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.
Mediterranean cooks have been blending spices for centuries and they were among the first of many foods brought back to Europe from the east by Marco polo. Spices 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.
Throughout the Mediterranean region most countries have traditional spice mixes that define their cuisine. One of my favourites is 'Baharat', a North African spice mix used in Lebanon, Syria, Israel, and Jordan.
Baharat simply means “spice” in Arabic. This blend is often used to season lamb but is an all-purpose flavour enhancer useful for fish, chicken, beef, tomato sauces and soups. Another fantastic spice mixture is Tabil from Tunisia. This is a mixture of caraway seeds, coriander, garlic & dried red chilies that makes it the perfect seasoning for barbequed steaks and grilled fish.
I simply love Ras el hanout (you probably know by now). This literally means “head of the shop” and is extremely popular throughout the rest of morocco whilst La Kama is the favourite spice blend of Tangier. It allegedly promotes a sense of well-being and enhances sexual vigour…so well worth giving it a try!
za’tar is another incredibly versatile middle eastern spice blend and a fantastic ingredient to have kicking around your kitchen. It is made by grinding hyssop leaves to a coarse, aromatic, brownish green powder then mixing the powder with olive oil, toasted sesame seeds and sumac. If you can't get hyssop, substitute with thyme or oregano. I find za'atar a welcome counterpoint to the sweetness of deeply roasted pumpkin and its ideal sprinkled generously over omelets and other egg dishes.
Despite its name, the French spice mixture, quatre épices, may contain four or five (or even more!) spices. Although normally it is a mixture of white peppercorns, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves. Allspice or cinnamon may also be included. I find the combination to be reminiscent of gingerbread spices, but with a tingly kick from the pepper, making it perfect for savory dishes and quite interesting in some desserts.
Strangely enough, the Spanish are not great lovers of spices and spice mixes are very rare in regional Spanish kitchens. They do however have one great dish called “pincho moruño”. This incredible dish is basically a kebab-like stick made of meat. You could use chicken, lamb or pork and since it’s barbeque season right now, this is the perfect time to prepare it. It originates from Andalusia but judging by the name it is a Moorish invention dating back centuries…and its delicious!
Ingredients serves 4
400g boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 1-inch cubes
Moruño spice mixture
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh thyme
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon hot pimenton or paprika
½ teaspoon black peppercorns
¼ teaspoon saffron threads
200ml olive oil
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
In a mortar and pestle or food processor, combine the thyme, salt, cumin, pimenton, peppercorns, and saffron. Grind until combined and add the olive oil.
Pour the spice mixture over the diced lamb; add the chopped parsley & bay leaf. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator overnight.
Thread the lamb cubes onto 8 long skewers and grill the “pinchos” for 6-8 minutes, turning 3 or times, until they are cooked.
SWEET SPICED APPLE GALETTE
Ready-made puff pastry
3 firm tart apples (Granny Smiths for example)
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp quartre epices
2 tsp softened unsalted butter
Roll out the pastry and cut out 2 rounds 15cm in diameter. Combine well the sugar, quatre epices and butter. Spread evenly and thinly over the pastry rounds. Place on a non-stick baking tray and refrigerate until well chilled.
Working quickly so that the apples don’t go brown; peel, halve and core the apples. Cut into very thin segments and fan very neatly around the pastry, finishing in the middle. Sprinkle with plenty of icing sugar and bake in a preheated oven (200°C) for 10-15 minutes until golden and caramelized.
Serve immediately with crème fraiche, mascarpone or home-made vanilla bean ice-cream.
Roast Baharat Chicken
Ingredients serves 4
6 large chicken thighs, boneless and skinless
3 garlic cloves, crushed
1 heaped tbsp baharat spice mix
Juice ½ lemon
Cut each thigh into strips and place in a bowl. Sprinkle with the garlic and the baharat spices. Mix well and leave to marinate in the fridge for at least one hour. Using two metal skewers about 5cm (2in) apart, thread a quarter of the meat onto the skewers. Repeat, making 4 pairs of skewers in total. Make sure that the chicken is packed quite tightly.
Heat the oven to 220°C (gas mark 9). Sear the skewers in a hot frying pan, then transfer to the oven. Roast until golden and cooked (about 15 minutes).
Rest for 5 minutes and squeeze over lemon juice. Serve with natural yoghurt and salad leaves.
Baharat Spice Mix
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
Crush in a pestle & mortar or a food processor to form a fine powder.