I’m the pastry chef at an Italian restaurant, Novo Cucina, in Dunwoody, where I make all the gelato. My favorite day to work is Saturday. That’s when Pilar Ramirez, one of the restaurant’s pasta cooks, brings a bag of Mexican goodies to make lunch for the kitchen staff. My favorite? Her chicken mole, which she seasons with arbol and pasilla chilies. She heats the seeded chilies in a dry skillet, then burr blends them into a mole sauce she buys from a local mercado.
It’s smart, because her busy work cooking the sauces for the restaurant doesn’t allow her the time to create a mole sauce from scratch, but she wants to add some oomph to it – and make it her own. Adding a spice blend of chilies is the perfect solution, a secret seasoning weapon.
Spice blends of all sorts are a smart way for anyone to add flavor to a dish – and since provisions from around the world have become more commonplace, it’s easy for chefs (and you) to use them to enhance and boost flavor in everything from popcorn to chicken wings. Just grab a blend and go for it.
I became fascinated with blending spices years ago, when I began to explore their flavors beyond the boundaries of the Western pastry pantry to enhance desserts and learn about their homeopathic properties. I’ve used Asian blends in my sorbet and gelato, spicing up mango with Thai chilies and coconut with Indian garam masala, and I love playing with Latin blends that use cumin and chilies with cream-based desserts, including gelato. I create my own blends using a mortar and pestle, but many global blends are also available pre-mixed where spices are sold. It all depends on how creative you’d like to get. But whether you make or buy your blends, they’ll become an easy ace up your sleeve for spicing things up in 2018.
“Japanese togarashi on chicken wings or mixed with ranch dressing is awesome,” said Gunshow’s executive chef Joey Ward.
Chef-owner Doug Turbush of Seed Kitchen & Bar, Stem Wine Bar and Drift Fish House & Oyster Bar uses North African ras el hanout in the filling for Seed’s sweet potato ravioli. “This blend provides depth and balance and it’s not overly spicy, so you can add as much or as little as you like, and people always ask – what is that I’m tasting?” said the seasoned Atlanta chef.
“Mitmita is one of my major go-to spice blends,” said Chef Deborah VanTrece of Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours. She uses the traditional Ethiopian blend in a rub-like paste with cocoa powder, salt and garlic that she uses on the restaurant’s rack of lamb.
Spices can be intimidating: Not everyone knows sambaar from za’atar. What’s an inquisitive cook to do? First, relax: The most important thing is that once you have the basis for the blend, you can get creative. After all, a garden-variety curry is a spice blend. Ever used Bay seasoning or a barbecue rub? Then you’ve used a spice blend.
“Home cooks should purchase spice blends and research the ingredients that are in each. Once familiar with the ingredients, it’s so much fun to experiment and become creative with its uses,” said VanTrece.
“Chaat masala is a spice blend we like to use for salads, dips, chutneys, and fried appetizers,” said Archna Malhotra Becker, chef and owner of Bhojanic, in Buckhead. “It adds a zing to those foods and makes them a bit tangy and a bit spicy – like a finishing salt. It is great on French fries or popcorn as well.”
But since there is something inherently mysterious and exotic about spices, here’s a primer on a few blends you might not have tried:
Adobo: An all-purpose Latin spice mix used for everything from beans to broccoli, it’s a blend of garlic powder, onion powder, cumin, black pepper, citrus peel and Mexican – not Mediterranean – oregano.
Chinese Five-Spice: The spice blend of star anise, fennel seeds, cinnamon, cloves and Sichuan peppercorns is well-known by name to most cooks. Use it with fatty meats such as duck or pork shoulder to bring out the anise and fennel flavors.
Duqqa (also dukkah): A toasty blend from Egypt and northeastern Africa of nuts (usually hazelnuts) or chickpeas, seeds, (such as cumin, coriander and sesame) spices (like black pepper) and herbs (dried mint) used as a dip for bread or veggies. Really more a condiment than a spice blend, it’s a little like more widely known hummus. Try spreading it on toasted bread with melted dark chocolate for a tasty starter.
Furikake: A classic Japanese blend of sesame seeds, nori, bonito flakes and dried anchovies and shrimp used as a flavoring for rice. Shake things up by trying it on French fries, popcorn, or steamed veggies.
Masalas: Various Indian spice blends from chana and chaat to garam and kala, these mixes are as common as curry, but lack a curry’s heat from chilies and the base of turmeric, according to Tony Hill, owner of World Merchants Spice, Herb & Tea House in Seattle, and author of “The Contemporary Encyclopedia of Herbs & Spices” (John Wiley & Sons, 2004). They often contain cinnamon and/or cardamom, making them perfect for baked goods and cream-based desserts.
Mitmita: A fiery orange-red Ethiopian blend of African bird’s eye chile peppers mixed with cardamom pods, cloves, often cinnamon and ginger, and sometimes cumin. Traditionally used with beef, try it with stews and soups, or mix with yogurt for a spicy dip.
Ras el hanout: Like an Indian curry, each Moroccan ras el hanout is as different as the cook who makes it. But it’s most often a blend of “sweet” spices such as cardamom, clove, nutmeg and cinnamon, as well as black pepper and chile peppers. Try it as a new flavor in squash dishes or casseroles, or as a spice seasoning for fruit pies (like apple or pumpkin) or caramel, butterscotch and chocolate desserts and pastries.
Togarashi: This Japanese blend of chilies is used as a condiment in much the same way Westerners might use salt and pepper, mixed with orange or tangerine peel, seaweed flakes, ginger, sesame seeds and poppy seeds. Use it for firing up chicken wings, salad dressings or grilled meats or add it to barbecue sauce to heat things up.
Za’atar: An ancient Middle Eastern herbal blend of hyssop, sumac, sesame and salt; the name is also the Arabic word for thyme, which is often included in modern recipes of the blend. Use it on grilled meats or chicken or add it to that old-fashioned French onion dip we all know and love (it’s great with yogurt and other dairy).
Add global flavors to your repertoire with these recipes for Sweet Potato Ravioli, Cocoa-Crusted Rack of Lamb, and Sweet Chai Tea.
Sweet Potato Ravioli
This recipe from Chef Doug Turbush at Seed uses ras el hanout to flavor the sweet potato filling for the ravioli. The pasta is then tossed in brown butter and sage. Turbush garnishes it with toasted pepitas and serves it with sauteed winter mushrooms. If you’re too rushed to make your own dough, try calling Bellina Alimentari inside Ponce City Market, or Sotto Sotto in Inman Park to see if they can spare fresh dough.
Cocoa-Crusted Rack of Lamb
Chef Deborah VanTrece uses this variation of mitmita on rack of lamb, a favorite at her restaurant Twisted Soul Kitchen & Bar.
Sweet Chai Tea
Freshly muddled sweet chai is ever-so-much better than something in a bag. Let the spices steep in hot water before adding the tea for a warming treat.