“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’ve 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 flavor: keep some seeds whole; finely chop dried citrus peel, and lightly crush dried herbs.
For grinding, a standard coffee grinder (it’s 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’ll take a lot longer to grind those spices to the right consistency.
Which spices are essential to keep on hand? He suggests chile powder, paprika (he favors 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’re 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’ll 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):
Apium: 2 tablespoons celery seed, ½ tablespoon poppy seeds, 1 ½ heaping teaspoons ground caraway seeds, scant ¾ teaspoon black sesame seeds.
Adds texture to julienned raw vegetables drizzled with olive and lemon juice or a lightly salty crunch to pasta salad.
Estrago: Scant ½ teaspoon coarsely chopped black peppercorns, scant ¾ teaspoon granulated dried lemon peel, 2 teaspoons ground dried dill, 1 tablespoon 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.
Limonit: 3 tablespoons ground lemon grass, 2 ½ tablespoons crushed dried basil leaves, 1 tablespoon toasted/ground coriander seeds, 1 ½ heaping teaspoons Aleppo or mild chile flakes.
Use in a saute of pork, pineapple and cashews, or to brighten a mango and shrimp salad.
Muraya: 2 cups ground dried curry leaves, 1 1/2 tablespoons crushed dried cilantro leaves, 1 tablespoon dried basil leaves and 1 teaspoon ground Sichuan pepper.
Good for braised eggplant in coconut milk or as a savory note in toffee pudding.
Sal: 1 teaspoon ground anise seed, 1 teaspoon granulated dried orange peel, 1 tablespoon coarsely ground Sichuan pepper, 1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds, 1 tablespoon fleur de sel or medium-grain sea salt.
Sprinkle over raw salmon or on fresh avocado salad.