My mother in law brought me a seriously spicy piri piri spice blend. Even pointing at it made my eyes water. It tastes delicious, however, when you mix just a pinch of it through your ground beef or sprinkle it over some baked chicken. Spice blends are wonderful to spike up a relatively simple (or easy) dish. This made me remember a conversation I recently had with a colleague, she told me her (Greek) boyfriend never really liked spicy dishes, but when she made gyros and only sprinkled some cumin and coriander over the meat, it rocked his world. It is that easy to perk up a dish!
In the Middle East a herb called za’atar is used to perk up a common pita bread: the bread is dipped in olive oil and za’atar mixed with sumac, salt and sesame. This herb was already known and used in ancient Egypt as remains of one of the varieties of the herb was found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. And who can ever doubt a pharaoh?
As za’atar is probably not readily available everywhere, I’ll give you some other well-known spice blends you can easily make at home.
Ras el hanout is a well-known spice blend commonly used in Moroccan dishes. Many different versions exist, as the name already reveals: “best of the shop”. This is a streamlined version:
Ras el hanout
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
Combine the spices in a pestle and mortar and start grinding. Sieve your mix into a seperate bowl now and then and put the coarse pieces back into the mortar until you have a fine powder.
The Indian spice blend Garam Masala is also very easy to make, as with Ras el Hanout many different versions exist. It is merely a matter of taste. This recipe by Camelia Punjabi is a wonderful basic blend.
6 grams of cinnamon sticks
6 grams of cloves
6 grams of black peppercorns
the seeds from 1 black cardamom seed or from 4 green cardamom seeds
1 teaspoon of fennel seed
1 bay leaf or 1 curry leaf
Heat a frying pan on high heat and toast the spices for 30 seconds or until fragrant (it will smell heavenly, believe me!). Put everything into a pestle and mortar and grind until powdered. You can store the garam masala for 3-6 months in a tightly closed jar.