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News / Life / Food

Three spice blends you can make at home

Easy mixes add flavor to season’s fresh vegetables

By Beth Dooley, Star Tribune
Published: June 5, 2024, 6:07am

We’ve made it through winter, so let’s celebrate! It’s time for asparagus, snap peas, lettuces and vibrant greens. Time to get to the farmers market and grab rhubarb by the bundle and rush home to make a crisp.

Spring is a season of lightening and brightening, resetting and refreshing. It’s time to renew our closets, our cupboards — and our spices. Just a pinch of a balanced spice blend will round out and deepen the simplest dish with pops of color and fragrance. That includes our local spring vegetables, which are crisp and delicious and don’t need much to shine.

Just as with salad dressings, you can find plenty of prepared spice blends in the market, but it’s easy and way more expedient to make your own. Preparing these in small batches makes a lot of sense. Because they are fresher, their flavors are bolder and more intense and there’s far less waste. Keep them close at hand to avoid scrambling when trying to season the dish at the last minute. Plus, spice blends are an easy way to bring the world’s most exciting flavors into your kitchen.

Take shichimi togarashi, a Japanese spice mix that is at once spicy, savory and nutty. It enhances a range of dishes without overpowering them. Shichi, Japanese for “seven,” refers to the number of different ingredients, and “togarashi” identifies the primary flavor (chile). The mix includes poppy seeds, sesame seeds, orange peel, pepper, sansho pepper, seaweed and ginger. It’s a wonderful finishing mix that perks up noodle bowls, scrambled eggs, roast chicken and even warm, buttered rolls.

Za’atar is the name for both the traditional Middle Eastern seasoning blend as well as for the pungent green herb that defines it. Za’atar is fragrant and evocative and tastes of that sun-drenched region. The earthy blend of marjoram, thyme, sumac, toasted sesame seeds and salt is rich and tangy. It’s a surefire fix for bland hummus and it adds exotic notes to quiche, salads or roast chicken. Try sprinkling it over toasted lavash slicked with olive oil.

There’s nothing subtle about Tajín, the crimson blend of chile and lime that throughout Mexico is as ubiquitous as salt and pepper. This at-home version will spark fried eggs, avocado toast, popcorn, baked potatoes or grilled corn and is perfect for grilled chicken, salmon and pork. When it’s sprinkled over mango and pineapple, the fruits’ perfumy sweetness opens up.

To make your own spice blends, you don’t need fancy equipment. Just a clean coffee grinder or food processor will do the trick. If you prefer to do this by hand, crush the spices in a traditional mortar and pestle and enjoy the scents they release. (In a pinch, put the spices in a sturdy plastic bag and crush them with a hammer.) Make these in small batches and use them with abandon. When you run out, just grind up more and keep them on hand stored in a covered container in a cool, dark place.

Cook local, season global and explore the flavors of the world.

Shichimi Togarashi

Makes about 1/4 cup. Bold, salty, hot and tangy, this spice blend is just right sprinkled over soba noodles, hard-boiled or poached eggs, and rice. Use it as a finishing spice on grilled fish and roasted tofu. From Beth Dooley.

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1/4 cup sesame seeds

1 tablespoon poppy seed

2 tablespoon red chile flakes, or to taste

1 tablespoon dried orange peel

1 teaspoon peppercorns (Sichuan preferred)

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 sheet toasted nori

In a dry skillet set over medium heat, toast the sesame seeds and poppy seeds until fragrant about 1 to 2 minutes. Set aside.

Place the toasted sesame and poppy seeds, chile flakes, dried orange peel, peppercorns, ginger and nori into a coffee or spice grinder and pulse until coarsely ground (not powdered). Transfer to an airtight container and store in a cool, dark place for up to 9 months.

Chile-Lime Seasoning

Makes about 1/4 cup. Try this homemade version of Tajín over fresh fruit (mango and pineapple), a rimmed glass of ice-cold margarita or your favorite grilled meats. From Beth Dooley.

1 cup dried ancho or chipotle peppers

1 lime, zested

2 teaspoon coarse sea salt

Using a sharp knife, slice open the peppers and remove the seeds and stems. Chop and put into a food processor or grinder. Add the lime zest and salt. Pulse them together until the pepper is finely ground. Transfer to a covered container and store in a cool, dark place for up to 6 months.

Za’atar

Makes about 1/2 cup. This traditional Middle Eastern spice blend varies from region to region. Fragrant and earthy, it’s great on grilled chicken and lamb, wonderful whisked into hummus, and fabulous sprinkled over toasted lavash. From Beth Dooley.

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

2 tablespoon dried marjoram

2 tablespoon dried thyme

2 tablespoon dried oregano

1 tablespoon ground sumac

1/4 teaspoon salt, or more to taste

In a small skillet set over medium-low heat, toast the sesame seeds until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Set aside.

Put the marjoram, thyme, oregano, sumac and salt into a spice grinder or mortar and pestle and pulse together. Transfer to a bowl and add the sesame seeds. Stir to together and store in an airtight container in a cool, dark place for up to 9 months.

Soba Noodle Bowl With Asparagus and Jammy Eggs

Serves 4. You can make this simple noodle bowl with a range of seasonal vegetables. This one features our season’s fresh asparagus. Add a few jammy eggs to spill their yolks into the noodles and finish with a drizzle of dark sesame oil and shichimi togarashi. From Beth Dooley.

1 lb. asparagus, ends trimmed off

4 large eggs

8 oz. soba noodles

1 tablespoon dark sesame oil, to taste

2 teaspoon rice wine vinegar, to taste

2 teaspoon shichimi togarashi, to taste (see recipe)

Bring a large deep saucepan of water to a boil over high heat. Drop the asparagus and boil until bright green, about 2 to 3 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold water. Set aside.

Bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil over high heat. Using a slotted spoon, lower the eggs into the water, reduce the heat a little, and boil for about 6 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and cool under cold water. Set aside. Remove the shells and set aside. Bring a large deep saucepan of water to a boil, season with salt (it should taste of the ocean). Drop in the soba noodles and cook until al dente, about 5 to 8 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water.

Transfer the noodles to a large bowl or individual serving bowls. Slice the eggs in half horizontally and arrange on the noodles. Arrange the asparagus on the noodles. Drizzle the dark sesame oil and then the vinegar over all. Season with the shichimi togarashi to taste.

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