Friday, February 26, 2016

Spice Up Your Life

In Spice Rubbish, I talked about how grocery chains as well as more specialty shops carry spice blends to the tune of a hefty price tag when such blends can easily be made at home. However, as I began to eat more naturally as stated in Candid-dida, I noticed a need for easy access to spice blends become a bit more prevalent. This being said, I still preferred making them at home. And to keep things relatively simple, I relied on a few tried and true blends to help bring flavor and complexity to what would otherwise be simple, plated foods.

Beyond spices alone, spice blends convey a subtlety in meals that one spice may not do by itself. To some extent, blends, when done right, become more than the sum of their parts. And who better to know so than cultures who have had thousands of years to prefect said blends in an attempt to make food taste a little less redundant (as great as natural foods make us feel, sometimes they don't compare to the taste or chemical stability of a Twinkie). 

Through some experience with eating foods from different cultures (particularly ones that give you free pita bread with your meal) I've become increasingly familiar with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine, the latter of which possesses its own delicious and unique blends of spices. Herein are a few that have caught my eye:

"Shake it to the left.. shake it to the right." They're obviously talking about your spice shaker.

Za'atar: I wrote about Za'atar in Spice Rubbish when spice blends first began to appear in my purview. I was eating, in fact, at a Middle Eastern restaurant referenced above and was blown away by the flavor of a simple spice blend in oil (given to me, of course, with my free pita bread). Upon asking the waiter about the blend, I quickly learned it was Za'atar, a pleasant medley of sumac, thyme, salt and sesame seeds (or simply a mix of dried herbs) and is as popular in Middle Eastern cuisine as the culture is old. Since I continued using oil on my pseudo-version of the Candida Diet, this spice was (and is) used to turn a bit of oil into a great dressing or dip. 

Curry Spice: Curry takes many different forms (much like the several variations of Za'atar). But unlike Za'atar, curry has always been a little incomprehensible to me. Is is a dish, a spice, a sauce? British chef, Jamie Oliver, posits curry as a dish in his recipe for Jool's Easy Curry Chicken while a contestant on Chopped once impressed judges (and myself) with her homemade curry sauce. Indeed, in my research and eating experience, I have encountered curry in many different ways. But here, I am specifically referring to the curry powder blend. Unlike Za'atar, the spice blend is made exclusively from spices, or elements which are not from a, "green, leafy plant," according to Wikipedia. To name a few components, curry spice carries cardamom, coriander and cumin (to be alphabetical about it) as well as turmeric (a great anti-inflammatory) dry mustard and cayenne... which makes it similar to the foundation of the following blend.

Ras El-Hanout: At the restaurant where I moonlight, we carry a Long Island Iced Tea (what bar doesn't) and a top shelf  Long Island Iced Tea. So, when customers get a bit tipsy (typically after one Long Island) I always suggest the top shelf version (buyer beware...). But the top shelf version of said concoction serves both my own and the customers needs (I rationalize). The higher quality alcohol in the latter beverage increases my tip and makes a drink that is surprisingly smooth taste a little less shitty nonetheless. And as stated before spices, particularly of the "top-shelf" variety, can make food taste a bit less boring.

Ras El-Hanout is yesteryear's version of a top shelf blend, literally meaning, "head of the shop," in its native Arabic. And much like Za'atar, this particular spice blend technically does not carry a defined recipe. Historically speaking, Ras El-Hanout simply indicated one was purchasing the highest quality spices a purveyor had on hand. But, today, the mix has been somewhat codified, often carrying components of the Zingiberaceae Family (ginger, turmeric and cardamom which are known to have medical benefits), as well as cinnamon (to lower your blood sugar) and peppercorns. And while the recipe for Ras El Hanout has become a bit more structured, general variations among several ingredients and the amount these ingredients are used still exist... so if you're looking for the top recipe, I believe the BBC carries it. 

So there you have it. A little spice, for your life and/or food.

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