One morning in New York last week, I stopped by La Boite, an improbably sleek white shop situated on a gritty corner of 11th Avenue, sandwiched between an auto repair garage and a service station besieged by flotillas of yellow cabs.
Here, Wednesday through Friday, you’re likely to find Lior Lev Sercarz, a slender, bearded, Israeli ex-army sergeant, with silvery hair and pale blue eyes that regard the world with a measured gaze.
Now one of the most highly regarded spice blenders in the trade, his small-batch, globally inspired mixtures of herbs, spices and seeds have captivated top chefs and savvy home cooks. Customers and collaborators include such chefs as Daniel Boulud, Eric Ripert, and Ana Sortun, as well as Olivier Roellinger,with whom he apprenticed in France.
When I first met Lior a few years ago, I was bowled over by his vibrant blends. Apollonia No. 29, inspired by the daughter of the late Lionel Poilane, is a versatile mixture of dark chocolate, orange blossoms, pepper and other spices, as intriguing with lamb meatballs and duck breast as it is with brownies or other desserts.
Poilane, who now uses her namesake blend in her famous cuillieres (spoon-shaped biscuits), is said to have exclaimed, “How did you know I love chocolate and wear orange blossom perfume?” when she first received his gift.
More recently he has been the subject of a New York Times Magazine profile, as well as articles in Vogue, Food & Wine and Saveur. He has also written The Art of Blending, a guide to 40 of his proprietary mixtures,with tips and recipes for using them.
Last Wednesday morning, the atmosphere in La Boite was softly redolent of turmeric and other spices, a mysterious, vaguely North African aroma that, were it a perfume, you might call L’Aire de Souk. The walls were hung with an exhibition of works by Hyesu Lee, a young New York-based illustrator, including a whimsical ink drawing entitled “Doodles and Biscuits.” Much of the floor space was taken up by tall stacks of cartons holding sets of spice blends in acrylic boxes and copies of his book from the printer in China.
“Come, let’s sit down,” said Lior, ushering me into a small office behind the counter. I pulled up a stool and began to pepper him with questions about a pamphlet I’d seen on his website: Figs: Ten Ways to Prepare Them, published by Les Editions de l’Epure in Paris in 2000 and recently reissued in English.
Naturally, self-interest was at play.
I was thinking about our own luxuriant tree, now laden with hard green Marseilles figs that will soon ripen into the most sumptuous fruit imaginable. I was also contemplating the mint that’s crashed through the herb garden like a tidal wave and, more abstractly, wondering if I could pry loose some of his secrets for making one’s own spice blend.
“So tell me about your figs,” I began. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
Our figs are green and very large. Originally they came from Morocco and were rooted from cuttings. They were placed in the ground with three grains of wheat. This is an old school way of planting. As the wheat germinates, it releases hormones that help the fig to implant itself in the soil.
The cuttings came from Mr. Assor, an 85-year-old Moroccan gentleman who passed on his knowledge to us before he died. Following his instructions and age-old methods, we planted 100 trees which bore their first fruit a few years later.
Now there are 150 fig trees [and many olive trees] on my father’s plantation in Israel. It sits on the slopes of the Golan Heights and extends into the Hahula Valley. This is a very fertile region in Galilee. The soil is volcanic, dark and heavy.
I wrote the book on figs because I wanted to expose people to this amazing fruit and the story behind it. Now everyone is cooking with figs, but back then it was unusual. There are 10 recipes that use both fresh and dried figs, so you can make fig dishes year around. The recipe for grouper marinated in boukha involves fig eau de vie, which my father makes, but you can substitute grappa.
There are so many ways to combine figs and spices. Some of the obvious ones are sweet spices like cardamom and cinnamon, but you could also try peppercorns, coriander seeds or almost anything from the anise family. Caraway might seem like an odd choice, but it has a natural sweetness and a cool floral taste. Or you could add juniper for a piney note. Yellow mustard seeds are similar to the seeds in the fruit and would be an interesting way to add heat. Herbs like rosemary and thyme also go well with figs.
[Note: Lior’s recipe for fig jam is made with cinnamon, cardamom, star anise, Sichuan peppercorns and a single clove. These spices lend the jam an unusual flavor and fragrance, combining tastes of the cuisines that sprang up along the ancient spice routes.]
You have mint? Here are some things you can make: Mint oil. Fresh mint pesto. Chop it up and freeze it in an ice cube tray, without water, to use during the winter, when you can add it to soups and stews. Or dry it—it takes only a day or two—and then grind it, or use the whole dried leaf, for baking cookies, crackers or bread. Mix dried mint with fleur de sel and sprinkle it over roasted vegetables or lamb.
You could also use dried mint in a spice blend. If you like za’atar,try making half a pound or a pound to begin with. Add some of your mint and you have your own signature blend.
I finally gave in and made za’atar for the store because so many people wanted it. I’ve also done the Voyager Collection with Eric Ripert. Some people pack their kitchen knives when they travel, so the idea was to make essential spice blends for travelers who also like to cook. It offers a kind of security: You don’t have to go looking for spices to use when you get to your destination.
The first three blends were inspired by Eric’s childhood memories of the South of France. The second collection is more global. It includes Amahari, inspired by Ethiopian Berbere spices; Yagenbori, similar to Japanese shichimi togarashi, and Massalis, a sweet floral curry.
If you want to make your own blend, first be familiar with the raw material. Expose yourself to individual spices so that you have a clear sense of what each tastes like.
Come up with a story or a concept for a blend. For instance, you might say, “I’d like to do something with heat, something that’s smoky, salty and acidic, because it reminds me of Texas. “ Don’t think: “I want something to go with fish, or chicken, or beef.” That’s not the right approach.
Decide who’s going to be the leading actor and who’s going be in the supporting cast. In some ways, it’s like organizing a party. Some people [or spices] just don’t work well together, so you have to consider each person [or spice] individually before throwing them together. Part of the reason I typically toast my spices is to warm them up to each other.
It’s crucial to keep meticulous records of the amount of each spice. You might add a little of this or that to a blend, but if you don’t write it down, you won’t be able to reproduce it a second time.
I always measure spices by weight. If you use a measuring cup, the quantity can vary depending on heat, cold or humidity, but a gram is always a gram.
Once you’ve made a blend, try it on everything you cook. Keep using it over a couple of months. Blends take on a life of their own and develop over time. Be sure they keep telling the story you want them to tell.
Don’t change who you are—in cooking or in life. If you like Indian curry, but your thing is broiling salmon, sprinkle the curry powder onto the fish and stick it in the oven. It will be your broiled salmon with the flavors of India.
La Boite, 724 11th Avenue, New York, NY 10019. Phone: 212.247.4407. Web: laboiteny.com