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, can be lightly toasted in a dry pan over low heat or in the oven, to release their oils.
Play with textures as well, to create layers of flavour: have some whole seeds, 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 Lior Lev Sercarz (chef, spice blender and owner of La Boîte in New York) notes, a mortar and pestle looks pretty on the counter top, but it’ll take a lot longer to grind those spices to the right consistency.
What spices are essential to have on hand? He suggests chilli powder, paprika (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, compare the brands that you buy. You might be surprised at differences between basic black peppercorns.
Here are five blend suggestions from Sercarz’s book, The Spice Companion: A Guide to the World of Spices (R569 on Loot.co.za)
Spice Blend: Apium
Ingredients: 2 tablespoons celery seed, 1/2 tablespoon poppy seeds, 1 1/2 heaping teaspoons ground caraway seeds, scant 3/4 teaspoon black sesame seeds.
To Use: Adds texture to julienned raw vegetables drizzled with olive and lemon juice or a lightly salty crunch to pasta salad.
Spice Blend: Estrago
Ingredients: Scant 1/2 teaspoon coarsely chopped black peppercorns, scant 3/4 teaspoon granulated dried lemon peel, 2 teaspoons ground dried dill, 1 tablespoon crushed basil leaves, 3/4 cup ground dried tarragon leaves.
To Use: Use to make a compound butter for grilled meat or fish or add to sautéed shrimp and fettuccine.
Spice Blend: Limonit
Ingredients: 3 tablespoons ground lemon grass, 2 1/2 tablespoons crushed dried basil leaves, 1 tablespoon toasted/ground coriander seeds, 1 1/2 heaping teaspoons Aleppo or mild chilli flakes.
To Use: Use in a sauté of pork, pineapple and cashews, or to brighten a mango and shrimp salad.
Spice Blend: Muraya
Ingredients: 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.
To Use: Good for braised eggplant in coconut milk or as a savoury note in toffee pudding.
Spice Blend: Sal
Ingredients: 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.
To Use: Sprinkle over raw salmon or on fresh avocado salad.- Washington Post