Kvetching about the weather and telling readers how to cope through food or drink is old hat. So, I’ll just say this: spices often lend foods a warming je ne sais quoi in the thick of winter. If handled right — read: judiciously — spices make everything taste better, or at least smell better. (If you ever find yourself in a stinky, unwelcoming space, do as my friend Michelle recently did: fill up a saucepan with a bit of water and throw in a cinnamon stick, some cloves, and an orange peel if you can. Simmer, for instant transformation.)
Recently, in the Eatsy kitchen, there’s been a lot of toasting and grinding of spices. We’ve added cumin to Mexican black beans, achiote and allspice to braised pork, cloves to an Indian vegetable medley, fennel to a green coconut curry, caraway and cinnamon went into a chickpea soup, and coriander to a vinaigrette. What I’ve learned is that toasting spices for sauces, salsas and the like heightens the spices’ flavors. For quick infusions, like mulled wine and chai tea, spices can be left whole, though crushing them is useful.
Photo by irenethereforeiam
To toast your spices, set a heavy pan (cast iron or something similar) over low heat and add whole spices. Do not overcrowd the pan or leave it too empty. You want enough room to shake the spices from time to time so they can slosh about; the ideal is a pan that is two-thirds full. Keep an eye on your spices as they toast and shake them often so they don’t burn. Different spices have different toasting times so toast each spice separately. They are ready when they release their aroma (oils) and look slightly toasty.
To grind, a mortar and pestle works well but a coffee or spice grinder makes things super easy. If you need to clean your coffee grinder, pulse some rice in it and then wipe it clean. Spices keep well, but always toast and grind them just before using. Their oils and intensity will penetrate in a way that a pre-ground spice simply can’t. Also, be sure to store spices away from heat and light.
Photo by GorgeousKarma
To use spices for infusions, cracking them releases their oils, but toasting isn’t necessary. Here’s a simple recipe for making Masala chai, an Indian drink that blends black tea with sweet, heady spices. It requires no toasting or grinding. Traditionally, it has less milk than what some readers may be accustomed to. Feel free to add more milk or extra sweetener.
Makes about 4 cups
4 whole cloves
2 cardamom pods
1 cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
3 cups water
1 teaspoon ginger root, chopped (no need to peel)
1/8 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons black tea
In a mortar and pestle, crush the cloves, cardamom pods and cinnamon. Place crushed spices in a small saucepan, add the water, ginger and peppercorns and bring to a boil. Remove the pan from the heat, cover and let steep for 5 minutes.
Add the milk and sugar to the pan and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and add the tea. Let the tea steep, covered, for 3 minutes.
To serve, strain chai into a warmed teapot or cups.