Articles in Spices

Heaven is a summer steak sandwich with a tasty sauce. Credit: Copyright 2015 TheWeiserKitchen

It’s pretty darn easy to take even somewhat modestly priced cuts of meat from good to great by grilling — and saucing. Sure, how you prep in advance counts. A concentrated 24-hour marinade for the meat is a great bet. A long, lingering overnight rub creates a crust. I love both methods and use them often. But that requires one ingredient I don’t always have, and I bet you don’t either: time.

Having a busy life doesn’t mean compromising on taste. It’s all about finding, transforming and using great last-minute flavors. That means great sauces.

Here are some new sauces ready to take that steak into prime time. Make all of them and set up a bar. They each make about 1 cup, which leaves room for leftovers, and last up to three days if covered and refrigerated.

Amontillado Sherry Romesco Sauce

Romesco sauce is from the Catalan region of Spain. Credit: Copyright 2015 TheWeiserKitchen

Romesco sauce is from the Catalan region of Spain. Credit: Copyright 2015 TheWeiserKitchen

Looking toward Spain? How about an Amontillado Sherry Romesco from the Catalan region? Often made with roasted peppers and tomato, this version is creamy from roasted garlic, deeply flavored from the toasting of the almonds and a bit off the beaten path as a result of the balancing act of Amontillado sherry and sherry vinegar. I double this recipe and use it as a dip for all sorts of grilled vegetables, and even as a pasta sauce with crumbled sheep’s or goat’s milk cheese. By the way, this sauce is vegan and genuinely versatile

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 50 minutes

Total time: 55 minutes (if using roasted garlic and roasted peppers, total time is less than 10 minutes)

Yield: About 1 cup

Ingredients

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 heads garlic

1/2 cup blanched almonds, finely ground

3 roasted red peppers, best-quality store-bought or homemade (see Kitchen Tips), peeled, seeded, coarsely chopped

1/4 cup dry Amontillado sherry

2 tablespoons sherry vinegar

1 teaspoon piment d’Espelette (see Kitchen Tips)

1 teaspoon smoked sweet paprika, pimentón de la Vera preferred (see Kitchen Tips)

1 teaspoon kosher salt

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line a baking sheet with foil and coat with 1 tablespoon of the oil. Slice off and discard the root ends of the garlic heads, and place them, cut-side-down, on the prepared baking sheet. Drizzle each with 1 tablespoon oil. Wrap aluminum foil around the garlic. Roast for 30 to 40 minutes, until very soft. Let cool to the touch, and squeeze the pulp from the skins. Take the remaining oil and pulp and place in the bowl of a food processor and set aside. (If you would like to do this ahead of time, the pulp and oil will keep, covered, in the refrigerator, for 2 to 3 days.)

2. Meanwhile, set a heavy sauté pan or cast-iron pan over high heat. Add the almonds and cook, stirring, for 2 to 4 minutes, until they are pale brown in color. Reduce the heat as necessary so the almonds do not burn.

3. Add the toasted almonds, roasted red peppers, sherry, sherry vinegar, piment d’Espelette, smoked paprika and salt to the bowl of the food processor along with the roasted garlic pulp and process until smooth and thick.

Kitchen Tips

Want to roast or grill the peppers from scratch? Heat a grill or gas stove top. Holding the peppers with long-handled tongs, place them right on the grates of the hottest, highest flame and allow them to blacken all round, turning occasionally and working in batches as necessary. Place the warm peppers in a heat-resistant bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Cool to room temperature. When the peppers are cool to the touch, peel off the skin. Remove and discard the the stems and seeds. It’s fine if there is a little burnt skin left on the peppers; do not rinse them.

Piment d’Espelette is a mild chili pepper grown in the town of Espelette, in the south of France, in the Basque region. The whole peppers are sold dried; piment d’Espelette is also available in dried, powder form and as a paste.

Smoked paprika, or pimentón, originated in Spain. Where regular paprika is made from ground peppers, smoked paprika is made from grinding peppers that have been smoked first. Not surprisingly, this endows the spice with a smoky flavor. Its distinctive flavor is a hallmark of Spanish cooking, but it makes a delicious accent to many dishes. It is available in both sweet and hot varieties.

Smoky Tomato and Pomegranate BBQ Sauce

This sauce includes smoked paprika and pomegranate molasses. Credit: Copyright 2015 TheWeiserKitchen

This sauce includes smoked paprika and pomegranate molasses. Credit: Copyright 2015 TheWeiserKitchen

If you’re an all-around Mediterranean food lover, the Smoky Tomato and Pomegranate Sauce will be up your alley. This sauce is a mixed homage to Chef Yotam Ottolenghi’s ketchup, rich spiceways and vast talent — and my fixation with pomegranate molasses as a sweetener in barbecue sauces of every type. This sauce is complex, I will admit, and takes about half an hour. It is even better the second, third or even the fifth day — and wait until you add it to a ho-hum turkey or chicken meatloaf, serve it over a grilled halloumi cheese or slathered onto lamb skewers.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: About 1 cup

Ingredients

2 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds

1 tablespoon smoked paprika (see Kitchen Tips)

1 tablespoon Urfa pepper (see Kitchen Tips)

1 teaspoon kirmizi pepper (see Kitchen Tips)

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, dark green and spicy preferred

1/2 small onion, roughly chopped

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

1/2 cup tomato paste, San Marzano preferred

6 cloves garlic, peeled and grated

1/4 cup pomegranate molasses

2 teaspoons brown sugar

Juice and zest of 3 limes

Directions

1. Toast and grind the spices: Heat heavy skillet or cast-iron skillet over high heat. Add the cumin and fenugreek seeds and toast for 30 seconds or until fragrant. Remove the pan from the heat. Transfer to a dedicated coffee or spice grinder and grind to a powder. Add in the smoked paprika, Urfa and kirmizi peppers and cinnamon and grind to combine. Set aside.

2. Reheat the skillet until hot. Add the olive oil and heat until it shimmers. Add the onions and salt and cook, stirring, for 3 to 4 minutes, or until translucent. Add the tomato paste, stir, and cook for 1 minute. Add the garlic and stir well. Reduce the heat to a simmer. Add the pomegranate molasses and brown sugar and stir until the sugar has dissolved. With a rubber spatula, scrape into the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade.

3. Add the toasted and ground spices, lime juice and zest and process until smooth.

Kitchen Tips

Smoked paprika, or pimentón, originated in Spain. While regular paprika is made from ground peppers, smoked paprika is made from grinding peppers that have been smoked first. Not surprisingly, this endows the spice with a smoky flavor; it has also been described as woodsy. Its distinctive flavor is a hallmark of Spanish cooking, but it makes a delicious accent to many dishes. It is available in both sweet and hot varieties.

Urfa Biber is a Turkish red pepper from the region of Urfa. It is a dark purple or maroon color and is surprisingly soft; it looks and feels like ground raisins. The peppers are available from Kalustyan’s online and at many other large spice purveyors, as well as at high-end specialty markets and health food stores.

Kirmizi pepper is a mixture of sweet and hot peppers that have been crushed, salted, dried, ground to flakes and then coated with olive oil and roasted. The mixture originated in Turkey. The flavor is a combination of fiery heat, salt and sweetness.

The seasonings might sound exotic, but fear not. Well-stocked grocery stores, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Fresh Market and spice shops will be your best bet, but they are all available online.

Cilantro and Mint Sauce

This cilantro dipping sauce can lean Indian or Latino. Credit: Copyright 2015 TheWeiserKitchen

This cilantro dipping sauce can lean Indian or Latino. Credit: Copyright 2015 TheWeiserKitchen

This dipping sauce can lean Indian or Latino; it can be tossed on hot pasta or used as a salad dressing; it can be added to miso soup or to guacamole. This is a wonderful and sprightly alternative for chimichuri sauce with grilled steak, lamb or chicken.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 5 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Yield: About 1 cup

Ingredients

1 large bunch fresh cilantro, stems and leaves

1 large bunch flat-leaf parsley, stems and leaves<

1/2 small bunch fresh mint, stems and leaves

1 1/2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated

Juice and zest of 2 lemons

1/2 jalapeño pepper (or more if desired), seeds, stems and ribs removed (see Kitchen Tip)

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Directions

1. Combine the cilantro, parsley, mint, ginger, lemon juice and zest, jalapeño, salt and black pepper in the bowl of a food processor or blender and pulse until the mixture forms a smooth paste.

2. While the machine is running at medium speed, slowly drizzle in the oil through the feed tube and blend until smooth and creamy.

Kitchen Tips

This will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for about 3 days, but it will separate and should be re-blended before using.

The chemicals in chili peppers that cause that wonderful feeling of heat on the tongue can cause a not-so-wonderful feeling if they get into your eyes. Avoid touching your face or eyes after cutting one.

Super Mustardy BBQ Finishing Sauce

This sauce packs a lot of flavor. Credit: 2015 TheWeiserKitchen

This sauce packs a lot of flavor. Credit: 2015 TheWeiserKitchen

This barbecue sauce is simple to make and packs a lot of flavor. It is perfect with many flavor dense proteins — beef, lamb, dark meat turkey or chicken, and tempeh. It’s also tasty on thinly sliced eggplant or thickly sliced summer squashes. Use it a dipping sauce on the side.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 10 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes

Yield: About 1 cup

Ingredients

1 tablespoon canola oil

1 small red onion, peeled and diced

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

1/2 jalapeño pepper, seeded and chopped

1/4 cup cider vinegar

1/2 cup ketchup

3 tablespoons Dijon mustard, very strong preferred

1/4 cup packed brown sugar

Directions

1. Heat the canola oil in a medium saucepan over moderately high heat. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the pepper and vinegar and stir for 1 minute. Stir in the ketchup, mustard and brown sugar.

2. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes, or until sauce reaches the desired thickness.

3. Refrigerate, tightly covered in a bottle or jar.

Kitchen Tips

We prefer to cook the long-cooking proteins (chicken, turkey, and even eggplant) without any sauce at first, over a medium heat, with the fattiest or skin-covered side down first, to help keep the natural sugars from burning and allow time for thorough cooking. If it’s a quick-cooking item, such as beef or tempeh, you can brush the sauce on just before you start cooking. Slather on plenty of the sauce 1 to 2 minutes before you plan to remove the food from the grill.

Israeli-Style Amba Sauce

Amba sauce is made with mango and vinegar. Credit: Copyright 2015 TheWeiserKitchen

Amba sauce is made with mango and vinegar. Credit: Copyright 2015 TheWeiserKitchen

Amba is a condiment made from mango and vinegar and plenty of spices. It is a traditional topping for sabich sandwiches, a popular street food in Israel. There is a popular Indian version, which is chunky, oniony, tart from vinegar, and salty. The Israeli version is based on an Iraqi amba, which is a thin liquid made from green mangoes and plenty of lemons. Like all popular classics, amba has hundreds of variations, and many versions that cross between Indian and Iraqi style. My version is inspired by several of these (including Einat Admony’s recipe in her book, “Balaboosta,” and a wonderful version from Food52), but I did rather liberally adapt them all to create an amba with an unusually thick and creamy texture. This recipe blew us away my test kitchen chef (just sayin’). Just wait until you try it with grilled steak, lamb or chicken, or try it instead of mustard and/or mayo on any sandwich for a nice change.

Prep time: 35 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 60 minutes

Yield: About 1 cup

Ingredients

2 tablespoons honey, mild floral preferred

Juice of 1 lemon

1/4 cup white wine vinegar

1 3/4 cups water

1 package (6 ounces) dried, unsulfured and unsweetened mango slices, preferably Trader Joe’s, roughly minced

1 fresh large unripe mango, peeled and cut into rough ½-inch dice

2 tablespoons mild olive oil

2 cloves garlic, peeled, cut in half, and finely minced, green centers removed

1/2 tablespoon toasted ground coriander

2 teaspoons fenugreek leaves (see Kitchen Tips for sources)

2 teaspoons toasted ground cumin

1 tablespoon ground turmeric

2 teaspoons fine sea salt

1/4 teaspoon Urfa pepper, optional

Directions

1. Pour the honey, lemon juice, vinegar and water into a small saucepan and set over medium heat. Add the chopped dried mango and the fresh mango, stir well, and bring to a gentle boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 25 minutes, or until the all the mango pieces are soft.

2. While the mango is cooking, set a small, heavy saucepan over high heat. When it is very hot, add the oil and garlic, and stir for about 30 seconds, or until fragrant. Remove from the heat and add the coriander, fenugreek and cumin. Mix well. It will take on the consistency of a paste.

3. Add the garlic paste to the mango mixture and stir well. Add the turmeric, salt, Urfa pepper and stir well.

4. Remove the mango mixture from the heat, cover, and let stand for 15 minutes. With a rubber spatula, scrape the mixture into a food processor or high-speed blender and process until smooth. The sauce is ready to serve and will keep in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Main photo: Heaven is a summer steak sandwich with a tasty sauce. Credit: Copyright 2015 TheWeiserKitchen

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The buttery orange broth of Secret Soup hides a plethora of fresh vegetables alongside lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime and chicken. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

In a recent stroke of luck, I was able to join my parents on a last-minute trip to Laos. Naturally, the first thing on my mind was: What will the food be like? Never having encountered Lao cuisine in the United States, I had no idea what to expect. So my palate was piqued when we arrived in Luang Prabang, the country’s former northern capital at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers.

A foodie adventure

The Bamboo Tree restaurant lures with the enticing scents of coconut and lemongrass. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

The Bamboo Tree restaurant lures with the enticing scents of coconut and lemongrass. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

Once settled in we immediately sought out some local food and stumbled across a restaurant off the main road, named Bamboo Tree. Lured by the enticing scents of coconut and lemongrass and by a menu on which we recognized nothing — always a good indicator of foodie adventure — we sat down. The menu told of the restaurant’s Lao chef and owner Linda Moukdavanh Rattana, who was raised cooking in her family’s Lao restaurant and whose favorite dish was something called “Secret Soup,” which combined classic local ingredients. Ordering it was a no-brainer.

Coconut milk and chilies

Chili and garlic, on display at the local market, are two crucial players behind the spicy heat of many Lao dishes.  Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

Chili and garlic, on display at the local market, are two crucial players behind the spicy heat of many Lao dishes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

The soup arrived with a handsome buttery orange color that foretold of coconut milk and chilies, with green hints of basil and kaffir lime leaves. One slurp later I was in gastronomic exotica, floating through a savory journey of creamy coconut offset by tangy lemongrass, spicy ginger, citric lime, aromatic basil and kicking chili heat, rounded out by a rich harvest of vegetables. Somewhat to my culinary embarrassment, I am not usually a fan of coconut- and chili-based food — Thai, mostly — since I tend to find it too cloyingly sweet, spicy or oily. But this soup opened my taste buds to the complex yet comforting flavors these ingredients can have when plucked fresh and combined in a meticulous way that allows each subtle flavor to come forth. If this was Lao food, I needed to learn more. When I heard Linda offered cooking classes, I signed up.

Three key ingredients

The three key ingredients of Lao cuisine -- lemongrass, kaffir lime and galangal -- alongside chili, garlic, and onion, which are common to many Southeast Asian foods. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

The three key ingredients of Lao cuisine — lemongrass, kaffir lime and galangal — alongside chili, garlic, and onion, which are common to many Southeast Asian foods. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

As our class visited the local market for ingredients and choose dishes to cook (obviously my vote was for Secret Soup), I took my culinary questions to the source. According to Linda, the three key flavors of Lao cooking are galangal, lemongrass and kaffir lime. Although these ingredients also appear in Thai and other Southeast Asian food, Linda affirmed they form the triumvirate base of Lao cuisine.

Among these ingredients I became particularly fascinated by galangal, which I had never seen before, and coconut milk, which I usually find too overpowering. Linda informed us that while related to ginger, galangal is much harder in texture and has more earthy and citrus flavors — so the two should never be substituted. As for the fresh coconut milk, it is easily found in Laos and its freshness is crucial for creating a dish that isn’t too creamy or sweet. But where fresh milk is hard to come by (as in the United States), one can substitute pure canned milk that avoids sweeteners, emulsifiers and other additives. Either way, adding coconut milk at both the beginning and end of the cooking process is key to balancing the chilies’ heat without veering toward overly sweet.

Complex flavors

A variety of spices are used in Lao cuisine to produce different levels of heat and add flavor complexity in balance with ingredients like coconut milk and lemongrass. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

A variety of spices are used in Lao cuisine to produce different levels of heat and add flavor complexity in balance with ingredients like coconut milk and lemongrass. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

As with many Lao dishes, Secret Soup embodies a larger theme of Lao cuisine: years of mutual culinary influence with neighboring countries. For example, Laos and northeastern Thailand (Isan) were once part of the same country, leading to a shared culinary heritage. The Secret Soup contains items typically associated with Thai food, such as coconut milk and chilies, while also emphasizing the complex umami flavors, aromatic fresh herbs and spicy edge apparent in both Lao and Thai dishes. Yet the soup also displays typical Lao spicy-sour-bitter notes — from the blend of galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime and chili — instead of classic Thai sweet-sour flavors. Other Lao dishes might delicately indicate that the Lao originally migrated from China, carrying Chinese techniques with them, and many foods in the Laotian capital Vientaine still carry the legacy of French Indochina.

Authentic Lao cuisine

Local market vendors display their many varieties of sticky rice, a Lao diet staple. Lao people eat more sticky rice than anyone else in the world. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

Local market vendors display their many varieties of sticky rice, a Lao diet staple. Lao people eat more sticky rice than anyone else in the world. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

These similarities, according to Linda, often make it difficult to identify “authentic Lao” cuisine. In fact, the close correlations between Thai and Lao food are the reason for the seeming lack of Lao restaurants in the United States. Many Lao restaurants are established under the guise of Thai, since the latter have achieved more mainstream popularity. But a number of Thai places can actually be identified as Lao through traditional Lao dishes such as sticky rice — the staple food of the Lao — papaya salad, fermented fish paste, or others, such as Secret Soup, based on the three key Lao ingredients. Ultimately, Secret Soup was not only my first taste of Laos — it also gradually expressed the country’s elaborate history of culinary exchange, appropriately lending the dish’s title new meaning. Just as I pass on the recipe from Linda here, you can carry on the tradition by translating the culinary complexities of Laos to your own dinner table.

Bamboo Tree Secret Soup

Fresh coconut milk sits side by side with oil -- which is used sparingly in Lao dishes -- surrounded by fresh vegetables and a variety of pastes used for umami flavor and spicy kick. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

Fresh coconut milk sits side by side with oil — which is used sparingly in Lao dishes — surrounded by fresh vegetables and a variety of pastes used for umami flavor and spicy kick. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

Ingredients

5 stalks lemongrass

10 slices galangal

1 handful each of shallots, onions and garlic, sliced

2 tablespoons sunflower or soybean oil

5 kaffir lime leaves

3/4 pound of chicken filet, sliced

2 cups coconut milk, separated

1 to 2 teaspoons chili paste, amount to taste

1 handful mushrooms, jelly, oyster, maitake or combination

1/4 handful potato, cubed

1/4 handful green beans or long beans

1/4 handful eggplants, cubed

3 tablespoons oyster sauce

1 tablespoon light soy sauce

1 tablespoon fish sauce

1 teaspoon salt

3 teaspoons soybean paste

1 teaspoon chili powder

Red chilies, to taste, crushed

2 cups water

5 basil leaves

3 tablespoons lime juice (kaffir or regular)

Extra coconut milk (optional)

Directions

1. Finely chop lemongrass, galangal, shallots, onion and garlic.

2. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil over high heat in wok, then stir-fry lemongrass, galangal, shallots, onion, garlic and kaffir lime leaves until golden brown.

3. Add chicken, stirring over high heat. Stir in 1 cup coconut milk and the chili paste, cooking for a couple minutes.

4. Stir in the other ingredients, finishing with the rest of the coconut milk and the water. Cook for 10 minutes.

5. Just before serving, add the basil leaves and lime juice, and more coconut milk, if preferred.

Notes:

  • Galangal, kaffir lime and lemongrass can be ordered online or found in specialty Asian markets. Do not substitute for any of these ingredients as they are crucial to the soup’s flavor — but they’re also just for flavor, so don’t eat them!
  • For the chicken, I would suggest sticking with white meat, which works very well.
  • Add the rest of the coconut milk, and the water, gradually — you can use less than the recipe calls for, depending on how much of the coconut flavor you prefer. But also make sure to taste the final result after everything cooks, since you may end up wanting to add in that extra coconut milk before serving.
  • If your wok isn’t large enough for all of the ingredients, transfer to a pot on high heat after the first cup of coconut milk and the chili paste are added.

Main photo: The buttery orange broth of Secret Soup hides a plethora of fresh vegetables alongside lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime and chicken. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer

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The heat of the chilies in this Chili Peanut Relish is nicely balanced by the creamy, crunchy peanuts. This quick dish -- you can make it in about 10 minutes -- is delicious with fish and vegetables. Credit: Copyright 2014 Rinku Bhattacharya

Want a fresh way to spice up your summer grilling routine? Pair those grilled meats with Indian condiments.

While Indian foods are better known for their spicy heat, there are several Indian condiments that can cool off your summer table while appealing to a range of palates: sweet, spice, tart or savory.

Spices known for their cooling qualities include cumin, cayenne and black salt. The cooling spices are all part of the prescription for summer for Ayurveda: the thousands-years-old holistic approach to health and wellness.

Carrot and Cucumber Raita With Almonds

A raita is an Indian-style cucumber salad, paired with natural yogurt. In this version from my cookbook, “Spices & Seasons: Simple, Sustainable Indian Flavors,” I add freshly grated carrots and crunchy almonds.

This yogurt salad is colorful, refreshing and full of protein and vitamins. Serve it on crackers or grilled bread. Credit: Copyright 2014 Rinku Bhattacharya

This yogurt salad is colorful, refreshing and full of protein and vitamins. Serve it on crackers or grilled bread. Credit: Copyright 2014 Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

2 medium cucumbers

1 medium carrot

2 tablespoons almonds, coarsely ground or sliced

1 tablespoon fresh mint leaves, minced (optional)

3/4 cup low-fat plain yogurt

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1/2 teaspoon sugar

Freshly ground black pepper

A sprinkle of red pepper flakes (optional)

Directions

1. Peel the cucumbers and grate into a mixing bowl, discarding any whole seeds.

2. Peel the carrot and grate into the same bowl. Add the almonds and mint, if using.

3. In a separate bowl, beat the yogurt, salt, sugar and black pepper until well mixed. Stir into the cucumber mixture.

4. Garnish with the red pepper flakes, if using.

Mint and Cilantro Chutney

Spicy, green and fresh, this classic condiment is found year-round on the Indian table and can be served with most any dish. Traditionally, it derives its tartness from unripe green mangoes. This recipe simplifies it by using lime juice instead.

Mint and Cilantro Chutney, a simple-to-make dish from the "Spices & Seasons" cookbook, is a classic condiment found year-round on the Indian table. Credit: Copyright 2014 Rinku Bhattacharya

Mint and Cilantro Chutney, a simple-to-make dish from the “Spices & Seasons” cookbook, is a classic condiment found year-round on the Indian table. Credit: Copyright 2014 Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 10 minutes

Yield: 1 cup

Ingredients

1 bunch cilantro (about 3 cups)

2 bunches mint leaves (about 1 1/2 cups)

2 green serrano chilies

1 teaspoon cumin powder

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1 teaspoon black salt

1 teaspoon sugar

2 teaspoons oil (mustard or canola)

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

Directions

1. Place all of the ingredients into a blender.

2. Grind mixture until smooth. This chutney will keep for 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator, but the color will darken because of the lime.

 

Tamarind and Date Chutney

This tantalizing recipe is a superb alternative to barbecue sauce. It’s great on chicken wings or mixed with mayonnaise and drizzled over your favorite protein. 

Tamarind and Date Chutney is another classic Indian condiment; this version from "Spices & Seasons" is what I call the Indian barbecue sauce. Credit: Copyright 2014 Rinku Bhattacharya

Tamarind and Date Chutney is another classic Indian condiment; this version from “Spices & Seasons” is what I call the Indian barbecue sauce. Credit: Copyright 2014 Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

Yield: 1 cup

Ingredients

1 jar tamarind paste (I prefer Swad or Laxmi brands)

1 cup chopped, pitted dates

1/2 cup brown sugar or jaggery

1/2 teaspoon black salt

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

2 dried red chilies

Directions

1. Place the tamarind paste, dates, brown sugar, black salt and 2 cups of water in a pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer for 10 minutes. Cool slightly.

2. Meanwhile, place the fennel and cumin seeds in a heavy skillet and toast until the seeds darken and smell fragrant, about 20 to 30 seconds. Add the chilies and toast for a few more seconds.

3. Grind the seeds and chilies in a spice grinder until powdery.

4. Blend the tamarind mixture in a blender until smooth. Return to the pot, stir in the spice mixture and cook for another 5 minutes.

5. Cool and store in air-tight jars in the refrigerator for up to three months.

Indian Onion Relish

A popular feature in many Indian restaurants, this smoky, tangy condiment is a nice substitute for your usual relish on grilled hot dogs.

A popular feature in many Indian restaurants, this cumin-laced relish is a nice alternative to your usual relish on a hot dog.  Credit: Copyright 2015 Rinku Bhattacharya

A popular feature in many Indian restaurants, this cumin-laced relish is a nice alternative to your usual relish on a hot dog. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 2 hours

Yield: 1 cup

Ingredients

2 large white onions, finely diced

1 tablespoon cumin seeds

½ tablespoon black peppercorns

1/3 cup tomato ketchup

3 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 1/2 teaspoons black salt

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon red cayenne pepper

2 tablespoons minced cilantro

Directions

1. Chill the diced onions in the refrigerator for an hour.

2. Lightly toast the cumin seeds and black peppercorns and grind to a powder.

3. In a mixing bowl, add powdered spices, ketchup, lime juice, black salt, sugar and the red cayenne pepper and mix well with the chopped onions.

4. Return to the refrigerator and chill for another hour (or up to 6 hours) before serving. Garnish with cilantro and serve.

Pear and Raisin Chutney

This chutney from my cookbook pairs well with grilled tofu, pork or fish — and is wonderful added to a burger. Or serve it alongside a basket of warm tortilla chips. 

This Pear and Raisin Chutney recipe from my cookbook pairs perfectly with grilled tofu, pork or fish -- or try it as a relish on a burger. Credit: Copyright 2014 Rinku Bhattacharya

This Pear and Raisin Chutney recipe from my cookbook pairs perfectly with grilled tofu, pork or fish — or try it as a relish on a burger. Credit: Copyright 2014 Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 3/4 cup

Ingredients

4 to 6 medium red pears, cored and diced (not peeled)

1 lime

1 tablespoon oil

1 1/4 teaspoons fennel seeds

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

2 tablespoons finely grated ginger

2 tablespoons malt or cider vinegar

1/3 cup sugar or brown sugar

1/3 cup mixed raisins

1 to 2 tablespoons chopped dried sweetened cranberries

2 long green chilies (young cayenne or Italian), minced

Directions

1. Place the pears in a colander and squeeze the lime juice over them.

2. Heat the oil on medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the fennel seeds and wait until they sizzle and turn a few shades darker, about 20 to 30 seconds.

3. Add the red pepper flakes and stir.

4. Add the pears, ginger, vinegar, sugar, raisins and cranberries and stir. Let the sugar dissolve and bring the mixture to a simmer. Simmer for 5 minutes, until the raisins swell and the pears become soft — but not mushy.

5. Sprinkle with minced chilies before removing the heat.

6. Store and use as needed. This mixture will keep in the refrigerator for six to eight months.

Citrusy Roasted Beets With Tempered Spices

A cross between a salad and a light pickle, this healthy condiment adds a gentle tartness to tender young beets. This recipe is a lighter and healthier version of the traditional beetroot and cheese salad, and is dairy- and nut-free.

This healthy condiment, also from "Spices & Seasons," adds a gentle tartness to tender young beets, seasoning them with ginger, black pepper, Clementine juice and mustard seeds. Credit: Copyright 2014 Rinku Bhattacharya

This healthy condiment, also from “Spices & Seasons,” adds a gentle tartness to tender young beets, seasoning them with ginger, black pepper, Clementine juice and mustard seeds. Credit: Copyright 2014 Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 45 minutes

Total time: 55 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

3 medium red beets, greens removed

3 medium yellow beets, greens removed

2 to 3 tablespoons oil

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon ginger paste

1/2 teaspoon black salt

1/2 lime

1 orange or Clementine, cut in half

Several grinds black pepper

1 tablespoon cilantro, finely chopped

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 375 F.

2. Wrap the beets in foil and roast for 35 to 40 minutes. Allow beets to cool and then peel and cut into wedges.

3. Heat the oil in a wok or skillet. Add the fennel and mustard seeds. When they begin to crackle, add the garlic and ginger paste and sauté lightly until the mixture is fragrant.

4. Stir in the roasted beets and black salt and mix well.

5. Squeeze in the lime juice and orange or Clementine juice and mix well.

6. Stir in black pepper.

7. Garnish with cilantro and serve.

 

Slow Cooker Plum, Date and Rhubarb Chutney

This beautiful tangy ruby red chutney can be made with plums or any stone fruit of your choice. It takes a lot of cooking to obtain its deep jam-like consistency, which can be challenging during the summer, but I use the slow cooker in my recipe to keep my kitchen cool.

This  tangy, ruby-red chutney can be made with plums or any stone fruit of your choice. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rinku Bhattacharya

This tangy, ruby-red chutney can be made with plums or any stone fruit of your choice. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 3 hours in a slow cooker

Total time: 3 hours, 15 minutes

Yield: About 3 cups

Ingredients

1 pound of rhubarb, trimmed and cut into small pieces

4 pounds of purple plums, stoned and coarsely chopped

4 tablespoons minced ginger

3 to 4 star anise

1 large stick cinnamon

1 1/2 teaspoons red cayenne pepper

1 cup of chopped and seeded dates

1/2 cup chopped almonds (optional)

1/4 cup maple syrup

Directions

1. Place the rhubarb, plums, ginger, star anise, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, dates, almonds (if using) and the maple syrup in the slow cooker and cook on high setting for 3 hours.

2. Stir the mixture occasionally to help with the consistency.

3. After three hours you should have a fragrant, sticky and colorful medley.

4. Remove the whole spices and save the chutney in a clear jar and use as needed to perk up your meal.

Classic Cucumber Raita With Mint

Omnipresent on the summer table and year-round in India, this is the more traditional version of raita. I sometimes add dill instead of — or alongside — the mint and serve this as the perfect pair to salmon.

Omnipresent on Indian tables in the summer and all year round, this  Cucumber and Mint Raita is perfect with almost any dish. Try it with dill to mix things up. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rinku Bhattacharya

Omnipresent on Indian tables in the summer and all year round, this Cucumber and Mint Raita is perfect with almost any dish. Try it with dill to mix things up. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 25 minutes, plus 1 hour for chilling if you prefer the raita chilled

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

2 medium-sized English or Persian cucumbers (about 1 1/2 pounds)

1 1/2 cups of day-old natural yogurt

1/2 cup fresh mint leaves

1/2 teaspoon black or Himalayan salt

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon sugar

Cayenne pepper (optional)

Directions

1. Peel the cucumbers.

2. Grate about three-quarters of the cucumbers and finely chop the rest, keeping the chopped cucumbers separated from the grated cucumbers.

3. Place the grated cucumbers in a mixing bowl.

4. In a separate bowl, add the yogurt and beat well.

5. Mince the mint leaves and add to the yogurt.

6. Add the black salt, cumin, black pepper and sugar and beat well. Gently fold in the grated cucumbers.

7. Top with diced cucumbers and sprinkle with cayenne.

8. Chill up to an hour or serve immediately.
Main photo: The heat of the chilies in this Chili Peanut Relish is nicely balanced by the creamy, crunchy peanuts. This quick dish — you can make it in about 10 minutes — is delicious with fish and vegetables. Credit: Copyright 2014 Rinku Bhattacharya

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Every variety of artisanal salt has a unique flavor profile, thanks in part to the type and quantity of minerals it contains. Credit: 2015 Copyright Susan Lutz

Professional chefs and home cooks are discovering artisanal salt with a vengeance. No longer content with 50-pound bags of Morton or Diamond Crystal flake salt, chefs are using a bewildering array of salts from around the world in a dizzying variety of ways.

The reasons become clear on a visit to J. Q. Dickinson Salt-Works in Malden, West Virginia, where CEO Nancy Bruns is a seventh-generation salt-maker. In 2013 Nancy and her brother, Lewis Payne, revived their family’s historic salt-making business high in the Allegheny Mountains. In the past two years, their salt has become a favorite with chefs across the country. I spent the day at the salt-works and discussed the importance of salt with a variety of chefs who use Dickinson’s handmade product.

The reasons that artisanal salt has become important are many,  but seven reasons keep coming up.

Artisanal salt adds unique flavor

 Harvesting salt at Dickinson’s Salt-Works in the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia.  Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Harvesting salt at Dickinson’s Salt-Works in the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Whether it’s rock salt from the Himalayas or open-air evaporated salt from the Mediterranean coast of France, each form of artisanal salt has its own flavor profile.

Aaron Keefer, trained chef and culinary gardener at The French Laundry in Napa Valley, California, says the flavor of artisanal salt is hard to describe. “Any salt makes things taste better, but artisan salt has a more rounded flavor that adds a little something extra to the dish that you can’t put your finger on, but in the end you know it’s better.”

Good stories make good salt

A brine-settling vat at the old salt-works operation at Dickinson’s Salt-Works.  Credit: Courtesy of the J. Q. Dickinson family

A brine-settling vat at the old salt-works operation at Dickinson’s Salt-Works. Credit: Courtesy of the J. Q. Dickinson family

Artisanal salt always comes with a good story. Dickinson’s Salt-Works began just after the American Revolution, when Bruns’ ancestors began processing salt from the local briny pools. By the time of the Civil War, it was the biggest salt producer in the country. By the end of World War II, commercial salt production in West Virginia had essentially disappeared.

“I love the story,” Keefer says. “Dickinson’s salt was very popular, then it was defunct, then it was brought back in modern times.” But for Keefer, the heart of the story goes back even further: “What made it stand out for me is that the American Indians used it, and the method of extraction was unique.”

Bruns knows that there’s more to branding than simply a great product. “We have a great story which makes it a very authentic brand,” she says. “Seven generations of salt-making in one family on the same land is hard to beat.”

Balance: Minerality vs. salinity

Interior of hoop house for evaporating salt at Dickinson Salt-Works Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Interior of hoop house for evaporating salt at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

The key to an artisanal salt is the balance between minerality and salinity. A pink Himalayan rock salt has enough iron to give it its pink color. Celtic sea salt might have far fewer trace minerals. But each type balances the amount of the chemical sodium chloride, and the other minerals in the water source.

Bruns sources her product from a 400 million-year-old underground sea that geologists call “the Iapetus Ocean.” “Our source is very protected,” she says. “We are not drawing our brine from an exposed, open ocean where there is always the possibility of contamination.” The initial brine from her 350-foot well is rich in magnesium, calcium, potassium, manganese and especially iron. Bruns, a former chef, processes the brine to create a salt that has a unique appeal for other chefs.

Matt Baker, executive chef at City Perch Kitchen + Bar in Bethesda, Maryland, has become a fan of Dickinson’s salt: “The grain is nice and plump, so it holds its shape well while also having a medium level of salinity to the finish on the palate.”

Terroir: As vital in salt as it is in wine

Hoop houses and tanks at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Hoop houses and tanks at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Like wine, artisanal salt has terroir, the word winemakers use to describe that indefinable sense of place that gives each wine its unique personality.

Dickinson’s salt is pumped from more than 300 feet below the ground and evaporated in a series of small hoop houses. Dickinson Salt-Works uses handmade techniques drawn from a 200-year-old legacy. “We think of our salt as an agricultural product,” Bruns says. “It comes from the land, and we move the brine several times to maximize the flavor.”

Ian Boden, chef-owner of The Shack in Staunton, Virginia, says that good artisanal salt “has the taste of its place,” and Dickinson’s salt certainly does. “You can tell that it’s harvested from underneath a mountain because its mineral content is so high. It’s like using Hawaiian black salt — it has that earthy, funky, ash flavor. Except it’s not ash, it’s the mountains of West Virginia.”

The texture of artisanal salt adds contrast

Salt crystals forming in salt beds at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Salt crystals forming in salt beds at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Unlike the quickly dissolving grains of highly refined industrial salt, the texture of artisanal salt brings contrast to a dish. What most of us think of as texture is the result of a combination of factors including crystal structure, grain size and moisture content. Sometimes, it is texture alone that makes an artisanal salt memorable. All salts are either mined from rock or evaporated from saltwater lakes, springs or oceans. The majority of artisanal salts are evaporative, and the method of evaporation has a profound impact on the texture of the salt.

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Chef Boden says the unique character of Dickinson’s salt comes from its texture, which is the result of the solar evaporation process. “To be brutally honest, if you lined up 15 salts, I couldn’t tell you where each one came from, but I think there’s definitely a difference. If you lined salts up, I could tell by feeling it that it was Dickinson’s salt, most definitely.”

Chefs from east to west agree that Dickinson’s salt has a texture that can’t be beat. Baker of City Perch Kitchen + Bar discovered Dickinson’s salt through the restaurant’s mixologist Adam Seger and hasn’t looked back. “I instantly fell in love with the salt. What makes it great is its subtleness and medium-size grain.”

Keefer has also noticed the distinct texture of Dickinson’s salt. “It seems like all salts are shaped just a little bit differently. I like the grind on it — the flake on it — it’s a good all-around salt. I’ve used it both with fish and with meat and been very happy with the results.” Keefer adds, “Try as many different salts as possible and you’ll find a favorite.”

Artisanal salt gives a pop of flavor at the finish

 Nancy Bruns harvests salt at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Nancy Bruns harvests salt at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Artisanal salts are more expensive than industrially produced salts because of the time and resources required to produce them, but this increased price this doesn’t stop chefs from using artisanal salts in a variety of dishes. Keefer explains: “Everybody’s concerned about the price of artisan salt, but a little goes a long way. Use it as a finishing salt, not as a base salt.”

“Salt is there to make things taste more like themselves,” Boden says. But finishing salt is used in a slightly different way. “You put a little finishing salt on the dish and you get a pop of something unexpected. That’s really what we’re using it for — that textural and salinity contrast on a finished plate.”

Each chef uses finishing salt in a distinct and personal way. Baker reports: “We use Dickinson’s salt to finish a lot of our meats and fresh dishes like burrata cheese, seared tuna and foie gras torchon. The texture of the grains makes it melt in your mouth perfectly with a clean finish.”

The unexpected: Artisanal salt inspires creative chefs

Chocolate caramel tart finished with evaporated sea salt. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Chocolate caramel tart finished with evaporated sea salt. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Artisanal salt pumps up the flavor in unexpected dishes like desserts and cocktails. “I like to add a pinch of salt to a lot of my desserts — whether I’m making a cherry pie or chocolate frosting,” Keefer says. “I don’t put in enough to make it salty, but a pinch of salt adds a surprising amount of flavor.”

Baker has found a variety of unique applications for Dickinson’s salt. “At the bar we use it to rim our Forbidden Fruit Margarita and our Bloody Maryland.” Baker even uses Dickinson’s nigari (a by-product of the salt-making process) as the starter for his house-made ricotta cheese. He couldn’t be happier with the results. The nigari, which is traditionally used to make tofu, “gives the cheese a fresh bite of salinity and a hint of pepper.”

Dickinson Salt-Works has recently introduced a salt with a finer grain. Chef Boden at The Shack plans to experiment with it in his own take on traditional charcuterie, curing and fermenting. “It’s something I want to do. It brings a certain earthiness to the components.”

Artisanal salts are as varied as the almost endless places across the globe in which salt is mined or harvested. And it is these unique flavors and textures that inspire chefs — and the rest of us — to use artisanal salt in creative and ever-evolving ways.

Main photo: Every variety of artisanal salt has a unique flavor profile, thanks in part to the type and quantity of minerals it contains. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

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A platter of

Of all the influences on Spain’s distinctive culinary style, it was the Arab impact of bringing the spice azafrán or saffron known as “red gold” to the Spanish table that infuses Spanish cooking with its classic deep yellow color and slightly musky, rich taste.

For many American cooks like myself, saffron is still surrounded in a bit of mystery. The three-pronged stigma from the center of a saffron flower, at almost $20 a gram, it’s super-pricey. It has an aroma and flavor that hovers between floral and bitter citrus with metallic undertones. And like extra virgin olive oil, its somewhat dodgy history of fraud and adulteration serves as yet another culinary example of all that glitters is not necessarily gold.

When I returned from a trip to Spain 15 years ago, the customs official discovered three precious glass vials of saffron buried deep in my suitcase. With a raised eyebrow and a slight shrug, he waved me through. I stashed it away like my grandmother’s heirloom jewelry, anxiously waiting for the perfect recipe to showcase these dark red-orange threads, unknowingly saving it well past its prime. Because like other spices, saffron is best when fresh and does not improve with age.

Recently, I traveled back to the La Mancha region of Spain. While it might be best known for its iconic windmills and hapless hero Don Quixote, it was the acres and acres of inches-tall small crocus flowers that I was after. As a guest of Verdú Cantó, one of the largest saffron distributors in Spain, I spent the morning with Rodolfo Encarnación Marin, manager of the Corporacion de Operadores de Azafrán Español, deep in the heart of Spain’s saffron country, to learn all I could about this quintessential Spanish ingredient known as the world’s most expensive spice.

While saffron may be the world’s most expensive spice, used properly these exquisite red-orange threads are worth every dollar. Here’s are a couple of pointers to help you make the most of a very wise investment:

  • Always buy saffron in thread form, not powder, which is known to be easier to adulterate with other spices like turmeric.
  • Look for a Spanish D.O. (denominación de origen) and production date on the label to ensure best quality.
  • Before adding to most recipes, grind it gently between your fingers and rehydrate with a bit of very hot water. You might be advised to roast it to bring out the flavor but if it’s truly fresh this will diminish, not enhance, its subtle aromas.
  • Use a deft and light hand. Fortunately, just a few threads of saffron add a slightly smoky aroma of tobacco and cedar, a luscious flavor infused with undercurrents of pepper and citrus, and brilliant red-orange color.
  • Saffron is equally at home in dishes from savory paellas to sweet intensely flavored ice cream. Don’t be afraid to experiment — you will be rewarded with a unique twist on traditional tastes that add a bit of Spanish mystery to your menu.

Note: The best, most reliable shop I know to source saffron is the Spanish specialty online store www.latienda.com.

Main photo: A platter of “Spanish gold” — freshly harvested saffron threads in Albacete, Spain, before drying. Credit: Copyright Caroline J. Beck

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Perfumer Mandy Aftel now has a line of essential oils for her cooking. Credit: Copyright 2015 Emily Grosvenor

Mandy Aftel was well on her way to becoming America’s most highly regarded natural perfumer when she started using essential oils in cooking. She had a book out, “Essence and Alchemy,” and a line of beloved natural perfumes she made by hand in her studio. But while on book tour, she was encountering a troubling problem. She noticed that so many of the people she met said they hated perfume.

“As a perfumer, I wanted to be around people who cared about ingredients, and I found them in the food world,” she said. “For me it’s all about how stunning these aromas are and what you can do with them when you know how they work.”

Aftel, who lives directly behind Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, was no stranger to chefs obsessed with using only the finest quality whole ingredients. But what she needed was a chef who cared very much about aroma, and how it shapes how the mouth experiences food. She found that partner in Daniel Patterson, who has since become famous in his own right as a chef, food writer and primary proponent of California cuisine. Aftel took her traveling perfume organ — a suitcase of sorts in which she carries samples of the essential oils she uses in her studio — and shared them with him.

“He was knocked out, especially with the black pepper essence,” Aftel said.

Soon, Patterson began incorporating essential oils in his dishes. The two later collaborated on their first shared cookbook, “Aroma: The Magic of Essential Oils in Food and Fragrance.” Since then, Aftel has worked with all manner of people in the food industry to develop aromas for food products based on real, natural essential oils and has become a steady proponent of their use in the home kitchen. More recently, she has developed her own line of essential oil sprays — edible essential oils in an alcohol spray mist — for use in restaurants and home cuisine.

The American food scene has welcomed her approach as a next step in the country’s move back to a more natural relationship with food. A long history exists of using essential oils with cooking. But as with perfume, at the beginning of the 20th century, consumers became enamored of the synthetics because they were cheaper. In the past, people were took active plant material and infused or they were using the essential oils directly. In her new book, “Fragrant,” Aftel has resurrected a number of recipes for staples such as ketchup, which relied heavily on essential oils, and has made the relationship between perfuming and food even more tangible.

“Daniel and I were real trailblazers, because the history had been lost,” Aftel said. “I think it’s so exciting, deeply exciting to have the essence of the plant. It offers insanely creative possibilities and can provide flavor that you really can’t arrive at any other way.”

Aftel discussed how one might go about using essential oils in the kitchen:

What essential oils are safe to ingest?

It’s pretty simple. You should always trust who is providing the oils themselves, but you can eat all of the oils listed on the FDA’s GRAS list (Generally Regarded As Safe).

Can you give me some examples of situations where the essential oil is preferable to the spice?

There’s really no heat in black pepper oil, for example, it’s all in the peppercorn itself. If you used a lot of black pepper to get that black pepper essence it would be way too hot. But if you use a drop of the oil it’s an amazing flavor unto itself. In the middle of winter you might want the flavor of basil, but you don’t want the texture of basil leaves and the ones in winter aren’t really that good anyway. So you use the oil, and just a drop. When you use these oils it’s like being the master of the universe to use just one drop and have the result be so aromatic and lovely.

Where does one begin? What’s a good way to start?

A very good dark chocolate, say 65% dark at least, and vanilla ice cream can be a great place to start. Here’s the pink pepper. The sprays are really idiot proof — they are drops within alcohol and very easy to use. Drops themselves are just so strong, so you might want to use the drops when you are cooking them into something. But if you’re just doing a finishing then I recommend the sprays. Things like rose essence, cinnamon and vanilla, violet, sarsaparilla, all go great with a good vanilla ice cream. Yellow mandarin, cardamom, great with chocolate. Pear and chocolate. Anything that is creamy and rich is a nice base upon which to start because they have their own vibrant character, but they can blend in. The naturals, for better or worse, don’t last. But then again, people are used to the olfactory equivalent of McDonald’s. If you can isolate the aroma and use it in something or another. I like to keep things as simple and beautiful as possible.

Do you think people really think that much about the quality of their spices?

People are very familiar with some spices, but when they became easy to get, the thing that made them so powerful and amazing became less appreciated. People will buy a giant container of cinnamon and then let it languish in their cupboard for years, not understanding that the thing about the cinnamon is slowly going away, its nature is gone. With oils, you can create your own flavor and retain what is so powerful about the natural ingredient. I think it’s a very creative process.

How do you use essential oils in your home cooking?

I love roasted Brussels sprouts. One of the things I’ve found about beef is it’s great with chocolate. It adds a richness to it, a new flavor. I also love roasted red and green peppers with basil oil. The licorice/anise aspect of it really gets out. Or Foster, my husband, will get a tomato soup and I’ll add a little cinnamon, kind of a Mediterranean mix. I love the experience of changing things just a smidge, it makes all of my food experiences very aromatic.

What about drinks?

Drinks are the bridges from perfume to food. I’m thinking a lot about this for my new book with Daniel Paterson. Coffee, tea, wine, alcohol, these are very aromatic experiences. Citrus rinds. When someone has a drink, they are also smelling it. It’s no fluke that the experience people most associate with drink is very aromatic and very convivial. I think the aromatic aspects of it are what make it so wonderful. People take a lot of liberty with experimenting with drinks, in a way they don’t always necessarily do with food. It’s a wonderful bridge toward learning.

Are the oils better than the spices?

The oils, when they are done well, allow you to appreciate the real identity of the spice. A lot of the oils don’t have the sharpness of the spices. When you use the essential oil, you are actually harnessing the best version of the spice and holding on to it. There’s this awful thing that happens when you have access to things because of our global world. They stop being prized. I don’t think luxury should be attached to status. I like to retool the relationships between things that being available and things being prized. I like to prize that experience and have it drop by drop.

Main photo: Perfumer Mandy Aftel now has a line of essential oils for her cooking. Credit: Copyright Emily Grosvenor

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Sandesh is an Indian version of cheesecake, can be cut into shapes with cookie cutters or formed into balls. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

This Valentine’s Day, as you look for foods besides oysters and chocolate to woo the object of your affection, consider exploring your spice cabinet.

You’ll be surprised at the flavors’ powers — as natural aphrodisiacs — to be found there.

To heighten the senses and set the mood, we need fragrance and beauty in our foods.

In fact, Ayurveda — the holistic method of medical treatment in India rooted in Hinduism — traditionally placed a fair amount of emphasis on aphrodisiac terminology. The intent was to ensure that people led healthy conjugal lives and the ruler appropriately produced the requisite heir. There is similar wisdom found in other ancient texts.

So, cull through this list of common spices for your Valentine’s Day menu that also may help you spice things up — in other ways — with your Valentine.

First up is cinnamon, whose lustrous and sweet aroma can make you both happy and calm. (And, it’s certainly good for your blood pressure.)

Right alongside, you might have cloves, whose essential quality is to uplift your mood and spirits. And then there is nutmeg, also known for its antioxidant and astringent qualities.

An aphrodisiac spice, says ‘The Arabian Nights’

To complete the fragrant collection, we also have cardamom, which “The Arabian Nights” extols for its passion-inducing properties.

All of these will find its place in a good garam masala blend. And when meshed with saffron — the exotic spice of the gods — your Valentine’s Day collection of aromas will be complete.

When planning your menu, consider a good one-pot dish such as a biryani that will bring to your table all of these spices and more. If that’s too complex, try rubbing a chicken with butter and garam masala and serving it roasted to perfection, with saffron mashed potatoes on the side.

But don’t forget the dessert. Fortunately, many Indian desserts bring together cardamom, saffron and rose. From the universe of puddings, halwas and burfees, I have dug up a Bengali specialty called the sandesh, which, when done right, can win over the most fastidious of hearts and palates.

A sandesh is a cheesecake of sorts, with the emphasis on a specific cheese: channa, or homemade white cheese. The art of the traditional sandesh rests in the right texture and handling of this channa. Although it is prolific in Indian confectionary shops, we’re often hard-pressed to find good sandesh in commercial Indian sweet shops — mainly because of the relatively short shelf life of this delicate sweet.

Spicing up cheesecake the sandesh way

Ricotta cheese, if treated right, can be a substitute for channa. This recipe features a cheater sandesh, using ricotta cheese streaked with saffron and subtly scented with freshly crushed cardamom.

I have created this recipe for days when time does not allow for the making and draining of channa. It’s a fairly good facsimile for the steamed sandesh known as bhapa sandesh that my grandmother used to make. In this sandesh, instead of cooking the channa over the stove top, it is steamed with gentle and continuous heat.

In my recipe, I bake it on low heat in the oven and then cool and shape it. If you wish, you can garnish these delicate morsels with pistachios, snipped rose petals and anything else that catches your fancy.

Serve them with some chilled saffron almond milk.

That’s bound to warm the cockles of your heart and soothe your senses, all at once.

Baked Orange-Flavored Cheesecake — Bhapa Sandesh

Adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles,” by Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 45 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes, plus time for cooling

Yield: 12 servings

Ingredients

For the cheesecake:

Clarified butter or ghee for greasing the casserole dish

1 1/2 cups low-fat ricotta cheese (about 30 ounces)

3/4 cup condensed milk (about 12 ounces)

1/2 teaspoon saffron strands

1/4 teaspoon freshly crushed cardamom (about 2 pods)

6 tablespoons fresh orange juice or tangerine juice (about one medium tangerine)

For optional garnishes:

Orange sections

Slivered almonds

Chocolate shavings

The sandesh can be formed into round balls and rolled in chocolate shavings. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

The sandesh can be formed into round balls and rolled in chocolate shavings. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 325 F.

2. Grease an 8-by-12-inch cake or casserole dish and set aside.

3. In a mixing bowl, beat together the ricotta cheese and condensed milk.

4. Stir in the saffron strands and cardamom, pour the mixture into the greased casserole dish. The objective is to achieve a streaked effect rather than uniform coloring.

5. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes.

6. Drizzle with the orange juice and cool for one hour.

7. Carefully invert the prepared cheesecake onto a flat surface. This can be cut into shapes using a cooking cutter, or formed into round balls.

8. If desired, garnish with orange sections and almonds, or roll or sprinkle with chocolate shavings.

9. Chill for 45 minutes or longer, and serve.

Main photo: Sandesh, an Indian version of cheesecake, can be shaped with cookie cutters or formed into round balls. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

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Sumac and sumac pepper blend. Credit: Wendy Petty

Sumac is local lemon for foragers who live in places where there’s no chance of plucking one from a tree. When picked at peak ripeness, but before rain can wash off its tart coating of edible acids, sumac is just as pucker-worthy as any children’s sour candy. That tart flavor of sumac is a valuable part of my wild edible spice rack, and I turn to it often. The other great advantage of sumac is that it stores very well if kept cool and dry.

I was reminded of this as I stood and surveyed my pantry. At mid-winter in the Rockies, a forager can sometimes have a hard time finding enough activities to satisfy the urge to wildcraft. One can only spend so much time looking for tiny leaves of green beneath the leaf duff and snow, and sampling fermented-on-the-tree crab apples.

In the darkest months of the off-season, my larder offers up opportunities to work with the wild foods I adore. I spend much of the summer putting up as many wild foods as I can manage, in all forms – frozen, pickled, canned and dried. Seeing my shelves lined with these gorgeous preserves, I get the same feeling that some must get when gazing upon jewels, or the proverbial kid in a candy store. Recently, it was my tin full of red sumac that beckoned to me.

Though every forager I know, and many people who belonged to outdoor-based clubs as kids, has tried the sumac version of lemonade, sumac is probably best known as being a key component in za’atar spice blend, appearing along with herbs, sesame seeds and salt.

Sumac. Credit: Wendy Petty

Sumac. Credit: Wendy Petty

I often sprinkle ground sumac into recipes, savory and sweet, to add a little zip of brightness. Standing in my pantry looking at my tin of foraged sumac, I suddenly had a strong memory of a time in my childhood when it seemed every dish was seasoned with lemon pepper, and knew this would be an ideal place to substitute sumac.

I had thought that lemon pepper was a relic of the past, but a quick survey of my friends quickly revealed that many still use it frequently. I wasted no time in blending a batch of sumac pepper. Not only was it pretty to look at, it was seriously tart, without the aid of the citric acid that it used in many commercial lemon pepper blends. After a few days of testing, I found that sumac pepper was good in all the places you’d expect lemon pepper to excel. Sumac pepper can be sprinkled atop fish, meats, vegetables, and even breads and rice. My favorite place to use sumac pepper is atop fresh warm buttered popcorn.

If you would like to pick your own sumac but worried about confusing it with poison sumac, let me reassure you they are very easy to tell apart. Poison sumac has white berries, whereas all of the edible sumacs have red berry clusters. Sumac berries can be hairy or smooth, depending upon the species.

Sumac in a field. Credit: Wendy Petty

Sumac in a field. Credit: Wendy Petty

Sumac grows as a shrub with leaflets that are pinnately compound, which is to say that they are arranged somewhat like a feather, and the berry clusters grow in dense spikes at the end of branches. If you’ve not seen sumac growing before, you might hear the word berry and think of a juicy strawberry. But all the flavor of sumac is on the outside of its small dry berries. This is why the flavor of sumac is greatly diminished after rain or snow.

At peak ripeness, which is usually late summer in my area, I harvest a big basket full of sumac. I simply pack my sumac into a tin, and it keeps quite well. I’m usually able to use it right up through harvest time the following year. Though, one time, it did develop a rancid oil smell after a year.

There is one caution with sumac. It is related to mangoes and cashews, so anyone with strong allergies to those foods should also avoid sumac.

The following recipe calls for ground sumac. Often, the whole berries are ground up and used. I find the central seed of the berry to be unpleasantly hard, even when ground. The seeds can also lend a tannic astringency to recipes. So, I strip my sumac from the branches, and grind the berries in a molcajete. You could also pulse the berries in a spice grinder. Next, shake the ground berries through a sieve. This produces a pink fluff of sumac that is ready to be used in recipes.

Sumac Pepper Blend

Prep time: 5 minutes

Yield: 1/3 cup

Ingredients

2 tablespoons ground sumac

2 tablespoons cracked black pepper

1 tablespoon salt (optional)

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic

1/2 teaspoon granulated onion

Directions

Stir all of the ingredients together, and store the sumac pepper in small jar in a cool dark place.

Main photo: Sumac and sumac pepper blend. Credit: Wendy Petty

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