Ask Peter: Mixed spice
At times in your column you mention spice mixes that you use in various dishes — including one with cumin, coriander, fennel seeds, chilli, ginger and garlic. Could you suggest the quantities for each of these ingredients please? Also, how do I use this combination i.e. as a rub, saute or marinade, etc? Lynda
Goodness, that’s a tricky one. I’ve been keenly using spices from an early age and as I travel and taste different cuisines, my use of — and liking for — different spices and mixes just increases. I’m not sure which mix you are referring to, and for that sort of info I’d recommend a book dedicated to them — something informative, wide reaching and tasty like Jill Norman’s Herbs and Spices.
All spices will benefit from toasting in the oven or dry frying over medium heat in a pan before being added to dishes or ground into mixes. As spices vary in size from a small cumin seed through to a cassia quill, you’re best to cook them separately or you’ll burn the smaller ones. I toast them on metal trays in the oven at 160C until they begin to give off an aroma, then cool on a plate. Once they are toasted try to use the spices up within two days as the essential oils begin to dissipate quite quickly.
Also, and this is a must, don’t keep them past their expiry date — they become stale and lose any character.
Spices are used in different ways in different cuisines around the world and it would be impossible to encapsulate that in this column, but here is my take on some of my favourites.
It’s made from the root of a bushy legume and I am a fan of it only when it is in its woody root form. You can buy it resembling twigs, or slivers of a branch. I add this to slow-cooked dishes like pork curry, lamb stew and braised oxtail. It has a lovely sweet taste and an anise character to it. I do struggle with black liquorice sweets (and those salty Dutch ones) and have to force myself to eat them when offered. Interestingly, most liquorice is used by the cigarette industry as it masks some of the character of tobacco!
My favourite spice. It’s the seed pod of a lovely tall tree and I’ve had the pleasure of picking them fresh from a tree in Southern China. Before it’s picked and dried, while it’s still green, it looks like someone has stretched green Lycra over a star anise-shaped wire frame. The leaves are aromatic, and visitors to the Chinese emperors over the centuries would often chew them to freshen their breath before being presented. I use star anise in the same ways that I use liquorice root; it goes well with the same meats (rich ones like pork belly, duck and mutton), in desserts such as poached quince or ground into shortbread.
A delicious seed and so full of character. Toast and grind it and add to lamb marinades along with smoked paprika and toasted fennel seeds. Add it to coconut, turmeric and chilli-based pastes for marinating fish. Fry the seeds in olive oil until golden and add to a salad of diced tomatoes, grilled eggplant and lots of picked mint leaves.
I adore ginger, both ground and fresh, and have it every day, even if it’s just a few slices in a mug of hot water when I wake up. It settles the stomach and enlivens. I throw it peeled and grated into soups and stews, mix it into yoghurt to stir through a spicy curry and love it mixed into rhubarb and pears before stewing.
As for how much to use — this is really where your own personal taste comes to the forefront. When I use spices or fresh herbs, I use more than many people I know. However, if you add spices as a base note to start, and then build on the flavours as the dish nears completion, you can add some wonderful character.
For example, next time you make a coconut curry, add two teaspoons of grated ginger at the start of cooking the dish. Add one teaspoon halfway through, and then a final teaspoon right at the end before you serve it. These 4 teaspoons will give you so much more flavour than if you’d added it all at the start. It’s as though the initial quantity has sown the seeds for the remainder.
Be adventurous and taste as you go along, because you can’t remove an excess of spices, but you can always add a little more.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes here.