To make even Monday night meals spectacular, I often reach for my favorite global spice mixes. The crunchy five-spice mix of India, the searing hot harissa from Tunisia, the aromatic herbes de Provence of southern France and the earthy berbere of Ethiopia are simple ways to bring global flavors into the kitchen with little effort. The mixes are so aromatic and so flavorful that just adding them to dishes can take a weekday meal from boring to brilliant.
I call these seasonings "character mixes." They are truly reflective of the cultures from which they originate, unlike the ubiquitous curry powder that has become synonymous with all Indian curries and actually is inauthentic.
Most of the mixes are available as prepared blends, and all are fairly simple to prepare at home. (Berbere does require several spices not all of which you may have handy unless your spice cabinet is a foot long.)
Indian Five-Spice Mix
Paanch phoron, or five-spice mix, is an aromatic mixture of spices that is used in eastern India, specifically in the state of Bengal. Five spices — nigella, cumin, fennel, mustard seeds and fenugreek seeds — are combined in a roughly 1-1 ratio and used to flavor vegetables, fish and meats. The power of this mix lies in the use of complementary spices. Fenugreek, with its maple syrup-like aroma, releases its sweetness when the spice is heated in hot oil. Fenugreek plays well with the toasty flavor of cumin and the inherent sweetness of fennel seeds. All the sweetness is balanced by the gentle bitterness of nigella and mustard seeds. It is a magical mix.
Berbere, a spice mix common in Ethiopian cuisine
Courtesy of Sala Kannan
Courtesy of Sala Kannan
The easiest way to use this mix is to first saute it in hot oil for just a few seconds. Then, add whatever you are cooking (vegetables or meats). The spice mix is generally used whole, but you can roast it (until aromatic) on a medium-hot griddle, grind it and then use it as a dry rub.
You can prepare your own by mixing equal quantities of the spices and storing it in an airtight jar, or you can purchase a premixed spice packet from an Indian market or online.
I discovered this mix a couple of years ago and find myself adding it to just about anything that needs a little oomph. It is a mix of garlic, chilies, fenugreek, black pepper, allspice, coriander, nutmeg and other spices and is used extensively in Ethiopian cuisine.
I have looked for a recipe, but, as with most spice mixes, everyone who uses it seems to have his or her own special way of doing it. Berbere is most commonly used in Ethiopia's national dish, the doro wat (a spicy chicken stew), and gives the dish its characteristic red color.
Like the Indian five-spice mix, this blend plays well with hot oil. To use the mix, heat the oil, add onions and then the mix, and then use that as a base for a chicken, vegetable or meat stew. You can use it as a rub for meats, in meatloaf or in meatballs and even in the marinade for chicken wings.
About The Author
An engineer turned food writer, Monica Bhide writes about food and its effect on our lives. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Food & Wine, Prevention, Cooking Light, Health and Self. Her latest book is Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen (Simon & Schuster). Read more at her website.
I have never made the mix at home. I buy it from an Ethiopian grocery store. It is also available online. Also, check Ethiopian restaurants; some restaurants sell the mix.
Herbes de Provence
Just as berbere doesn't seem to have one standardized recipe, neither does the mix that, to me, is the soul of the south of France: herbes de Provence. This mix, which typically consists of rosemary, lavender, savory, thyme, basil and more, never disappoints in taste or aroma. I sprinkle it on breads before baking, on vegetables before roasting. I mix it with olive oil and use it on steak, chicken breasts and fish as a marinade. You can then cook the meat as you like. It is such an aromatic mix, but it does lose its aroma fairly quickly, so it's better to buy a little at a time.
I have purchased mine from online spice stores and have never been disappointed.
If you like a spicy touch to your dishes, then you need to make friends with harissa. I use it in stews, soups and sandwiches, as a topping for pizzas or a flavor booster for pastas, in hummus and even as a dipping sauce for French fries. This lovely red condiment comes from North Africa and is prepared with chili peppers, ground coriander, cumin and olive oil. There are many variations. I have heard about one with rose petals in it. Fair warning — it is super hot and spicy. You can make it mild, of course, by using milder peppers. However, the heat is part of its charm.
You can make your own harissa or buy it in tubes and jars and in many different heat levels. The best way to store it is to refrigerate it, and it will keep for months.
Doro Wat Chicken
This warm and hearty stew, adapted from J.M. Hirsch's High Flavor, Low Labor: Real Food for Real Life(Ballantine 2010), is laden with warm and flavorful spices. Most Ethiopian foods, even stews, are consumed by using bread (not spoons) to scoop the food. I have found that this stew tastes better the day after it was prepared, as this gives the flavors a chance to meld. You can serve this with bread or over steamed rice.
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch chunks
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter) or butter
2 medium yellow onions, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon ground fenugreek
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
2 tablespoons berbere
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1/4 cup red wine
3/4 cup water
Ground black pepper
Place the chicken on a large plate, drizzle with the lemon juice then sprinkle with salt. Set aside.
In a Dutch oven over medium heat, melt the ghee or butter. Add the onions, garlic, ginger, turmeric, fenugreek, cardamom, nutmeg, berbere and smoked paprika. Saute until the onions are tender, about 5 minutes.
Add the wine and water, mix well and bring to a simmer. Add the chicken, turning to coat, and return to a simmer. Cover, reduce heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through.
Uncover and simmer for another 3 minutes to reduce the sauce. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
"This hot sauce, which varies from village to village in Tunisia, Morocco, and even Algeria, is delicious on falafel, grilled meat and a teaspoon of it will cure the worst cold," Joan Nathan writes in The Foods of Israel Today (Knopf 2001) from which this recipe is adapted.
4 ounces dried hot red New Mexico chili peppers (about 18) (similar to California chili, these are earthier and hotter)
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
7 to 8 cloves garlic, peeled
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon coarse salt, or to taste
Cut off the stems and soak the peppers in warm water until soft. Drain and squeeze out any excess water. Process the peppers in a food processor with a steel blade with 1/4 cup of the olive oil, the garlic cloves, cumin, coriander and salt. The consistency should be a thick puree, the color of deep red salmon. Place in a jar and pour on the remaining olive oil, cover and refrigerate.
Let sit for a few days before using, until the harissa becomes less opaque. Use sparingly as it is very hot.
Whole Roast Chicken With Harissa
For this dish, use harissa sparingly if you don't like too much heat. I do like heat so I use more than 2 tablespoons when I make this chicken. And I also serve some harissa on the side, mixed with mayo, as an additional dipping sauce.
1 tablespoon harissa (more if you like it spicier)
Melted butter for basting
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
Remove the chicken giblets and cut off any excess fat. Rinse the chicken and pat it dry—do this well or the moisture will produce steam when you roast it. Salt and pepper the inside cavity of the chicken. Place the chicken on a rack in a large roasting pan.
In a bowl combine the softened butter, 1 teaspoon each salt and pepper and the harissa. Rub this mixture liberally all over the chicken, making sure you work your fingers under the skin as well.
Roast the chicken, breast side down, for 20 to 30 minutes, until the skin begins to brown. Baste it and turn breast side up. Baste the breast, which should be starting to brown. Cook for 5 minutes.
Baste again and reduce the temperature to 325 degrees. Roast for another 45 to 55 minutes, until the juices run clear. For a well-browned chicken, you can place it under a hot broiler for a few minutes before taking it out of the oven.
Remove the chicken from the oven and place on a platter. Allow it to rest for about 10 minutes. Carve and serve. If you wish, drizzle the pan juices over the carved chicken.
Grilled Swordfish With Spicy Yogurt Sauce
Jacques Pepin says he rubs the swordfish steaks with oil and coats them with herbes de Provence prior to grilling. He grills the steaks for 4 to 5 minutes and then finishes them in a warm oven. This recipe is adapted from his book Essential Pepin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2011). He serves the fish with a yogurt sauce that can also be served with grilled poultry.
Courtesy of Jaques Pepin
Makes 4 servings
4 swordfish steaks (5 to 6 ounces each and about 1 inch thick), preferably center-cut
1/2 teaspoon canola oil
1 teaspoon herbes de Provence
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup loosely packed fresh cilantro leaves
1/4 cup loosely packed fresh mint leaves
2 small garlic cloves
1 piece ginger (about the size of the 2 garlic cloves), peeled
1 small jalapeno pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup plain yogurt
Rub the steaks on both sides with the oil and sprinkle with the herbes de Provence and salt. Arrange the steaks on a plate, cover them with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to cook.
To make the sauce, put all the ingredients except the yogurt in a blender or mini-chop and process until chopped. Add the yogurt and process until smooth. Set aside, covered.
Preheat a grill until very hot. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees.
Place the steaks on clean hot grill rack and cook for about 2 minutes on each side, until lightly browned. Transfer the steaks to a tray and place them in the oven for 10 minutes to finish cooking.
Spoon enough sauce onto 4 plates to coat the bottom of each, place a steak in the center of each plate and serve, passing the extra sauce on the side.
Potatoes With Indian Five Spice
Adapted from a recipe by Soma Rathore of the fantastic Indian food blog ecurry.com, this recipe works well with potatoes, green beans or squash (cooking times will vary). You can also try it with diced, firm tofu or diced Indian cheese (paneer).
1 to 2 fresh hot green chilies, such as serrano or Thai bird, thinly sliced (or adjust amount to taste)
1 pound fingerling (or other) potatoes, cut into strips or wedges
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
Salt to taste
Fresh chopped cilantro, to garnish (optional)
In a large pan/skillet heat the oil. When the oil is shimmering hot, add the red dried chilies and fry them on both sides until very dark brown. Add the paanch phoron and let the spices sizzle and crackle for about half a minute. Add fresh chilies and the potatoes.
Add turmeric and salt, and mix well while tossing. Cook at high heat for about 5 minutes, or until the potatoes are heated through and slightly browned at the edges.
Lower the heat and cover the pan. Cook until the potatoes are cooked through and fork tender and slightly crisp on the edges. Increase the heat and dry off any remaining moisture in the pan. Taste and adjust the seasonings and fold in the cilantro. Serve hot, or at room temperature.