One of the things I will almost never purchase from the supermarket are ground spices. To me, whole spices are like gold. The smell of freshly toasted cumin or coriander is like an aphrodisiac. What you get in the jar from the market is old and and full of anti-caking agents that well, I just don’t want in my food. At home, I have three grinders. They’re nothing fancy or expensive; just simple coffee grinders. I use one exclusively for chilies, one for all spices and one as a backup should another fail.
You might be thinking, “Isn’t that overkill?” Well, it’s not. Consider this: You spend $10-$20 on each grinder and you spend about $4 for a pound of cumin seeds at your local ethnic foods market. You’ll have cumin all year (about 2 months for me) plus you can grind tons of other spices. At my local Stop & Shop, Spice Islands cumin sells for nearly $5 for a small 1.5 ounce bottle! That’s just ridiculous. I use almost half the bottle just to make chili or taco seasoning.
I always keep staple spices on hand to blend into almost any seasoning you can imagine. Cumin, Coriander, Black Peppercorns, Pink Peppercorns, Bay Leaf, Garlic Powder (yes, I DO buy that) Nutmeg, Cloves, Dill, Fenugreek, and Anise Seeds are my stand-bys. I also have Szechuan Peppercorns, Mustards Seeds (Yellow and Brown), Mace, Saigon Cinnamon (to name a few) that add a little extra ‘something’ to my mixes. You’ll be surprised how creative you can be by blending your own creations and sharing them with friends and family.
A word on toasting spices: Mind your heat! I usually toast on medium low with a heavy bottomed skillet. Your nose knows when its ready. You can’t leave them for long because they can burn quickly and all is wasted and you’ll have to start over.
One thing about spice blends that can be magical (and infuriating) is putting them together and finding that perfect blend that you want to keep under lock and key, but wait, you forgot to write it down…
Here is a version of tandoori masala that made me happy:
½ cup red chili
¼ cup whole coriander seeds
1 tbsp whole cumin seeds
½ tbsp whole black pepper
½ tbsp whole cloves
½ tbsp whole cardamom pods (I prefer black cardomom here.)
1 tsp whole fenugreek seeds
3 2-inch sticks of cinnamon or cassia bark
1 tsp dried ground ginger
1 tsp dried ground garlic
½ tsp grated nutmeg
½ tsp ground turmeric
3 – 4 tbsp paprika, or whatever makes you happy
Toast the whole spices over medium heat until they’re nice and fragrant. Then grind! I like to sift it a few times to make sure everything is a nice consistent powder. A: It looks pretty, B: It looks pretty.
You’ll eventually find that your tastes are different than mine or your friend’s, and you can play with a myriad of combinations that suits you. Some like it spicier, some like more cumin, etc. Just be creative and have fun. Soon, you’ll be concocting spices tailored for your friends and family.