Fragrant essences and whiffs of roasting mustard-glazed pork; pepper-cured salmon resting in the smoker; cumin-scented lamb slowly turning on the rotisserie; warm maple-walnut gingerbread just emerging from the oven; and steaming pots of mulled cider ready to be paired with some fine proof of rum, these aromas, wafting through club kitchens this time of year herald the busiest weeks in hospitality. Boldly flavored dishes new and familiar rely on a knowing, trained hand to coax the full taste potential from every dish. Aromatic and warming, the quintessential seasonal spices of cold weather months: cinnamon, allspice, anise, clove, mace, ginger and nutmeg easily conjure memories and ignite inspiration as chefs hustle to prepare holiday foods offering both nostalgia and novelty. We’re not talking about “pumpkin-spiced” everything here--which by the way isn’t a spice at all, but classic spices alongside surprising and inspired spice blends that not only enhance a dish’s complexity, but also make them unique and add incredible dimensions to what would otherwise be plain, ordinary dishes. Spice savviness is a cornerstone of the well-rounded chef’s skill set and the secret to richer, more rewarding culinary experiences.
The desire for aromatic substances, both culinary and medicinal, has shaped nearly every culture throughout human history. Ancient civilizations discovered that different leaves, seeds, bark and roots had not only medicinal properties but those that were found to have a pleasant taste or agreeable smell, became in demand and gradually evolved into a staple for that culture in cooking. Tradition holds that spices were among the gifts given at the Nativity. While it’s possible that Mary and Joseph would have preferred a more practical endowment, maybe a bouncy chair or a couple of cute onesies, the Wise Men in their wisdom offered frankincense and myrrh.
In the Middle Ages, spices were valued commodities, but not, as most people assume, for their ability to preserve meat. Rather, it was because medieval cuisine placed a premium on a variety of flavors. The discovery of spices thus created global trade.
Today, spices of every variety are readily available. The key is learning how to use them so that they enhance foods rather than overwhelm them. Just as important as learning how to balance salt, acid, bitter and pungent flavors in creating a dish, understanding and experiencing the taste profiles of spices provides the keys to elevate and transform a dish into something truly unique. Whether preparing fish, meat, vegetables, bread, dessert or a cocktail, spices can bring both powerful and sublime flavors to the most humble ingredient. Chefs, in their responsibility to teach cooks, should have a confident understanding of spices and how each one can be used to create an exciting range of taste sensations. Uncovering the secrets of spices allows chefs the ability to take cooking to the next delicious level and demonstrate to those they are training the opportunity to experiment confidently with new spices and cuisines from around the world.
A fun kitchen training exercise would be to conduct a taste/smell test with those less experienced or new to the industry. The exercise could be transformative in introducing new flavors to educate novice palates to become familiar with which spices are best used to achieve desired flavors, and in doing so leading to the discovery of a chile pepper paste from Tunisia (harissa), a Turkish spice mixture that pairs wonderfully with grilled meats (baharat), or powdered sumac that is used in the eastern Mediterranean to make food sour in the absence of vinegar. Perhaps the lessons could include the reasoning behind toasting and grinding spices and the study of those spices that are appropriate for pickling and curing. Who knows? This training could result in your culinary team’s creation of a signature spice blend that members will be mad for.
So why not make a holiday cinnamon shortbread flecked with cracked long peppers? Would anyone begrudge a savory panna cotta spiked with dill seed and horseradish as an accompaniment for that smoked salmon? From more traditional flavors to modern culinary alchemic wizardry, the vast world of traditional and uncommon spices is making chefs re-examine and revive taste profiles. The story of spice is a revolutionary tale that needs to be told and this is the perfect time of year to tell it.
To all our customers, colleagues, friends and hospitality family, we extend our very best wishes this season and offer some favorites from our recipe file:
Image Credit: Fine Cooking
Moroccan Chicken Spice Rub
Makes about 2 cups
1cup ground coriander
½ tsp. ground cloves
1tsp. ground ginger
½ tsp. cinnamon
½ cup mustard seed
¼ cup ground mustard
½ tsp. allspice
½ cup paprika
2TBS. coarse salt
1TBS. ground black pepper
Keep in an airtight container until needed to liberally rub all over a whole chicken just before roasting
Image Credit: Food Network
Hanukkah Celebration Spice Donuts
makes about two dozen, plus holes!
3 1⁄2 cups all-purpose flour
1 2⁄3 cups sugar
3 TBS. freshly grated nutmeg
1 tsp. ground cardamom
¼ tsp. ground coriander
¼ tsp. ground ginger
2 1⁄2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. kosher salt
3⁄4 tsp. baking soda
1 egg white
1 cup buttermilk
4 TBS. unsalted butter, melted
Whisk together dry ingredients, 2/3 cups of the sugar, 1 T. of the nutmeg and spices. In a bowl, whisk together egg and egg white until frothy. Whisk in buttermilk and butter. Stir buttermilk mixture into dry ingredients to form dough.
Transfer dough to a floured surface; gently roll to ½" thickness. Using a floured 3¼" round cookie cutter, cut out rounds of dough and transfer to parchment paper-lined baking sheets. Gather dough scraps, knead briefly to form a ball; flatten and cut out more rounds. Repeat until all dough is used. Using a 1⅜" round cookie cutter, cut out center of each round. Chill doughnuts and holes for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, combine remaining sugar and nutmeg in a large paper bag; set aside.
Working in small batches, fry the doughnuts and holes, at 365* turning them, until golden brown, 2–3 minutes for doughnuts and 1–2 minutes for holes. Transfer doughnuts to a wire rack to drain. Shake doughnuts and holes in the paper bag to coat in the nutmeg-sugar mixture and serve warm.
Chef Mary Howley is the culinary consultant to the RCS Hospitality Group and a former Executive Chef of her own catering company, several country clubs, and fine dining restaurants. She studied throughout Europe and honed her skills on the East Coast working with a myriad of culinary styles. She had the honor to serve as research and development chef for Food Unlimited, and held the position of Pastry Chef in two James Beard Dinner Events.