Mix up a world of spices to rev up your recipes

By Margi Lenga Kahn | Special to the Jewish Light

To some extent, we all understand that adding spices to food can be transformative. Take, for example, a fresh-cut cucumber or a hardboiled egg. Eating either of these can be enjoyable, but sprinkling a bit of salt on them elevates the flavors. Nothing fancy, right? And while all of us have experienced the magic of salt on and in the food we eat, few of us have explored the multitude of spices that, when combined, can transform ordinary vegetables, fish, chicken or meats into something quite extraordinary. 

I love experimenting with spices. I might, for example, add fennel seeds, oregano, basil and crushed red pepper flakes to a red pasta sauce. Other times, I will just sauté lots of onions and garlic and add a handful of fresh herbs to the sauce while its cooking.  

To be honest, I am never quite sure why I do what I do with this array of spices. But learning about and experimenting with spice blends have opened new worlds for me. I have been amazed, over and over again, at how some spice blends are able to coax flavor and add complexity to even something as ordinary as oven-roasted vegetables. 

The technique for making spice blends is not intimidating. You grind a few whole spices together, such as fennel, caraway and coriander seeds, and then immediately mix them into certain other spices that come ground, such as cinnamon, turmeric and sweet paprika. 

Of course, the key here, which I have learned over time, is learning about these spices, how they work together and the foods with which they can be paired.

My introduction to spice blends came a couple of years ago when our friends Ruth Kim and David Hamilton joined us for dinner. David, a passionate cook and gifted sourdough bread baker, presented me with a jar of spices he called Sweet Nigella Spice Blend. He told me it was a blend he’d made especially for me. Upon opening the jar, I was entranced by the aromas. From that day forward, it was my go-to seasoning when roasting vegetables, chicken and salmon.

When I reached the bottom of David’s spice jar, I contacted him for the recipe. He sent me a link (http://bit.ly/sweet-nigella) to the recipe he used, which appeared in an article about the creator of that mysterious blend, Lior Lev Sercarz. It turns out that Sercarz created the blend for a High Holiday roast chicken dish. The spice blend combines flavors from Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions and features cardamom, cumin, cinnamon, nigella seed and dried Persian limes.  

Fast forward to a year ago, when my daughter Kayla took me to a beautiful small spice shop in New York City called La Boite. We spent a good hour smelling the various spice blends, and I sent a package of four of my favorites to a dear friend in Boston. Only later did I realize that this was the very spice store of the internationally acclaimed master of spices, the Israeli Lior Lev Sercarz, and, of course, the creator of the Sweet Nigella Spice Blend I loved. 


And while you will have to make that particular spice blend on your own, because his store does not carry it, this is the shop where Sercarz creates dozens of other wonderful spice blends for the public and many specialized blends for internationally acclaimed chefs such as Eric Ripert and Daniel Boulud.

More recently, I discovered Sercarz’s remarkable cookbook, “Mastering Spice: Recipes and Techniques to Transform Your Everyday Cooking,” packed with invaluable information about dozens and dozens of spices. I have been cooking my way through his cookbook and can attest without reservation that the recipes I have tried so far have produced delicious results.

Moreover, each of those recipes introduced me to new flavors and combinations. Some call for spices I had never used, such as urfa pepper, dried Persian limes and ajowan; other blends were created from many of the spices I already have, such as mustard seed, sweet paprika, ground ginger, oregano, coriander and cumin seeds.

And while many (but not all) of the spices in his cookbook can be found at your local supermarket or at an ethnic market such as Global Foods or Jay International, the La Boite website has all the spices you will need, along with a lovely selection of gifts and biscuits and chocolates. You can also purchase one of his more than 73 spice blends, each of which comes with recommendations on how to use it. 

And if you happen to own “Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking,” a wonderful cookbook by Israeli Michael Solomonov based on his Philadelphia restaurant of the same name, you can also purchase a companion set of spice blends created just for that cookbook. 

To make the spice blends from “Mastering Spice,” I dug out my old Melitta coffee bean grinder and put it back in service as a spice grinder. It works perfectly well, though, frankly, so will any spice grinder. When I am through using my grinder, I simply wipe it clean with a damp paper towel. If the spice blend is particularly aromatic, I grind up a teaspoon of raw rice in the blender, which takes away persistent odors. 

To share with you my enthusiasm for spice blends, I thought it might be interesting to spice up some of our traditional holiday dishes, which are more likely to be Ashkenazic in style and hence seasoned with just salt, pepper and garlic powder. I called Sercarz, explained my idea, and he made the following recommendations for spicing up a roast brisket, a carrot and fruit tzimmes, and a kugel:

“Rub the brisket with a blend of salt and pepper, caraway, nutmeg, mace, cardamom and star anise,” he told me. “No need to put any oil on the brisket. For a traditional carrot and dried fruit tzimmes, you might add a blend of spices such as ground coriander, chili, green mango powder (also known as amchur), and sumac (the ground version of a berry that grows on bushes throughout the Middle East) to the kugel.” 

And to jazz up that classic sweet noodle kugel? Sercarz recommends flavoring it with cloves, ginger, cardamom and dried orange peel. 

I learned so much from Sercarz, who is a master at his trade. He advised that we not keep spices longer than a year; however, if they still smell and taste strong after that time, you can hold on to them until they no longer pass the smell and taste test. He also suggested that we make larger quantities of the spice blends, labeling and dating them, and storing them in jars with tight-fitting lids.  

And perhaps the best advice of all: If there is a spice you don’t like, omit it from the blend.

I include two of my favorite recipes from “Mastering Spice,” both of which I have slightly adapted. You can find other recipes on the La Boite website (/www.laboiteny.com).