Discovering New Spices
Move Outside Your Comfort Zone With New Flavors
Most of us use the same spices and herbs all the time. This may be because we like the flavors of favorite cuisines. But some is also just due to habit and using what's at hand.
I'm no exception. I've got a collection of favorite spices and flavorings. Some are fresh herbs that I buy in anticipation of a specific recipe. For example, I buy fresh tarragon to make a favorite mushroom salad, chives to snip over beets, and dill for fish or cold summer soups. It's rare that I don't have fresh thyme in my refrigerator as it's a favorite and to my way of cooking, very versatile. And this summer I've successfully grown sage and rosemary on a windowsill since I use them in small amounts and the pots didn't have to be large.
Aside from fresh herbs, there's my spice shelf, jammed with little jars and tins of favorite things. I buy large amounts of whole black Tellicherry peppercorns as this is such a kitchen staple. Other frequently used spices are red pepper flakes and Greek oregano, revealing my love of Italian food, and ground cinnamon to stoke my addiction to anything with apples (pies, tarts, sliced with roast pork).
I also keep spices that I use rarely but want the security of having them on hand. This is really not a good habit since spices can quickly lose their power and if we keep them too long, we'll have a faded flavor when we finally put them into a recipe. I know this so instead of throwing out the old and buying more new, I will just add more of the to a recipe. This trick usually can't do any harm, like adding an extra half-teaspoon of ground ginger to a gingerbread recipe or more ground cumin to hummus. I know it would be far better to always use a freshly bought spice but the frugal Yankee in me stretches them for as long as I can.
But in the last few months I've been introduced to several new spices or spice mixes that are now regularly working their way into my dishes. I love it when you think you know a lot about food only to find out that there's always more to discover. These spices -- new to me but familiar to many -- are neither rare nor expensive. They are also versatile enough to find a space at the front of the spice shelf, not buried in the back with a fading tin of poppy seeds or a 10-year-old jar of whole cloves (I'm confessing, not exaggerating).
Even though I love Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines and cook them often, I had never before heard of za'atar until I read Sara Jenkins' appealing new cookbook, Olives & Oranges. The start of the book has a chapter called "My Flavor Pantry" in which Jenkins details what you should have on hand to make her authentic recipes from Cyprus, Spain, Lebanon, Italy and other countries that rim the Mediterranean.
Third on her list of spices (after black peppercorns and bay leaves) was za'atar. Also spelled zahtar, zaatar, zatar or zahatar, this is a spice mixture used in Middle Eastern cuisines (Lebanon, Israel, Morocco, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and Armenia) that is traditionally made of thyme, sesame seeds, sumac and salt. But since it's from cuisines that have regional variances, the mixture can also include dried marjoram, oregano, cumin, or coriander.
How to use za'atar? A traditional way is to just sprinkle it on yogurt or hummus, dust it on bread that's been dressed with olive oil, or on cheese for breakfast. But it is also a perfect compliment to chicken or fish. In Olives & Oranges, Jenkins has a roast chicken recipe that mixes za'atar with unsalted butter that is then placed under the chicken's skin before cooking, producing a tender and big flavor result.
I could see adding some pinches of za'atar and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice to plain baked fish, rubbed on a lamb chop before broiling, replacing thyme or rosemary when roasting root vegetables, or sprinkled on top of savory crackers or lightly oiled wedges of pita bread baked as an hors d'oeuvre.
Sara Jenkins also mentions sumac but I first came across this spice several months ago when looking for ways to add complexity to less expensive cuts of beef.
Sumac's red berries grow wild in the Middle East and parts of Africa. The berries are dried and ground into a deep, dark brownish-red coarse powder. It has a slightly astringent but not terribly forward flavor that works well with meats and fish.
My favorite way to use sumac is to combine about 2 tablespoons in a little dish with 2 teaspoons of salt. Stir with a fork to combine and then rub this mixture on a skirt or hangar or flank steak and then broil or pan cook the meat in your favorite way. The red color makes a beautiful and appetizing surface on the meat and the slightly astringent flavor balances with the meatier rich flavor of these affordable cuts of meat. See our recipe.
Alternatively, you could mix some sumac with butter and a pinch of salt and add a bit on top of a broiled steak or pan grilled jumbo shrimp.
I first bought Aleppo pepper by accident. I was actually trying to buy a certain chili powder and grabbed the wrong little jar off the store shelf, not noticing my mistake until I got home.
I'm not one to try and return food, and as I said, I'm frugal, so I tasted the Aleppo pepper and found that my error was a happy discovery as this mild pepper is now one of my favorite spices. Aleppo peppers are grown in Syria and Turkey. It's named after the historic city in northern Syria, one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, mentioned in the Bible and today a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Aleppo pepper is slightly sweet and like Sumac, it's ground to a coarse texture. It's a perfect when you want to add some complexity, more flavor than black pepper, and the suggestion of heat (without any fire) to meat, seafood or sauces.
My favorite way to use Aleppo pepper is to mix some with salt and rub the combination on a pork tenderloin. See our recipe. Pork tenderloin is a reasonably priced cut of meat and because the loin is small, it cooks quickly, making it perfect for a weekday dinner, and the Aleppo pepper adds easy flavor.
I discovered this chili pepper from the Basque region of France the way many of us discover new foods and flavors -- by traveling. Years ago on a vacation in France, I saw that a little jar of Piment D'Espelette would often be on a restaurant table, taking the place of black pepper.
Until recently it could be a challenge to find this smoky, mild pepper in our stores here, making it a popular food souvenir to bring back from a trip to France. But thanks to food writers like Paula Wolfert who advocates its use in The Cooking of Southwestern France (one of my "hall of fame" favorite cookbooks), it has become far more easy to find.
I like to use this grainy red pepper in vinaigrettes (see our recipe for "Grilled Fish With Citrus Vinaigrette"), on broiled fish fillets, in soups, and in almost any recipe that might otherwise use paprika. Piment D'Espelette is also sold as a jelly (think of a pale, smoky paprika version of red pepper jelly) and in a ketchup-like form. But the powdered is both the easiest to find in our stores and the most versatile.
All of these spices can be found at several New York markets, including Zabar's, Fairway, Kalustyan , and Penzeys Spices. Both Kalustyan and Penzeys have outstanding on-line shopping options.
If you have a favorite spice or other flavoring that you think other city cooks should know about, please tell us by using our comment link.