven Spice (Shichimi Togarashi): I love this mix on grilled fish! I love it sprinkled over lightly seared ahi served with sushi rice. 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, 2 teaspoons salt, 2 teaspoons garlic powder, 1 tablespoon (or more) dried orange zest, 1 tablespoon hot ground chile pepper (cayenne or chipotle), 2 teaspoons nori (seaweed), ground, and 2 teaspoons black sesame seeds or toasted white sesame seeds.
- Mexican Seasoning (Very Basic): Because I live in California, I am spoiled for Mexican food, and, most especially for the variety of flavors Mexican dishes carry. That being said, this basic blend will evoke the flavors of Mexico when you’re in a hurry. 2 tablespoons (or less) ground chipotle, 2 tablespoons paprika, 1 tablespoon ground cumin, 2 tablespoons dried oregano, 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. To increase the flavor surprise — and I do this when I’m making chili! — add about two teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder.
- Moroccan Flavor Mix: Blend about 2 tablespoons tumeric, 1 tablespoon ground cumin (I always go heavier on the cumin!), 1 tablespoon ground coriander, 1 tablespoon paprika, some garlic powder, a few dashes of dried thyme, and cayenne to taste. Sprinkle over veggies or use as base for marinating kebabs. For a big surprise, mix with some olive oil and use as a rub on turkey or chicken.
- Spicy Salts: Mix salt with finely ground chipotle or cayenne powder. Proportions should match your own taste. If your salt is very coarse, whirl the mix in a clean coffee grinder or spice grinder to make the texture finer.
- Thai-Inspired Mix: I love making Thai food, but it can be labor intensive due to the large amount of chopping and mixing of fresh, fresh ingredients. When I’m feeling lazy — like maybe I’m in the mood for a spicy coconut chicken soup with rice noodles — I blend together spices that evoke the flavors of Thai cooking…with a little less effort. 2 teaspoons paprika, 2 teaspoons ground coriander, 2 teaspoons ground cumin, 2 teaspoons ground ginger, a few dashes of onion powder, cayenne to taste, and a bit lemon zest to sorta mimic the lemongrass that gives Thai foods their yummy flavor.
Here’s a nice primer on making flavored salts from In Sock Monkey Slippers. And a whole list of flavored salt ideas from Punk Domestics.
Tip of the Week
Spices like cumin and coriander benefit from a light toasting before being ground. Dry toasting is fine for many of these blends. This process when done with oil is also known as blooming the spices, and it really brings out the flavors.
Menu of the Week
I love making Chicken Vindaloo, but as you can see, preparing the spices can be time consuming. Start with the garam masala recipe above to get this lovely braised dish on the table faster. You’ll make the spices into a curry paste that coats the chicken and turns into a delicious sauce. I’d recommend using fresh onion and garlic to augment the spice blend.
Braised Greens with Toasted Mustard Seeds
Steamed Rice with Freshly Grated Lemon Zest