Spice Up Your Kitchen in 2018!

About sixteen years ago, I did a Festival of Nations event and served meatballs from thirty different countries. Events like these remind me and others of the diversity of flavors available to us and the impact that a single ingredient can have on a dish. It’s one of the reasons I love what I do so much.

As we push toward the New Year, I thought it would be fun to give some thought to new flavors that have become quite popular. Globalization has made it possible for spices of the world to travel, and for us foodies to experience other countries right in our own backyards. I mean, less than a century ago, we couldn’t even purchase cashews, but now we can’t go into a grocery store without noticing them. Access to eclectic flavors is really a privilege. As we step into another year of diverse and delicious cuisine, I plan to share some recipes that I find that fit into this expansive theme.

Some flavors I’ve been particularly drawn to are those of the Middle East and Northern Africa, variations of Mediterranean, really. Two recipes I have become very familiar with are the vibrant Maghrebian Harissa and the herb-loving Za’atar. Please join my palate and me in trying these out-of-this-world condiments and spices.

Move over Sriracha! Harissa is here.

This is a vibrantly sweet, smoky, and spicy condiment that transforms into a hot, garlicky and complex chili paste. The basic recipe calls for hot peppers, garlic, salt, and lots of olive oil, but you can also add some coriander, caraway seeds, and maybe cumin and dried mint depending on your preference.

Homemade Harissa

Makes 1 cup

Ingredients

  • 5 medium dried red chili peppers, seeded and stems removed (I use a mix of dried guajillo or Fresno chilies, dried chipotle peppers, and dried chili de arbol. Sometimes I add 1 habanero pepper if I want to really spice it up!).
  • ¼ cup red wine vinegar
  • juice from 1 lemon
  • ½ teaspoon grated lemon zest
  • 6 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon of coriander seeds
  • 1 teaspoon of cumin seeds
  • salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 1 teaspoon of caraway seeds
  • ½ teaspoon of dried mint
  • 1/3 cup tomato paste

Directions:

  1. Soak the chili peppers in the vinegar for 30 to 45 minutes, until soft. Combine chilies, vinegar, lemon juice, lemon zest, garlic, and olive oil in a food processor and process until smooth.
  2. Lightly toast the coriander, caraway, and cumin seeds in a frying pan. Then grind them using a mortar and pestle. Add these ground spices to the food processor along with the pepper, mint, salt, and tomato paste. Process until smooth, drizzle in extra olive oil if the mixture seems too thick. Season to taste with additional kosher salt.
  3. This will keep up to three weeks in your refrigerator. It can be used on eggs, lamb, beef, fish, chicken, and turkey. You can also use it with grains, pasta, and potatoes.  Its origin is in North Africa and has been added to curries and stews.

Za’atar

Za’atar is a wonderful spice mixture that can improve any dish— it brings out flavors similar to salt. Like most regional seasoning mixtures, there are literally hundreds of versions, but this is mine. These flavors work really well in a number of dishes, but especially with grilled meats, fish, chicken, rice, potatoes, and all sorts of other vegetables. I also use za’atar as an oil-based dip for flatbread!

Simple Roasted Za’atar Chicken

Serves 4

Ingredients

  • 4 chicken breasts with skin on, previously brined
  • 4 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 4 teaspoons of sumac
  • 4 teaspoons of za’atar seasoning* (see below)
  • 4 teaspoons of lemon zest
  • 2 teaspoons of sweet paprika
  • 2 teaspoons of cayenne pepper
  • 2 teaspoons of dried chili flakes

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 400°F Place the chicken on a sheet pan.
  2. Mix all the other ingredients together and season to taste—add more salt or lemon as needed. Rub the mixture under the skin and all over the skin and place the squeezed lemon halves on the tray.
  3. Bake for 40-60 minutes at 165°F (or longer depending on the size of the chicken). Make sure to check periodically to ensure the chicken doesn’t overcook.

* Za’atar Seasoning

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons fresh thyme, minced
  • 2 tablespoonssesame seeds, toasted
  • 2 tablespoons marjoram
  • 2 tablespoons dried oregano
  • 2 teaspoons ground sumac
  • 1 teaspoon coarse salt