Spicing Up Your Pantry

By Sharon Kebschull Barrett
Simple, with me, is rarely just that. Somehow, everything blossoms. A simple run at cleaning the counters turns into a full-bore kitchen renewal. Simple suppers still seem to take me 45 minutes and end up with far more dishes on the table than four people really need.
And a simple search online for one spice? Of course, it turned into $60 worth of various concoctions I’d never encountered before.

But really, that added up to pretty cheap thrills. I’d started out looking for za’atar, the name for both a thyme-like herb or a mixture of the herb, sumac, and sesame seeds (and more, depending on the source). I kept running into references to it in recent months, especially as a topping for flatbreads.
Of course, a search for it turned up both Jordanian and Lebanese varieties — and I had to have both.
And that simple search tool made it just too easy to go comparing prices for, say, paprika, which in the alphabetical list got me near the m’s, which led me to mahleb.
Its mouth-watering description — a Persian spice that’s the seed of a wild cherry-like fruit, with a tart, sweet flavor — grabbed me, even if I’d no idea where it would land in my cooking. As so often seems to happen, though, after I encounter a new, seemingly uncommon word, I invariably read it repeatedly in the next few days. Two days after my spices arrived, I came across a mahleb bread recipe in Bon Appetit’s latest issue. I’ve also used it to give a new dimension to a basic cherry ice cream.
After the mahleb, it was a bit hard to stay under control. Spices I knew of but never cooked with, from so many cuisines, called my name: ras el hanout, rogan josh, sumac, grains of paradise, multiple paprikas, zereshk.
The force of what I’d done hit me when the little packets hit my doorstep. Some of the spices seemed too dear to imagine actually cooking with them — how awful would I feel if I messed up and wasted some (although I could comfort myself that at least it wasn’t Persian saffron, at $50 per half-ounce, or even common saffron, at $780 a pound)?
And since I’d ordered on impulse, I had no recipes for most of the spices, nor good reference points for how things should taste with them. After checking my cookbooks, I went online.
I’m none too fond of using recipes off the internet, at least the ones that don’t have clear sources (epicurious.com, for example, is more trustworthy, as most of its recipes come from Gourmet and Bon Appetit). But for ethnic recipes, the ‘net at least provides some clues on authentic uses for seemingly exotic spices (the actual recipes usually seem iffy, which I chalk up in part to translation difficulties). Better yet is a glance through such books as The Food Lover’s Companion, by Sharon Tyler Herbst. With multiple sources on my side, I was willing to take the plunge with my pricey discoveries, making up or altering recipes to let them shine.
Except for the sumac, which I’ve had a hard time getting right in various dishes, I have loved everything I ordered. To my palate, the most exciting were the smoked paprika and grains of paradise.
I think smoking improves most anything except desserts (and I’m still working on that). Used properly, even plain paprika can be exciting, far more than a colorful garnish. But smoke it, and you have the means for a depth of flavor unavailable to most hurried cooks. It’s luscious with shrimp that have been quickly sautéed with a little garlic, white wine, and tomato paste, incredible dusted onto deviled eggs (hold a small, fine sieve over the eggs and tap it lightly to get a clump-free dusting).
I’ve also recently discovered the joy of thick Greek yogurt, and came across a worthwhile recommendation to top it with a drizzle of fine olive oil and a hefty sprinkle of smoked paprika, for one of the simplest dips ever. Smoked paprika pairs well with steamed vegetables or sautéed potatoes; mix a dash into a standard vinaigrette for those vegetables or a simple green salad. Sauté fillets of a firm white fish that have been dredged in a mixture of cornmeal and a dash of smoked paprika. Suggestions to sprinkle a chicken with the paprika before roasting didn’t appeal as much, but I did make an extremely quick sauce for my roast chicken by sautéing a chopped onion in a little olive oil, adding smoked paprika and stirring it to cook slightly, then adding chicken broth and cream. The next night, we made quesadillas with the chicken in this sauce.
One of smoked paprika’s best features is its ability to perk up standard recipes, rather than having to try new ones. Just go easy with the first additions of it and keep tasting, so as not to overwhelm a dish.
Likewise, the grains of paradise bring a new dimension to some standard recipes. The simple online description as a West African substitute for black pepper that imparts a “hot peppery taste” didn’t come close to the complexity I found. Sweet as well as hot, ground briefly in my coffee grinder that I reserve for a spice mill, and sprinkled atop roasted cod, it made one of the snazziest fish dishes we’ve had in some time, in approximately six minutes.
What, though, of the za’atar that launched this adventure? I have to say,  I found it a little hard to see what all the fuss was about. Although tasty (both kinds, though I preferred the Jordanian style), it doesn’t strike me as an all-purpose food boost, as some food writers seemed to suggest. The main conclusion I reached was to prefer it as a topping baked onto a flatbread, rather than as a dip (many recipes say to dip your bread first in olive oil, then za’atar). Baking toasts the sesame seeds, always worthwhile.
After all this, with my 10-minute simple plan to order some za’atar turned into days of searching and testing, one thing seems clear: Simplicity is good, but (ahem) complexity is the spice of life.

Recipes: Pan-Roasted Cod with Grains of Paradise, Za’tar Flatbread

First published in the Independent Weekly, June 2, 2004

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