Know your spices
Spices are technically the seeds, roots, flowers, fruit and bark of aromatic plants used with food as opposed to herbs which are the herbaceous (leaves, stems) parts of aromatic plants. A quick glance at the “baking needs” aisle of the supermarket proves that spices today are familiar and available enough to be taken for granted. This belies the decisive part they played in world history.
Because spices were rare and came from places distant to Europe, they helped build the fortunes of the great Italian city states of Genoa and Venice — both made fortunes by being geographic and economic middle men in the spice trade between the Orient and Europe. It was because of their stranglehold on the spice trade that European exploration was stimulated in the 15th century.
This exploration had a profound effect on the fortunes of Spain, England, Holland and Portugal, helping to make them into powerful colonial empires. Columbus was looking for the Indies and the spices found there. Instead he found America.
The only spices that came from there were chillies, vanilla and allspice. This was important, but not for Europe. Chillies were embraced by Central America, India and Southeast Asia to such an extent that it is hard to imagine Mexican, Thai or Indian food without that heat. (Pepper was the only spice with heat before this.) Medieval recipes used spices extravagantly, often as a status symbol (some of these recipes being strangely similar to modern North African ones in their use of spices).
Unlike Medieval recipes, it is better not to use too many different spices in one dish as they will cancel each other out. Cheap curry powders, available in mainstream outlets, are an English invention. Often dominated by cumin, fenugreek and turmeric, they are used indiscriminately by people who think a spoonful of this powder will turn a dish into Indian food.
The range of authentic “curries” is huge and they all use different combinations of spices that are easy to assemble. Curry is a generic term that describes many differently flavoured dishes that will sometimes have a combination of spices or are very simply spiced using only one or two spices.
Buying and storage
Buy spices in small amounts from somewhere that has a high turnover. This is because the fresher the spice the better the flavour. I buy spices from my local Indian shop which has a better range and fresher spices than other places. (It is also a much more interesting retail experience shopping there than at mainstream places.)
The freshness of spices cannot be overestimated. I can remember years ago my first attempts at Indian cooking from a book, using spices I found in the pantry. I could not understand why the food was tasteless and insipid until I realised I was using old spices with minimal flavour.
If you want them really fresh, grind them yourself. A small electric coffee grinder is excellent for this. Keep it just for spices as it will be ruined for coffee. For a more traditional, possibly more satisfying grinding method, buy a large granite mortar and pestle.
There is no quick fix to learn about which spices go with what. Practice, experimentation and following recipes, as with all cooking, are the ways to become familiar with using spices. Here are a few ideas.
Make some Turkish-inspired lamb meatballs. To 500g minced lamb mix in finely chopped garlic, toasted pinenuts, currants, a teaspoon of paprika, 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, a handful of fresh breadcrumbs, a beaten egg and chopped parsley. Season with salt and form into walnut-sized, slightly flattened balls. Fry or barbecue and serve stuffed into warm flatbread with sliced cucumber, lettuce and a dollop of plain unsweetened yoghurt.
Place a litre of full cream milk in an ovenproof dish, add ½ cup short grain rice, a couple of tablespoons of sugar or to taste, 4 squashed cardamom pods, the zest of a lemon and a vanilla pod, split lengthways. Place in a 150C oven for 2 hours or until thick and browned. Eat hot or warm with a sprinkling of toasted sliced almonds and whipped cream.
Make your own harissa by soaking a handful of deseeded dried chillies in hot water until soft, draining them, placing them in a small food processor with 3 large cloves garlic, a deseeded roasted red capsicum, 2 teaspoons toasted cumin seeds and 1 tablespoon toasted coriander seeds. Process well and add enough extra virgin olive oil to make a creamy paste. Season well with salt. Use as a condiment for stews and soups, or as flavouring in meatballs or in fish or chicken stews.
Fry a chopped onion in vegetable oil with 2 tablespoons toasted cumin seeds, a cinnamon stick, 4 cloves chopped garlic, a large pinch of chilli flakes, 2 tablespoons finely chopped ginger and a teaspoon of ground turmeric, until onion is soft. Add 3cm diced boneless chicken pieces, fry until browned, then add a can of crushed tomatoes in juice, diced potatoes and water to cover. Simmer 30 minutes, season with salt and serve. Serve with coriander, on rice.
Fry a finely chopped onion in extra virgin olive oil with some ground cloves until the onion is soft then add to a mash of steamed parsnips and cream. Serve with panfried or barbecued steak.
Line a baking tray with baking paper and add thin sliced carrots, capsicum, zucchini, red onion, cauliflower florets, thin sliced peeled pumpkin and kumara. Sprinkle with fennel seeds, chopped garlic and extra virgin olive oil. Season, mix well, spread out in one layer and roast in a 200C oven for 30 minutes or until the vegetables are slightly shrivelled and browned. Serve with roast chicken, lamb or beef, or with fried fish.
Bring a large saucepan of chicken stock to the boil, add a star anise pod, plenty of thin sliced ginger and thin sliced boneless chicken thighs. Simmer 10 minutes or until the chicken is cooked. Add baby bok choy sliced lengthways, simmer 3 minutes and serve over cooked egg noodles and mung bean sprouts with coriander sprigs on top. Soy and chilli sauce on the side.
Trim the excess fat and skin around the edge of boneless duck breasts, score the skin in a criss-cross pattern down to the fat and toss them in a mix of lots of cracked black pepper, a little salt and extra virgin olive oil. Pan-fry 8 minutes on the skin side (most of the fat will melt out from under the skin) and 4 minutes on the flesh side. Serve sliced, with a sticky gravy made of boiled down red wine, bought beef jus and roasted beetroot wedges finished with a splash of balsamic vinegar.
Remove the stems from silverbeet and slice the leaves 2cm thick. Boil or steam until well wilted and add plenty of spinach leaves so that they also wilt. Drain well, cool under cold water, squeeze dry then pan-fry in extra virgin olive oil with chopped garlic, chilli flakes and freshly ground nutmeg — to go with chicken, fish or beef.
Celebrate real vanilla by making Robert Carrier’s real panna cotta. Make it the day before it is needed so it is firm, but not rubbery (the cream will help set it). Put 500ml of cream into a saucepan and add a vanilla pod split in half lengthways (scrape out the seeds into the mixture) and 4 tablespoons caster sugar. Bring to the boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar, then stir in 2 teaspoons powdered gelatine dissolved in 3 tablespoons of hot water. Stir well to dissolve the gelatine mix. Remove the vanilla pod. Pour into 6 small moulds and place in the fridge overnight. Unmould by running a small knife around the edge of the mould and serve with fresh or poached fruit.