Two years ago I traveled to Morocco. In the narrow and chaotic avenues of the market in Marrakech I stumbled through the streets avoiding the honking cars and all the people moving frantically through it, while I gazed lustfully at the baskets of vibrant spices. Yellow, red, green and brown seeds and powders towered in rustic baskets perfuming the air with exotic scents. I lapped up the smells trying to name them in my mind but they mingled together in the air creating their own sort of recipe.
The food in Morocco was heavy in these spices. Lamb tagines leisurely bathed in cumin and coriander and and a sweet and savory B’stilla rich in ras el hanout – a spice blend used often in Moroccan food. Ras el hanout is made up of cumin, ginger, pepper, cinnamon, coriander, cayenne, allspice and cloves.
Coming home I longed for the vibrancy of the spices to permeate my food. A quick visit to my local spice market, which isn’t nearly the visual and exotic experience I had in Morocco, I was loaded with cumin, fennel, coriander, anise seeds and many more.
How To Buy Spices
Spices elevate everyday food to an exotic and special dish but it’s very important to use spices that are fresh and it’s best when you can grind the spices from seed at your house.
Buy spices in small quantities at a place you can trust. There are great resources online where you can purchase them from if you don’t have a spice market nearby. Team up with a friend to share the purchases if the quantities are high. If you buy a lot, most likely the freshness will fade before you have a chance to cook with them.
Most grocery stores sell spices in bulk. This is a great place to buy them as they are much cheaper than in the little jars and you can buy small amounts so you are guaranteed freshness. If you are looking for spices such as cumin and coriander, check the Hispanic aisle of your market as often they sell them in little packs there for much, much cheaper.
Toasting The Spices
Heat reacts with food to bring out the best in it – sugar caramelizes under heat, meat crusts and turns tender, and spices release a fragrance that wouldn’t have otherwise if not toasted.
Toast spices in a hot, dry skillet just before needing them. Place the spices in the skillet over medium heat and keep them moving in the pan with a wooden spoon or shaking the pan so they dance all over the surface. As soon as you can smell the fragrance from the spice wafting through the air, they are done. Place the hot spices into a spice grinder or mortar and pestle and let them cool slightly before grinding.
It’s not crucial that you toast the spices first but I do find that most spices are improved with a bit of time in a hot skillet.
With vibrant and freshly toasted and ground spices try making flavored salts. Great for riming a cocktail glass (coriander salt for a margarita perhaps?) or used to season meat and roasted vegetables.