NEW YORK (WASHINGTON POST) - "We don't have a culture for using spices" in America, says Lior Lev Sercarz, chef and owner of New York spice store La Boite, "But, at the same time, everybody uses them, so there is hope." If you take his suggestion to blend the spices in your pantry into new combinations, he says, those blends can be used endlessly - in scrambled eggs, stir-fries, stews and soups, sprinkled onto toast, or even infused into sparkling water.
When creating blends, add varying amounts of ingredients to a bowl, tasting every so often to adjust to your palate. Some spices - such as cumin, caraway and mustard seeds - do well when they have been lightly toasted in a dry pan over low heat or in the oven, to help release their oils. Remember to play with textures as well, which creates layers of flavour: keep some seeds whole; finely chop dried citrus peel, and lightly crush dried herbs.
For grinding, a standard coffee grinder (it is best to have one dedicated for spices) will do the job well; as Sercarz notes, a mortar and pestle looks pretty on the countertop, but it will take a lot longer to grind those spices to the right consistency.
Which spices are essential to keep on hand? He suggests chilli powder, paprika (he favours smoked), cinnamon, fennel or anise, and cumin or caraway.
"Add some good salt and pepper, and you're on your way," he says. While you are at it, change up the brands that you buy every so often, just for the sake of comparison - you might be surprised at the differences you will find just among basic black peppercorns.
Here are five blend suggestions that you may want to try from Sercarz's book, The Spice Companion: A Guide to the World of Spices (Clarkson Potter, 2016):
2 Tbs celery seed
1/2 Tbs poppy seeds
1 1/2 heaping tsp ground caraway seeds
Scant 3/4 tsp black sesame seeds
Adds texture to julienned raw vegetables drizzled with olive and lemon juice or a lightly salty crunch to pasta salad.
Scant ½ tsp coarsely chopped black peppercorns
Scant ¾ tsp granulated dried lemon peel
2 tsp ground dried dill
1 Tbs crushed basil leaves
¾ cup ground dried tarragon leaves
Use to make a compound butter for grilled meat or fish or add to sauteed shrimp and fettuccine.
3 Tbs ground lemongrass
2½ Tbs crushed dried basil leaves
1 Tbs toasted/ground coriander seeds
1½ heaping tsp Aleppo or mild chilli flakes
Use in a saute of pork, pineapple and cashews, or to brighten a mango and shrimp salad.
2 cups ground dried curry leaves
1½ Tbs crushed dried cilantro leaves
1 Tbs dried basil leaves
1 tsp ground Sichuan pepper
Good for braised eggplant in coconut milk or as a savoury note in toffee pudding.
1 tsp ground anise seed
1 tsp granulated dried orange peel
1 Tbs coarsely ground Sichuan pepper
1 Tbs toasted sesame seeds
1 Tbs fleur de sel or medium-grain sea salt
Sprinkle over raw salmon or on fresh avocado salad.