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Spices & Herbs

Not everyone likes cumin. It’s a powerful, assertive spice. But when I was growing up, we ate a lot of comino-spiced enchiladas and tacos, so that pungent, earthy aroma always reminds me of my childhood kitchen. It’s amazing how many ways there are of using the same spice. I can be in Fez eating a cold cumin-flecked carrot salad, or in Mumbai drinking a salty cumin-scented lassi, and feel right at home.

Good saffron is hard to find. It’s also very expensive since it takes 150,000 saffron crocuses to produce one kilo of the spice. The flavor and aroma are concentrated in the flower’s three red stigma; they must be plucked and dried on the same day to preserve quality. Luckily you only need a pinch for most recipes. Iran has become a major player, though I’ve also found fantastic Moroccan saffron in Marrakech. Just be sure you’re buying the real thing: so-called powdered saffron is often cut with turmeric, paprika or even flour.

Always buy whole spices. Try sniffing a jar of whole black Tellicherry peppercorns, and then take a whiff of dusty, ground, gray pepper. The difference is stunning. I’m always on the lookout for fabulous peppercorns when I travel, but at home I keep one grinder filled with Whole Special Extra Bold Indian Black Peppercorns from Penzeys. If I’m in Paris, the first place I go is Olivier Roellinger’s shop on rue Ste. Anne. There’s stuff you’d never find over here like black peppercorns from four regions of India. Each one is distinctively different from the others: Jeerakamundi smells like pine resin, while Neelamundi is more floral.

Gerard Vives is “the Indiana Jones of the spice trade.” Gerard is a spice hunter who lives in Marseilles and travels the world to find the rarest, most exotic spices. He sells 20 different peppercorns, including poivre sauvage, which he discovered growing wild in the rainforests of Madagascar. He’s been cornered by wild animals, cyclones, spiders, riots and, even worse, “big monkeys.” Why go to such lengths? “It’s the only way to get the best. Most spices are dead by the time they get to the customer.”

The best gift for a dedicated pepper-lover is the Atlas 404 peppermill. It’s made in Crete and modeled after a coffee grinder Greek soldiers carried in the field. It holds a half-cup of whole black peppercorns, and when you crank the handle, there’s a satisfying crunch as the burrs cut into the corns. It has a fairly coarse grind, which I like. I’ve had mine for 10 years and it still works perfectly.

Ian Hemphill’s Spice and Herb Bible is my go-to encyclopedia. Helpful color photos, botanical info, history, how to buy, store and cook with the herb or spice in question, plus recipes. The best spice and herb web resource is Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages. You can look up 117 spices and herbs, each with detailed chemical analyses of the compounds that create flavor and aroma, plus etymology, history, geography, quirky facts. Did you know that cloves are a main ingredient of Worcestershire sauce?

Every spice cabinet needs: black peppercorns, allspice, Indonesian cassia (aka cinnamon), cloves, pure chile or ground red pepper powder (no added spices or herbs), coriander, cumin, ginger, nutmeg, saffron and vanilla extract. Plus kosher salt. Yes, I know it’s a mineral but you can’t cook without it.

The worst place to store spices is near light and heat. Some chefs keep their seasonings on a shelf right above the stove, which is a real no-no. I use old turquoise Ball storage jars with zinc tops, which I collect in a variety of sizes, to store most of my spices and dried herbs. I love seeing all that vibrant blue glass when I first walk into the pantry. The best working spice pantry I ever saw was at Tabla, a NYC Indian restaurant (now closed) where Chef Floyd Cardoz kept a dark walk-in closet filled with big jars of spices. Every morning he went into the closet and took out only what he would need that day.

The world’s most amazing spice pantry has to be the “flavor bank” at Arzak, a 110-year old Michelin-3-star restaurant in San Sebastian, Spain. There are over 1,600 ingredients, stored in labeled plastic containers, neatly arranged in identical stacks on floor to ceiling shelves. Chef-owner Juan Marie Arzak and his daughter, Elena, use the flavor bank to conjure up wild new dishes that put a spin on traditional Basque cuisine.

Lior Lev Sercarz is a very talented mixologist of spices. His 40 original blends, made from a palette of 120 herbs and spices, are the secret weapon behind many chefs’ best dishes. Cancale, No. 17, is an homage to his sea-faring mentor, Olivier Roellinger; it includes fennel as well as fleur de sel and oranges. When I told him I tasted lavender, he said, “Sometimes you put two ingredients together and you taste a third. But I promise you, there is absolutely no lavender in that blend.”

My favorite spice blend is the Moroccan ras-el-hanout. It means “top of the shop,” or the spice merchant’s best blend. Sometimes there are 40 or more ingredients in the mixture, everything from cinnamon and coriander to lavender flowers and Spanish fly. Ras el-hanout gives tagines, the classic, slow-cooked Moroccan one-pot stews, the most delicious flavor. But it’s equally good for Southern fried chicken! A chef gave me his personal recipe, but I was sworn to secrecy so I can only say that many of the ingredients are toasted and two start with the letter “C”.