good stuff #7- spice blends

spices are the soul of cooking. they are deep and rich and complex, with the ability to infuse the simplest and blandest of ingredients with a deep and authentic taste-of-place. if you’ve never made your own spice blends before, it’s as easy as anything. think of chili powder and curry powder, or herbs de provence. these blends have become so familiar that you can buy them at every grocery store, but do you know what is in them? what if you like your blend a little spicier, or like to go easier on one spice or another? i accept i’m a tad weird but i adore the alchemy of making spice blends. i can taste and smell each component and know exactly what spice is adding a sweet or hot or earthy note.

making your own also guarantees a higher level of freshness, and if you have a mortar and pestle, or a small electric spice grinder, even better: you can keep the blends whole and grind as needed. i guarantee you will notice a big difference in flavour from pre-ground spices.

ras el hanout
1 broken up cinnamon stick  – 1 tsp sesame seeds 1 tbsp ground ginger  15 black peppercorns – 1 tsp. ground nutmeg – 1 tsp. fennel seeds – 1 tsp. coriander seeds – 8 whole cloves – 8 allspice berries – 8 cardamom pods – 1/2 tsp. cumin seeds – 1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes – pinch of ground mace


this is the beautiful and aromatic blend from north africa that gives moroccan tagines their fragrance. the name translates to “top-shelf”, meaning these are the best spices the merchant has to offer. use in the aforementioned tagine, or stirred into couscous or rice. i especially love to make a moroccan-style salad of cucumber, tomato, mint, and ras el hanout.



5 tsp. chili flakes – 1 tsp. ground ginger – 4 cardamom pods – 1/4 cinnamon stick, broken up – 1/2 tsp. each fenugreek, ground nutmeg, black peppercorns, coriander seed, allspice berries, ajwain, and whole cloves – 5 cassia buds

similar to ras el hanout, baharat is used in turkish dishes and very often mixed with olive oil as a marinade. i like to rub it on tofu steaks or add a pinch to hummus, and it’s great with any eggplant dish.



berbere is one of the distinctive spice blends of ethiopian cuisine, a rich, dark-red blend that gives shera wat and other slow-cooked dishes their fire. also try it tossed with fried potatoes alongside your morning eggs, or mix up with olive oil and tumble some cauliflower before roasting.



1 tsp cardamom pods – 3 tsp allspice berries – 3 tsp whole cloves – 4 tsp. black peppercorns – 4 tsp. cassia buds – 3 tsp. coriander seeds – 4 tsp. cumin seeds – 3 tsp. ground nutmeg – 6 tsp. ground sweet paprika



similar to ras el hanout, baharat spice blends are used in turkish dishes and very often mixed with olive oil as a marinade. i like to rub it on tofu steaks or add a pinch to hummus, and it’s great with any eggplant dish.





andalusian spices
equal parts smoked paprika – fennel seed  cumin seed – coriander seed – granulated garlic – peppercorns – oregano leaves – crushed bay leaves – and a pinch of saffron threads



in spain, tapas-sized skewers of meat called pinchos are rubbed with this blend before grilling, but it’s also a wonderful seasoning for short grain rice, or rubbed with olive oil and lemon juice on peppers and tomatoes before roasting or grilling.




chinese 5-spice blend
equal parts cinnamon bark – star anise  sichuan peppercorns – cloves – fennel seed



it seemed that for a while there, 5-spice had a bit of a bad name. it had been over-used and the powdery blends at the grocery store were truly bad. but freshly made 5-spice is great, perfect for dusting on fried tofu or seasoning rice.





shichimi togarashi
equal parts red chili flakes – ground sancho (japanese red pepper) – dried orange peel  black sesame seeds – white sesame seeds  brown sesame seeds – hemp seed – ground ginger – dried nori


i use this japanese pepper blend everywhere. it’s used in this recipe for tofu with spicy salt, and i scatter it over rice and noodle bowls, or sprinkle it onto kale leaves massaged with olive oil and baked for kale chips. you can buy it, but it comes in such small little containers, it’s much more worthwhile to make your own.






panch phoron
equal parts fennel seed – nigella seed – fenugreek – black mustard seed – cumin seed celery seed

this spice blend is found in bangladeshi, bengali, and nepalese cooking. it’s always used in it’s whole form, and a common dish is simmered lentils made with this blend. it’s aromatic and distinct; i love opening the jar and freeing it’s lush aroma! one of my favourite things to do is heat some ghee, toast a teaspoon of these spices and cook until they “pop”, before adding peeled cubed potatoes and some coconut milk, and simmering until done. so good.

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pomegranate molasses

pomegranate molasses

i like reducing things.

remove the water, concentrate the flavour, take something that’s already pretty good and transform it into something completely different. the word “reduction” sounds chef-fy, but fear not. if you can boil water, you can make a reduction.

pomegranate molasses isn’t truly molasses, but a reduction of pomegranate juice. reducing the juice changes it, thickens it, turns it dark and sultry, and results in a ruby-hued tart/sweet elixir, not unlike an aged balsamic vinegar. it’s complexity from simplicity.

i like to drizzle it over oven-roasted tomatoes in the last few minutes of cooking. it’s perfect for adding balance and depth to salad dressings, and you’ll be amazed (amazed i tell you!) at the way it heightens and brightens the flavour of a simple tomato sauce. it’s also a key ingredient in muhamarra, that sublime syrian red pepper dip that, when made well, leaves you wondering how anything could taste so good.  

you can buy it in bottles at middle eastern stores, but making your own is easy and allows you to control the amount of reduction. you can reduce to a syrupy consistency, or take it further to make it more molasses-y.

the addition of sugar and lemon balances the flavours and helps to retain colour, but i often omit it altogether.

pomegranate molasses

pomegranate molasses

4 cups pomegranate juice
1/4 cup sugar
1 tbsp. lemon juice

Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer and reduce for 45 minutes for syrup, and an hour or more for molasses. Store in the refigerator.

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wild garlic mustard pesto

wild garlic mustard pesto

ever since I was little, i’ve foraged for wild food.  as a kid it was raspberries by the roadside on cottage weekends. when i got my own place in toronto, there was an apple tree along taylor creek trail in east york i would pick from every fall. one year as i filled my basket, a troop of fire ants protecting their territory ascended my ankles. i wonder what the passing in-line skaters thought of the loopy chick in a dress, picking apples and madly jumping around in extreme pain. if you forage, you get used to the weird looks of curious onlookers. twenty years on, i wonder if that tree is still there, and if someone else is enjoying its gifts.

i’ve moved a few times since then, and every new place reveals new treasures to be found. around the corner is a giant mulberry tree, largely untouched by anyone. there are ramps and fiddleheads in the nearby woods. my current property is shaded by large maples and the side yard is decidedly forest-like. as a result, its a hotbed of garlic mustard.

garlic mustard is an invasive plant that grows everywhere.  in marshy parklands, along waterways, and possibly right your garden. it spreads like wildfire, but the good news is, it’s an edible and useful plant. in the 19th century, traveling Brits brought garlic mustard here to use as a medicinal plant-it is very high in vitamins a and c.  it has an aroma like garlic and a bracing, peppery taste.  add leaves fresh to salads, mixing with other greens, or steam lightly and use as you would arugula or spinach.  if you think you’ve found some, crush a leaf in your fingers and check for a garlic/onion scent.

i harvest this every year by cutting handfuls of stems and leaves. do this before they flower, then dig up the whole plant and throw it on the compost pile, if you happen to have it growing in your garden. the taproot is also edible.

when foraging in the wild, i’m always careful not to take too much of any one thing. in the case of garlic mustard, that rule goes out the window. as with most non-indigenous species, it wreaks havoc with the natural landscape, choking out native plants and taking much needed resources from other slower-growing plants with it’s rapid, rambling growth habit.  harvesting the whole plant, taproot and all, will prevent it spreading to other areas, so go crazy.

so many plants that we consider weeds or pests are useful, and valuable. in the time before the lettuces are putting forth good yields, a handful of foraged greens means salad for dinner. and long before the basil is big enough to harvest, we can have pesto.

wild garlic mustard pesto

garlic mustard pesto

4  packed cups garlic mustard leaves and stems, washed and spun dry.
4 cloves garlic, peeled
1/4 cup fresh parmesan cheese
2 tbsp. toasted pine nuts or almonds
salt and pepper
extra virgin olive oil

in a food processor or blender, roughly chop garlic mustard, basil, garlic, cheese, nuts, and salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle in enough olive oil to make a smooth paste, scraping down the sides with a rubber spatula as needed.  Spoon into a clean jar and use within three days, or freeze for one month.

Serve tossed with hot long pasta (linguine or spaghettini works well), grilled in a sandwich with buffalo mozzarella and sun dried tomatoes, or use as a dip for crusty bread before dinner.

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