Spice blends are mainstays of cooks the world over. A Punjabi cook has his garam masala at the ready for everyday seasoning. A Lebanese, her baharat for breakfast (sprinkled on labneh), lunch (inside falafel) and dinner (over lamb stew).
We use spice blends too, yet do not consider them exotic. Old Bay Seasoning, Lawry’s Seasoned Salt and Montreal Grill Mates Steak Seasoning are go-to spice blends in North America, as is any so-called “dry rub” (for barbecue, say, or the slow cooker), perhaps the spice blend in greatest ascendancy these days.
At their most convenient, spice blends are ready-made, blended by anyone from a small-batcher to a behemoth corporation (the multinational McCormick & Company produces the three spice blends just mentioned).
However, at their most flavorful and aromatic, most spice blends are best when homemade—granted, perhaps the most luxurious act that cooks could do in their kitchens.
The globe sports countless spice blends, if only because the make-up of those possible to enumerate are themselves so plastic. Morocco’s ever-present spice mix called ras el hanout (“the best of the shop”) can contain 30, 40, even 100 different spices and aromatics. Perhaps the only guaranteed ingredient list is that for Chinese five-spice because its number is self-constrained.
But here are four spice blends from four sprawling regions of the world, with suggestions on how to use them. Recipes for blending and grinding them at home are widely available, especially online.
Africa: Ras el hanout
Professedly made from the premium spices that a blender has on hand, this spicy yet sweet and (by the nature of its blend) very complex reddish-brown mix will flavor all manner of moist foods such as tajines and soups (harira being the most popular) in its native Morocco.
“The one I make has 16 ingredients,” says Zach Johnston, founder and owner of The Spice Guy, headquartered in Aurora. He lists them all at the entry for “ras el hanout” on his website, thespiceguyco.com, and says that, in addition to Morocco’s wet-food uses, ras el hanout “is my go-to for meatballs, and in a tzatziki sauce or, if you do it, rack of lamb.”
India: Garam masala
“Masala” is a Hindustani or Urdu word merely meaning “mixture,” while “garam” signifies “warming” or “hot.” Typically, it contains the seeds or pods of cumin, coriander, cardamom, clove and black pepper, but, again, may also be flavored with ground cinnamon or nutmeg, cayenne pepper or bay leaf.
In cooking, frying it in fat at the beginning of a recipe (a very common method in the Indian subcontinent) gives a potent punch to the ensuing dish, while stirring it in, or sprinkling it over, the finished preparation preserves its original flavors. It is synonymous with the colloquial “Indian curry powder,” but its uses go far beyond curries. “It is really, really good in cauliflower soup,” says Johnston.
Middle East: Baharat
Simple Arabic for “spice” or “spices,” baharat is at once smoky, spicy and sweet, typically a blend of cumin, cassia bark (cinnamon), cloves, coriander, cardamom and black pepper. It also may contain hot chile, or nutmeg, or allspice, or paprika. Are you catching on to the idea of these blends?
Baharat makes for an exotic dry rub (try it during grilling season as an alternative to your own go-to rub) and as a pre-grilling marinade. Because it is sine qua non in falafel, Johnston thus thinks “It is perfect for lamb burgers.” I agree.
Asia: Chinese Five-spice
Always a blend of pods of star anise and clove, Sichuan peppercorn, fennel seed and cinnamon stick—in the Chinese custom, to comprise the five tastes of salt, sweet, bitter, sour and umami—one Chinese five-spice may be pronounced with, say, the floral notes of star anise, while another sports the piquancy of the Sichuan peppercorn. Again, variances are the rule.
Nonetheless, it is a go-to in Asian cooking and profitably can spice your own. Its blend is not too far off the typical “pumpkin pie spice” well-known on grocery shelves in this country and would add some kick to the upcoming Thanksgiving buffet.
However, because Johnston grew rhapsodic when saying that “It is amazing on raw or grilled pear,” I thought to tinker with a recipe for pears poached in red wine and use it there. Also, everyone can have at these pears because they end up containing no alcohol.
Pears Poached in Cherry Juice and Chinese Five-Spice
6 pears (Bosc is best but Anjou, Bartlett or other works too), peeled just before cooking, stems intact
3 cups 100 percent tart cherry juice
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice and zest from 1 lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon Chinese Five-Spice powder or its equivalent in whole spices (see note)
In a steep pot, mix together the cherry juice, water, sugar, lemon juice and zest, the vanilla and the Chinese Five-Spice powder (or its equivalent in whole spices). Bring to a boil and add the pears, reducing the heat to a simmer. Cover the pears with a circle of parchment paper or a clean silicon baking round and, if you have either, a “spider” or perforated skimmer that fits into the pan and can stand the simmer. You want the pears to be submerged completely so that they take on the color of the poaching liquid all over.
Cook for 30 minutes. When the blade of a thin knife enters the fruit easily, remove the pan from the heat and let the pears cool in the liquid. Carefully remove the pears from the pan with a strainer or perforated spoon, strain the spices and flavorings from the liquid and reduce the liquid to a syrup (to about 1 cup). Serve the pears at room temperature or cool, as you wish, glazed with the syrup.
Note: Instead of 1 tablespoon powder, you may use the five whole spices in these measures: 1 small stick cinnamon (or cassia bark), 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, 2 whole star anise pods, 1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns and 1/2 teaspoon whole cloves.
Online shopping for spice blends—and, well, all manner of things to cook—took off during the past two years of the pandemic. We in Colorado can shop online for spice blends from, among others, these locally-based purveyors: thespiceguyco.com, savoryspiceshop.com, myspicer.com and coloradospice.com.
Reach Bill St. John at [email protected]