Need to kick-start a stale cooking routine? Award-winning journalist, author and chef Aliza Green could help with that.
Green, who lives in Philadelphia, recently guided a large class of food enthusiasts on an aromatic as well as informative tour of lesser-known spices of the world. The class was sponsored by San Antonio’s Les Dames d’Escoffier.
As we gathered in a kitchen/classroom at the Art Institute of San Antonio, the scents of spice — rich and flowery, peppery and hot, smoky, toasty, musky and mysterious, and some almost off-putting — filled our senses, evoking thoughts of far-flung countries and cultures.
Tiny packets of spice awaited each student at her seat, filled with such things as ajwain and Yemenite hawaij, wild fennel pollen, grains of paradise, the pungent and sticky Turkish urfa pepper, smelly asafetida, ground sumac, Australian wattleseed and nigella seeds.
Right away she told us things that most cooks know, but that really can’t be repeated too often.
First, spices that are ground lose their potency fast. Spices exposed to light and/or heat do as well.
“Sometimes, I just tell everyone to throw away all of their spices,” said Green. Spices that are pre-ground and have sat on the shelf for months (or years) lose their potency. “All of the delicate elements of the spice go away and what we have left are harsh elements,” Green said. Those just don’t taste good and cooking with them won’t help.
Second, it’s a great idea to grind your own spices. You can do it in a coffee grinder. Then, her tip was to run pieces of bread through the grinder and wipe it down to clear out one spice taste before you grind another.
Green was a four-star chef at the age of 27. She has been an avid traveler all of her life, beginning in her youth, when she lived in Holland, Israel and Mexico. Much of what we discussed in the class is described in her 2006 publication, “Field Guide to Herbs & Spices” (Quirk, $15.95). She won a James Beard Award as co-author of “Ceviche,” and two new books are being readied for publishing.
As we sniffed and tasted our way through class, Green offered us the notion of “roots” cooking. Herbs and spices, generally, “go with” foods that are collected or grown in the same areas, and suit the tastes of the people who first gathered and used them.
The pungent (and to some, not in a good way) asafetida, is extracted from the root of a plant that grows in the wild in the eastern Mediterranean area to central Asia. It is widely used now in Indian and Iranian cooking. Because it is so powerful, tiny amounts should be used, and it is sometimes an ingredient in a spice mixture.
Unusual flavors can take some getting used to. Green mentioned the fact that not all that long ago, cilantro was a similar exotic herb. “So many people didn’t like the flavor, actually hated it,” said Green. Prevalent in Mexican cooking, however, the herb is now nearly a household name and in most areas of the United States its dark, parsley-like flavor has become more accepted.
Grains of paradise, tiny, reddish-brown seeds from a plant that comes from Ghana. They have a bit of spicy heat, and are chewed by people in that country to help them warm up on cold days. The seeds, which also have spicy-nutty flavors also have a numbing quality, like camphor.
Ground sumac is one that is probably more familiar to Americans. Its dark reddish brown powder is tangy, almost to the point of tasting salty, with woody, citrus flavors. One might see it sprinkled over hummus or on top of a salad in a Middle Eastern restaurant. Some restaurants in town, such as Pasha Mediterranean Grill, even put it out on the table in shakers, like salt.
Nigella seeds are very small and hard. They are cultivated from Egypt throughout India. According to Green, it is thought that the black cumin mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible is the nigella seed. It has an acrid, smoky flavor and a scent reminiscent of oregano. Indian naan bread is sometimes sprinkled with the seeds and lightly toasted nigella seed is often used to enhance Lebanese and Turkish cookery.
In Green’s “Field Guide” she includes places to find these spices, though some are often more difficult than others. Try international markets, or markets specific to one or a handful of cultures, such a Middle Eastern store that carries Turkish, Indian, Arabic, Moroccan and similar products.
Culinary students at the institute, led by chef Justin Sparkman, prepared the foods for tasting. These included a Moroccan White Bean Salad with Nigella Seeds and an Ethiopian Lentil Stew with Berberé spices. Berberé is a blend that can include cumin, fenugreek seed, ajwain seed, black peppercorns, allspice berries, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and bird’s eye chiles.
The beans and lentils tasted great, and were paired nicely with wines from Becker Vineyards.
Green also mentioned the difference between true cinnamon (what we here in South Texas know as canella, or Mexican cinnamon) and the hard stick cinnamon that is what we usually buy, in a stick or ground. The latter is actually a spice called cassia and comes from a different, but similar tree. Much of the cinnamon we use here in the U.S. is actually Indonesian cassia, she says.
Another spice that is unusual in most cook’s kitchens but that we are seeing on more and more chefs’ menus is wild fennel pollen. This is expensive, usually purchased from specialty producers in Italy. It is potent and sprinkled on anything, from salads and vegetables to beans, fish and seafood, just before serving.
Some of the other herbs she discussed included black Thai cardamom, Cubeb pepper and long pepper, Chinese Tung Hing Cassia, Australian Wattleseed, and Australian lemon myrtle, featured in a yogurt mousse for dessert.
Green, an enthusiastic cook and a walking compendium of spice information, offers much more in her “Field Guide.” It’s just the thing to revive a cook’s spirit and his or her cooking.