Spice It Up!

By admin2

As Tracey Ceurvels discovers, there’s no better place than the city’s many fine spice stores for a chef to find inspiration.

For those who love to cook — from New York’s top professional chefs to those toiling, best as they can, on their tiny studio apartment stove tops — the greatest inspiration for dishes new and old can be found in the city’s plentiful spice stores. For a dedicated, creative chef, a spice store can provide the kind of creative spark that a museum does for an artist.

“The use of spices expands the way I look at a dish. It’s another element that deepens the taste and flavor of whatever I’m cooking,” says Patricia Williams, the chef at Smoke Jazz & Supper Club. Williams regularly makes the trek from her Upper West Side restaurant/lounge to Kalustyan’s, which was founded in 1944 and still sits in the same Lexington Avenue location, offering a dizzying array of ingredients from Armenia, Vietnam, and every place in between. Williams has discovered ingredients there that spurred the creation of entirely new dishes. “When I found the chocoaxa Mexican chocolate from Oaxaca, I was excited to make a dessert,” she says. “And when I discovered vadouvan, a French-style curry [a blend of garlic, fenugreek, curry leaves, cumin, cardamom, mustard, fennel, turmeric, nutmeg, cayenne, and cloves], I was inspired to make a scallop dish with corn.” Some of Williams’ other favorite ingredients from Kalustyan’s include vanilla, which she pairs with asparagus soup, and sassafras, which she incorporates into pork dishes.

At upscale Lebanese restaurant ilili, chef/owner Philippe Massoud prepares many of the restaurant’s dishes with allspice and cinnamon, which he, too, gets from Kalustyan’s. While Massoud enjoys shopping for spices in the Middle East, where “there are great markets in the Gulf countries that sell loads of amazing spices,” here in New York, Kalustyan’s provides the inspiration for many of his signature dishes.

“One day while I was shopping for cardamom,” he says, “there were also bananas in the store. I had never played with cardamom in a sweet context, but somehow felt that banana and cardamom would go really well together. This later became our banana bread pudding dessert with cardamom crème anglaise.”

Sumac, which he describes as “most amazing and tart,” is another spice Massoud loves. Though it’s hard to find in the United States, Massoud is able to get his supply at Kalustyan’s.

In explaining the importance of the shop to his work, Massoud notes that spices can vary in quality depending on the region of origin and other factors, and that inferior spices can cause an otherwise excellent recipe to fall flat.

Chef Floyd Cardoz, of Tabla

Chef Floyd Cardoz, of Tabla

“Spices are so dependent on Mother Nature and so relevant to the flavor profile of a dish, yet they vary in potency,” he says. “Therefore, one teaspoon of any spice might change depending on when it is harvested or how much it rained.”

The best providers, therefore, understand how to find spices that haven’t lost their zing.

Pastry chef Pichet Ong, of Spot in the East Village and Village Tart in Nolita, shops at Kalustyan’s, and also enjoys the spices offered by Foods of India, located on the same block. “It’s a great place for Indian spices,” he says, relishing the shop’s robust aleppo peppers and hot red chilies of the sort popular in Turkey and Syria.

“[Both stores] offer points of inspiration,” he says, “from the prepared Indian street desserts like chennar murgi, to their kitchen tools, like the cone-shaped kulfi mold.”

Foods of India is also a favorite of chef Floyd Cardoz, of the Indian-inflected restaurant Tabla, who relies on their fresh ginger and clove. “I also love coriander seed a lot, and I use it many dishes,” he says. “The store is great for meat, vegetables and fish.”

Amitzur Mor, chef of Varelli, a Mediterranean wine bar on the Upper West Side, shops at Pereg Gourmet Spices, a company founded in Israel in 1906 that has a shop in Flushing, Queens. Pereg sells authentic Israeli ingredients such as smoked red paprika and spicy pickled lemons, plus many other interesting blends.

Chef Amitzur Mor, of Varelli

Chef Amitzur Mor, of Varelli

After one noteworthy visit to Pereg, Mor created his Middle Eastern spice-rubbed skirt steak with tomatoes confit, tahini, grilled scallions and harissa. “They are the only people who have this amazing tahini that I use as a base for the dish,” he says. “They also have a special paprika that I add to my secret spice mix for the rub.  This dish is all about the spices, and I have Pereg to thank for introducing me to the variety of Middle Eastern flavors out there. I buy all my exotic spices from them such as sumac, nabulus thaini, Iranian dry lemons and limes, black onion seeds, zaatar, filfel chuma, paprika, aleppo, and many other ingredients. I use these spices to make my own spice mixes for all my dishes at the restaurant.”

While most spice shops have web sites, visiting the actual stores is the optimal way to get the creative cooking juices flowing.

Monica Bhide — food writer, blogger at A Life of Spice (mbhide.typepad.com), and the author of the cookbook “Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen” — finds both enjoyment and ingredients at spice stores such as Penzeys, one of her favorites. “I love to look at new spices and read labels to find out where they’re from,” she says. “My favorite thing is to talk to other people in the store to find out what their favorite spices are and how they use them. For me, it’s like walking into a candy store.”

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