Monday, February 16, 2015

Spice Rub(bish)

Besides my last post discreetly sticking it to big food, this blog has begun to turn away from herbs and spices to focus more on oils and vinegar. Luckily, I came across a "condiment" yesterday which combines such categories. Before featuring the components of za'atar, however, I'd like to tackle a subject which highlights deep issues in the food world: spice blends.

While spice blends (a combination of herbs and or spices) aren't bad in and of themselves, to me, they point to the fact that much of our (even fundamental) foods can be pre-made and pre-packaged out of dried and more tasteless materials. For as much as I reference the Williams-Sonoma websites for its abundance of foodie knowledge which I eat up vigorously (no pun intended) one look at their pantry section shows a parade of spice mixtures and rubs which could easily be made at home with whole ingredients. While Whole Foods carries an elitist connotation (and believe me, I can't afford to shop there) its name implies something right about food, mainly that the closer it its original state, the better the food is for either yourself or the environment (or both!). Take one walk down the spice aisle at your local grocery store and you'll see a lot of ground spices and dried herbs. While these shiny glass bottles of herbs and spices are often expensive, they are also several steps removed from their original state being either ground or dried and then, sometimes blended. This is my issue with spice blends, while herbs are sometimes dried to be preserved and herbs are sometimes ground for convenience, the spice blend goes on step further in charging consumers extra for something they can easily do at home. While one might argue convenience in the name of spice blends, grinding and blending our own spices whether by lemon zester or mortar and pestle forces us as cooks to experiment with proportions and find our own "sweet spot" of flavors.

Studying up on the proportion of seasonings is, in my mind, an important task of any cook. One must begin to learn the flavor profiles of each seasoning in order to distinguish how much "sweet", "spicy" or "salty" they want to add to a dish. In my own cross study of various seasonings, I have found two things:

1. know which foods you're working with

2. know your own tastes

In short, there is no silver bullet to the alchemy of spice blends. If you know the flavor profile of the food you're working with, you'll know how to adjust your spices accordingly and to suit your own preferences. When working with carrots, as I have been doing a lot these winter months, I tend to use cinnamon as my dominant spice in order to highlight their inherent sweetness. If I wish for a more savory dish with the vegetable, I'll feature more cumin than cinnamon. (Note: If sauteing your vegetable, herbs and spiced should be added after your vegetable has been softened in oil or butter and tossed in the pan for 1-2 minutes so as not to have anything burn). For a recipe I studied to get an idea for spice proportions, you can go here (braised chickpeas with carrots: yum). So, without further adieu, here is a recipe for za'atar, a middle eastern spice blend which you can make with your own ingredients in the kitchen. In the spirit of adjusting and studying one's own proportional preferences, I only provide general guidelines as to the amounts of spice in the mix. Feel free to adjust spice levels to your own liking. Whichever combination you choose, however, know that you will be doing your body great benefit by imbuing it with sesame seeds, thyme, sumac and a little salt, ingredients that can lower your cholesterol, protect your liver and increase the percentage of healthy fats in cells.

2 parts dried thyme (or fresh thyme that has been dried)
1 part toasted sesame seeds (recipe here)
1/4 part ground sumac
dash of salt

While you can simply combine the above ingredients, you may want to combine the thyme and sumac first and grind together in order to infuse flavors. Once all ingredients are combined, use as you wish. I like to put some of the mix in olive oil as a dip for breads but you can add the mix to soups, stews and sauteed vegetables.

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