Spice Capades

SCENE 1
The Kitchen

    [takes bite of a curry dish] Mmmm! This reminds me of an autumn afternoon in Ah-gra. Or is it Agra? You know, over there by the Taj Mahal.

    What do we got here? [takes a bite a dish with chopsticks] Mmmm! Who could forget that little restaurant, there by the canal, in Shanghai? Can't remember the name, but I'll never forget it.
    [sniffs a chicken dish] Allspice in my chicken always takes me back to Jamaica. Yeah!
    Have I actually been to these places? Nope. But I feel like I have, because of spices. No other power on Earth has the ability to transport us through space and time, like the mysterious mojo of spices. All of the world's great cuisines are defined by spices. Heck, even the world we live on is defined by spice, or was. And Christopher Columbus, Vasco de Gama and Ferdinand Magellan weren't looking for space to build new condos. They were searching for spices.
    So join us, won't you, as we do a little bit of exploring, ourselves, into the dark, mysterious, complex, sensual, non-caloric world that is spices. Which are most definitely ...

SCENE 2
World Spice Merchants: Seattle, WA - 10:09 am

GUEST: Thing
            Clerk

    The first step in learning how to cook with spices is learning where to find spices. Now here in America, we do have some indigenous spices: allspice, vanilla, chili peppers, all from here. But by and large, most of your culinary spices come from the other side of the planet. And in their journey from there to here, a lot of things can happen. Not all of them good. They pass through a lot of hands, and all those palms, you know, want to be greased a little bit, quality can go down.
    So, if you're going to be a world-class spice cooker, you really should try to find yourself a world-class spice merchant, like this one, in Seattle, Washington. [inhales deeply] You know, I'm really sorry we haven't worked out that scratch-and-sniff TV, yet. These are all spices. Now, what's the difference between a spice and an herb? I'm glad you asked!
    Both herbs and spices contain volatile, essential, flavorful oils. Now, if those oils are expressed in the leaves of the plant, then it's an herb, okay, uh, basil, tarragon, dill, all herbs. If those oils, however, appear in other botanical parts, then we're talking about spices. For instance ...

    Okay, let's see here. Perfect. [placing step-stool in front of large rack container spices] Up here on the top floor [shelf], we have some examples of seeds: Mustard seeds-brown, mustard seeds,-yellow, poppy seeds ... you remember those, right? [in a Wicked Witch of the West voice] poppies, poppies. [normal voice] Never mind. Uh, fenugreek, white sesame seeds, black sesame seeds and coriander, one of my favorite spices:
    Interesting, because when planted in the ground, it generates an herb we call ...

THING: [sticks a bunch of cilantro in his face]
AB: ... cilantro ...
T: [retreats]
AB: Thank you, Thing.

... which, oddly enough, doesn't taste anything like coriander, at all.

Brown Mustard Seed
Yellow Mustard Seed
Poppy Seed
Fenugreek
White Sesame Seed
Black Sesame Seed
Whole Coriander

Cilantro

    Now, down one level, we have some berries. Now, white, black and green peppercorns all come from the same plant, piper nigrum. Then we've got juniper berries, allspice berries, and pink peppercorns, which are all the way down here because they're not really peppercorns at all. They're just little pink berries that kind of look like pepper. White, Black & Green
    Peppercorn
Juniper Berry
Allspice
Pink Peppercorn
    Down one more level and we've got three very interesting seeds: fennel seeds, cumin seeds, caraway seeds. Why are they interesting? They're not really seeds. They're little bitty fruits, dried fruits. Fennel, Cumin & Caraway
    Seed
 
    Then we've got a couple of barks. True cinnamon, and its imitator, cassia. Most of the cinnamon that we eat in this country is actually cassia. Cinnamon
Cassia
 
    And two ground rhizomes, turmeric and ginger. You almost never see these in their whole form because, well, let's face it, it's hard to grind something like this [shows an example] at home, okay? Turmeric
Ground Ginger
    Moving down to the bottom level, we have the pods. Here we have white cardamom, and green cardamom, and the stuff that is inside those pods [cardamom seeds]. You can buy it like this. I kind of like it in the full pod. Uh, cloves, star anise, and what is probably the most famous pod of all time, vanilla. White Cardamom
Green Cardamom
Cardamom Seed
Whole Clove
Star Anise
Vanilla Bean

    You know, most herbs can be used in either their dry or fresh state, but not so with spices. For instance, this vanilla in its green form looks kind of like a green bean. It has no flavor or aroma whatsoever. But, via the enzymatic changes that come with drying, this becomes one of the most flavorful items on Earth. [puts vanilla bean on upper lip, a la a mustache] Plus, it's kind of a nice Salvador Dali, you know ...

CLERK: Can I help you?

    Busted, like Benjamin Bunny.

Many culinary spices, like cinnamon and vanilla,
were originally used in making perfumes.

SCENE 3
The Kitchen

    When it comes to spice storage, our goal is to keep the volatile oils inside the spices for as long as possible. That means keeping them away from light, air, moisture and heat. Pretty much the same stuff that you'd want to protect your coffee beans from. And like coffee beans, I like to keep my spices in tins.

bulletLight
bulletAir
bulletMoisture
bulletHeat

    Now, some spice houses already package their goods in tins, but you can pick these up at the hardware store or at a craft store for about a buck a pop. Oh, just make sure that when you label them, that you put the date on the inside, so that you'll know when to upgrade. I figure two years for whole spices and six months for ground. Now, as for keeping up with these [tins], just stop by your friendly neighborhood hardware store and pick up a roll of Velcro tape. That way, you can convert the inside of any cabinet into an instant spice rack. Pretty cool, huh?
    Now, there are essentially two ways to deal with spices: whole and ground. In the case of whole, the goal is to use heat and a solvent to extract flavor from the spices, which you'll then fish out and dispose of later.

    Fruit compote is an excellent example of this kind of dish, and I especially like this version, because you don't need much fresh fruit. What you'll need is 4 ounces of dried figs, 4 ounces of dried pears, 2 tablespoons of orange blossom or some other honey, one half of a vanilla bean, and, from the refrigerator, a cup of apple cider, one half cup of white wine, and 1 one-inch long strip of lemon peel, plus about a tablespoon of freshly-squeezed lemon juice. Then the spices: 6 whole cloves, 1 cinnamon stick, 1 star anise pod, and one half teaspoon kosher salt.

4 oz. Dried Figs
4 oz. Dried Pears
2 Tbs. Orange Blossom Honey
1/2 Of A Vanilla Bean
1 Cup Apple Cider
1/2 Cup White Wine

1 1-inch Strip Of Lemon Peel + 1 Tbs. Freshly Squeezed Lemon Juice

6 Whole Cloves
1 Cinnamon Stick
1 Star Anise Pod
1/2 tsp. Kosher Salt

    Bring all the ingredients to a simmer in a medium saucepan over medium heat, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for another 1 to one and a half hours. Then, remove the clove, cinnamon stick and star anise, and serve warm, or refrigerate and serve over ice cream. Yum!

The original compotes were referred to as compostes,
describing a dish made of stewed fruits.

SCENE 4
Cook's Warehouse: Atlanta, GA - 11:35 am

 

    When it comes time to grind your spices, you've got plenty of technology to choose from. At the bottom of the evolutionary scale, the mortar and pestle. Popular since, well, since low foreheads were all the rage. Although they're still popular with purists today, the real trick in buying one is to pick the right material. Here we have marble. Very pretty, if not a little on the weighty side, and very, very popular. The problem is that they're usually really smooth on the inside, so it's tough to get a grip on the spices. Takes too long.
    Better is metal, cast iron. Nice little texture in there. You can do some serious grinding. But the truth is, is iron can kind of corrode on you if you're not being careful. And this thing weighs like eight pounds.
    Nope, for me, I'll stick with a good, old-fashioned, ceramic apothecary-style mortar and pestle. Looks smooth, I know, but the truth is, is there's enough texture in there to really grab hold of whatever you're grinding. This is a six-incher, which I think is the right size for just about any job. What'll it grind? [spice falls into mortar] Just about anything. The problem is that even a good mortar and pestle takes a little bit of time to use. [starts grinding spice, time elapse, camera pulls back with AB wearing a long gray beard and bushy gray wig, in gruff voice] See what I mean? [hobbles off]
    Pepper mills, or pepper grinders, can be used to grind most spices, as long as the individual pieces are roughly the size and shape of peppercorns. Which is a lot of spices, but not all spices.
    Now, my very favorite hand-grinding contraption is right here. This grinder features an easy-to-fill jar. Just insert the spices of your choice ... [hands jar off-camera and returns with it filled] Ooh, cinnamon! ... clamp on the lid, set the size of the grind up here on top, and get busy. Now, since the grinding apparatus is unglazed porcelain, just like our mortar and pestle, it grabs and holds spices much better than either steel or plastic. Sweet! Oh, there is one more choice.

SCENE 5
The Kitchen

    Walk into the kitchen of any American restaurant, that doesn't have a drive-thru window attached to it, and you will see one of these. That's right, a coffee grinder. But not for grinding coffee. Nope. There they use them for grinding spices, because this little baby will turn even a couple of tough sticks of cinnamon into dust, in moments. The secret to buying one of these is to look for a model with a deep metal cup. You want all-metal, because plastic soaks up flavors and will distribute them to things like your coffee. If you have one like this (all-metal) you can use it for your coffee. If you don't, you're going to need to get a couple more of these.
    Anyway, since this works so quickly, I suggest you work in rapid pulses. [pulses grinder with spice in it, turns it upside-down to put ground cinnamon into collection cup, sniffs] Ah, there we have about a teaspoon and a half of amazingly ... mmm ... aromatic cinnamon. Now doesn't that just beat the pants off of what would come in one of these [giant plastic] containers, pre-ground, and [sniffs] smelling and tasting of absolute nothing? Don't even know why I have this! It's horrible! This [freshly-ground spice], this is nice! Mmmm.
    [Turns on guitar amplifier, adjusts a dial] Most of the spices that are consumed on this planet are consumed along with other spices, and there's a really good reason for that. You see, all by itself, a single spice tastes rather uni-dimensional, rather ... [picks one note on guitar] Well, nice, but monotonous.
    However, if you use several spices together that share a similar chemical structure, they support each other, so you get something more like [plays a chord] a harmony. It works together.
    The real key, of course, is to not use spices together that give you something more like [plays discordant note combinations].

T: [turns off amp]

    [Exhales in annoyance] Everybody's a music critic. You know, luckily, millions of years of culinary evolution have worked out some classic combinations. Things like chili powder, five-spice powder, garam masala, and my personal favorite, curry powder. [Pulls down roll-up movie screen, it hits guitar neck] Oh, bother.

    [voice over] You know, no cooks on Earth handle spices better than the cooks that call the Indian sub-continent home. This may be because India sits slap-dab in the middle of Spice Central.

    For those of you who aren't familiar with Indian cuisine, you have to realize that the word "curry" in India is kind of like the word "chili" is in the United States. It's a mixture of spices, but it's also a way of cooking, or a dish that has about, I dunno, six million different permutations. But all curries are united by the fact that they depend on a complex mixture of spices.
    Now, here in America, meat curries are really popular, but, personally, I like a simple, easy-to-make vegetable curry. [presents a large cutting board full of veggies] First step is to clean, peel and dice all these vegetables. You're right, that doesn't sound very simple, does it?

    You know what I like better? Walking over to the freezer, reaching in, pulling out a one-pound bag of frozen 'veg med.' Now, all you have to do is find yourself a skewer, and poke a few holes in the bag, (pokes holes) chuck it in the microwave, and hit two minutes on high. Do I have a problem with using frozen vegetables? No!

1 lb. Bag Frozen Vegetables

2 mins. On High

Allspice is the dried, unripe berry of a tree native to Jamaica.

SCENE 6
The Kitchen

    Most curries start with a big ol' heavy pan over medium-high heat, and this one is no exception. We have here a 10-inch skillet. Nothing less will do. 10-inch Skillet
    Once it's hot, we're going to add 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil, and swirl to coat. Then toss in 1 teaspoon of cumin seeds, one half teaspoon of yellow mustard seeds, and half a teaspoon of fennel seeds. There. Now add on your trusty splatter shield, okay, because when the seeds start popping, they'll pop out all over the kitchen, if you're not careful. 2 Tbs. Vegetable Oil

1 tsp. Cumin Seeds
1/2 tsp. Yellow Mustard
    Seeds
1/2 tsp. Fennel Seeds

    While that gets hot, we will contemplate two-thirds of a cup of yogurt, and into that we will whisk 1 teaspoon of cornstarch, okay? Now, this is going to be our sauce base, but we're going to keep it in the bowl, because if we were to add it to the hot pot the yogurt would curdle, and that wouldn't be a very good thing. 2/3 Cup Plain Yogurt
1 tsp. Cornstarch
    Ooh, seeds are popping. Carefully add to this [skillet] half a teaspoon of freshly ground coriander, one half teaspoon of onion powder ... you can't fix that one yourself ... eighth of a teaspoon of freshly ground cinnamon, and a teaspoon of ground turmeric, that's another one you can't really grind yourself. There. Now, to that we're going to add 2 cloves of garlic, lightly crushed, and 3 dried red chilies. Now, I like to take off the stems and get the seeds out of there, so it won't be too hot. There. And we're just going to let this cook until the garlic starts to turn gold. 1/2 tsp. Freshly Ground
    Coriander
1/2 tsp. Onion Powder
1/8 tsp. Freshly Ground
    Cinnamon
1 tsp. Ground Turmeric
2 Cloves Garlic, Crushed
3 Dried Chiles, Stems &
    Seeds Removed
    Ah, the vegetables. [removes veggies from microwave] Now, I just let these cook until they're thawed. I don't really want them to be soft. Two minutes usually does the trick. If your microwave is a little slower, it might take three. So just cut these straight into the pan. There. And to that I'm going to add half a teaspoon of kosher salt, a quarter teaspoon of sugar, and a few grinds of black pepper. There. Now, just toss to combine. 1/2 tsp. Kosher Salt
1/4 tsp. Sugar
Freshly Ground Pepper To
    Taste

    Now, as soon as soon as you are confident that the vegetables are hot, and they are, we move this straight over to the yogurt and just stir them in. The faster, the better. There, the sauce will come together right away. Now, if you want, you can serve this with the chilies still in there, or you can pick them out. You don't want people to eat them, that's for sure. Mmm.

The word curry derives from the Indian word kari, meaning sauce.

    I predict that in the not-so-distant future every person on Earth is going to have their own TV network and their own spice rub. See, the problem with commercial spice rubs is that they contain mostly salt. I mean every one of these containers has salt as the leading ingredient. Why do that? Well, salt takes up a lot of space, it's cheap, and it lasts forever. The problem is, is that if you like your food really spicy, and I sometimes do, you shake on more of this stuff, and that means you're just adding more and more salt to your food. Now, the way I see it, is that seasoning, or salting, food should be done completely separately from spicing it. They're two completely different activities.
    Now, let's just say for a second we had a big ol' slab of salmon. [whole fillet of salmon on wooden cutting board is pushed across table to him, knocking spice rub containers into his lap and on floor] Well, would you look at that! Personally, I like my salmon broiled, and that poses some specific challenges when it comes to spicing. So, 'broil' [sets oven] and make sure my rack is in the top third of the oven, and, [gets metal pan] of course, we can't broil on a wooden plank. Well, we could, but that's another show. Now, since water-soluble proteins are going to seep out onto this pan and create a glue, I'm going to give this a quick brush with a little bit of canola oil to keep the fish from sticking. There.

    And now for the transfer. Flip [folds tail end of fillet onto head end] and deliver. [Moves fillet and un-folds] Now if the tail hangs off of your pan, just tuck it under a little bit or scrunch it up. That'll make things a little even. There.

3 lb. Side of Salmon, Pin Bones Removed

    [looks at his hands] Oh, um, excuse me a second. [we hear washing sounds] Had to get rid of those fishy hands, don't you know.

    Okay, salt is our primary seasoning, and that is what goes down first. And I'm going to use a good, heavy teaspoon to teaspoon and a half. There's a lot of fish here. Just sprinkle it down, and make sure you get a little more in the middle, where the meat is thicker, and a little less along the tail. That'll do. 1 - 1/2 tsp. Kosher Salt
    And then, pepper. I like a coarse grind of [stains at turning the mill] pepper, and this is going to take a little bit of time. This handle's a little ... [glares a mill] Excuse me a moment, won't you? [off camera we hear drill sounds, he returns with a power drill attached to the mill where the handle used to be, uses drill to apply pepper to the fish, stops, blows on end of mill] And now on the rest of the salmon spices.

1 tsp. Freshly Ground Black Pepper

    [voice over] Load into your blender 2 teaspoons of onion powder, 1 teaspoon of garlic powder, one half teaspoon of cayenne pepper, 1 teaspoon of whole cumin seeds, 1 tablespoon of whole fennel seeds, 1 tablespoon whole coriander seeds, and 1 lone star anise pod. Clamp on the lid nice and tight, and hit the highest speed you've got. 2 tsp. Onion Power
1 tsp. Garlic Powder
1/2 tsp. Cayenne Pepper
1 tsp. Whole Cumin Seeds
1 Tbs. Whole Fennel Seeds
1 Tbs. Whole Coriander
    Seeds
1 Star Anise Pod
    Why do this in a blender instead of our grinder? Back in the 15th century, French perfume makers learned that they could extract the essential oils from flowers by soaking them in cold fat. The result was called pomade, and basically what we're going to do is make a culinary version of pomade by soaking these spices in canola oil, about a third of a cup will do the trick. [Pours oil into running blender] 1/3 Cup Canola Oil

When invading Rome in 408 AD, the Goths
demanded a ransom of 3000 peppercorns.

SCENE 7
The Kitchen

    [brushing oil/spice mixture on salmon] Now, if you can possibly manage the time, when you get this all brushed on, let this sit for about half an hour at room temperature. [camera tilts up from fish to 'look' at him questioningly] Yes, it'll be fine. Spices have antiseptic properties. Remember, they've been used in preserving since, I dunno, mammoths roamed Montana. It'll be fine.

    Slide your side under your broiler, and try to twist the pan a little bit so that it lines up with the broiler array. There. Now, set your timer for 15 minutes. I'm not saying it's going to be done in 15 minutes. I'm just saying we're going to check on it in 15 minutes.

15 mins

    Mmm, looks good and not a burned spice in sight. Of course, there's only three ways to tell if it is really done. First, we can feel. [presses with fingertip] It's firm but bounces back all the way. Good sign. We could try the flakey [flaking] test. [using a fork] Just kind of pierce into it and take a look. If the fibers separate, but it's still pink down inside, we're good to go. Last, but not least, of course, we can take its temperature. We'll be looking for about 131 degrees in the deepest part of the meat. Which we have. We'll just let carryover take it the rest of the way.
    I sure hope we've inspired you to set up a little spice trade of your own. Just remember: purchase whole spices, whenever you can, from a reliable purveyor Internet or mail order are fineand store those spices in a cool, dry, dark, airtight place. And don't keep them around too long. Two years tops for whole spices, and no more than six months for ground.
    When cooking with spices, remember to introduce them to the party, get them into the cooking as early as possible, so the flavors will have time to bloom and meld. And remember, fats are the best carriers of spice flavor.

    Ooh, I almost forgot. If you want to dabble around with your own homemade spice concoctions, and you should, do what the pros do and use a combination of ground and whole spices. Here's my own personal curry mix: 2 tablespoons of cumin seed, 2 tablespoons of cardamom seed, 2 tablespoons of coriander seeds, all tossed with a quarter of a cup of ground turmeric, a tablespoon of dry mustard, and a teaspoon of cayenne. With this on hand, I can grind and cook whenever I want without having to bother around with all that messy blending.

2 Tbs. Cumin Seeds
2 Tbs. Cardamom Seeds
2 Tbs. Whole Coriander
1/4 Cup Ground Turmeric
1 Tbs. Dry Mustard
1 tsp. Cayenne Pepper

    Now, if you'll excuse me, I'd like to blend into some of this fish. See you next time on Good Eats.

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Last Edited on 08/27/2010