The spice of life

I recently returned from a fantastic trip to India and was lucky enough to spend a few days on a spice plantation. As a chef, it was incredibly inspiring to see exactly where all the spices that we use everyday actually from and how they are produced.
Cardamon Factory

Spices were among the first of many foods brought back to Europe from the east by Marco polo and encouraged the early voyages of Columbus and Vasco Da Gama, who succeeded in rounding the Cape of Good Hope and crossing the Indian Ocean to calicot on the coast of India.
Today, its hard to believe when spices cost so little and we can all enjoy freshly ground black pepper and the delicious aromas of cinnamon, ginger, cardamom and cloves that these fragrant bits of bark, leaves and seeds were once so costly, so hard to track down and transport, that men were willing to risk their lives crossing oceans and waging war in an attempt to bring them back and build empires with the profits from the resulting spice trade.

I love the smell of the gently toasted spices and the way they fill the kitchen with the most amazing aroma. The sheer variety of flavours that they have to offer and can bring to a dish is endless, but seasoning with herbs and spices means complimenting your dishes, not overwhelming and hiding the true flavour of the food.
Spices are the essence of all good curries. But I often find that people tend to overcook them and the different flavours and subtleties get lost as they all blend into one.

So how should we cook with spices?
Firstly, always buy spices whole and lightly toast them to release their essential oils before grinding at the last minute as ground spices loose their flavour very quickly. If you use a coffee grinder make sure you clean it by grinding a slice of stale bread, which will absorb the flavour of coffee. Do not overcook spices. For long-cooking dishes, such as stews, try adding your spices an hour or less before serving to retain their freshness.

Spices should always be stored in airtight containers in a dark cool place. Displaying them on spice racks may look attractive but it will age the spices more quickly and will loose most of their flavour and aroma.


Ingredients:        serves 4

4 large skinless chicken breasts, cut into chunks
3 tbsp        olive oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 large onion, sliced
3 garlic cloves, finely sliced
1tsp freshly grated ginger
1x400ml can coconut milk
For the marinade:
1 tsp paprika
½ tsp ground turmeric
1½ tbsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tbsp lemon juice
½ tsp salt
75ml water

Mix together all the marinade ingredients to give you a loose, smooth paste. Add the chicken pieces and marinate for around 30 minutes to 1 hour.
Heat the oil in a deep frying pan and add the mustard seeds. When they start to pop and jump about in the pan, add the onion, ginger and garlic. Cook until they're golden brown before adding the chicken and any extra paste from the marinade. Fry over a gentle heat for about 8 minutes before adding the coconut milk. Increase the heat slightly and bring to a simmer. Cook for a further 10-12 minutes until the sauce has thickened slightly before seasoning with salt if necessary and serving with Basmati Rice.

& beetroot-chickpea puree

 Ingredients:         serves 4

4                Duck breasts
250g          fresh cherries (stoned)
2tspn         fresh ginger (grated)
100ml        chicken stock

For the glaze:
1tspn.        Cardamom pods
1tspn.        Cloves
1tspn.         Anise
150ml        maple syrup
100ml        water

To make the glaze:
Mix all the spices and toast them lightly in a frying pan. Add the maple syrup and water and bring the boil. Reduce to a thickish syrup and remove from the heat.

Heat a small frying pan and season the duck breasts. Place them skin side down and fry gently until crisp and golden. Turn over the duck breasts and place them on a baking tray.
Using a pastry brush, coat the duck skin with the glaze and roast them in a hot oven (200ºc/gas6) for about 4-5 minutes until just cooked and pink in the middle. Remove from the oven and rest in a warm place for 2-3 minutes.

To serve:
Place the duck breasts on 4 warm plates.
Heat the cherries in the same frying pan and add the chopped ginger. Pour in the chicken stock and reduce by half. Season with salt and pepper and spoon over the duck breasts.
Serve with green beans & beetroot-chickpea puree.

Chickpea-beetroot puree
200g cooked chickpeas, drained
1       beetroot, cooked & peeled
         ½ lemon, juiced
1       garlic clove, peeled and roughly chopped
75ml olive oil

Grind the sesame seeds in the herb chopper.
Place all the ingredients in the large bowl of the food processor and blend to form a rough paste. Season to taste & serve.