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Heat and Spice

25 April 2006

Spice blends and pastes gathered from world cuisines gain favor as flavor catalysts in kitchens from campuses to chains.

This article first appeared in the 1 March 2006 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website www.foodservice411.com.

By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor

Their inspiration gathered from around the globe, spice blends and pastes are unlocking menu potential in all foodservice segments, elevating even the simplest dishes to greater heights of flavor, fragrance, heat and complexity.

Advancing their popularity in foodservice settings is the fact that they do it easily and cost effectively. Unlike a culinary technique that complicates preparation or a cooking method requiring different equipment, a mix of spices is within quick reach of every operation. House-made, custom-contracted or bought off the shelf, these high-impact mixtures rely on broad flavor profiles rather than precise formulas, resulting in recipes shaped not only by culinary traditions but also the influences of individual creators.

Sambal Oelek: Some Like It Hotter

This spicy, Southeast Asian paste that calls for fresh chiles, sugar, salt and often a potent dose of garlic stirs up big results even when added in small amounts.

Executive Chef Jeff Fournier draws on sambal oelek's potency to add punch to several entrées at modern steakhouse The Metropolitan Club in Chestnut Hill, Mass. And it's not just its flavor that draws him.

"Spice blends are convenient and easy to manage," he says. "The flavors mingle when the ingredients are ground together, creating a seasoning that's greater than the sum of its parts."

Fournier creates his own sambal oelek with a mixture of Thai chiles, garlic, sugar and salt blended in a commercial food processor. For marinade used on Hawaiian-style tuna poke, it is mixed with coconut milk, pineapple, cilantro, red onion and lime juice. It also adds an edge to veal stock-based braising liquid for pork shanks.

Increasingly easy to source through regular or specialty vendors, prepared sambal oelek is a hot commodity at Scottsdale, Ariz.-based chains Eddie V's Edgewater Grille and Wildfish Seafood Grille, where Executive Chef-partner John Carver uses it to spike everything from red-pepper jelly to vinaigrette. He lightly brushes the piquant paste over just-grilled or broiled fish as well.

"With the garlic, it doesn't just bring heat but also changes the flavor profile of the recipe," says Carver, whose operations run through gallons every week.

Its sweet-salty heat also makes sambal oelek an appealing accent at Michael Timothy's Urban Bistro in Nashua, N.H., where a purchased product is puréed, strained and poured into a squeeze bottle for easier handling. Chef-owner Michael Buckley uses it in place of sautéed hot peppers or hot sauce to bring depth and heat to soups and sauces. For Spicy Sambal Chicken Pizza, he dots it over the grilled crust topped with chicken, Cheddar cheese, sautéed bell peppers and onions.

Zaatar: Middle Eastern Intrigue

A staple in Lebanon, Israel, Syria and Jordan, zaatar is the name of both a dry spice blend and the wild, eastern Mediterranean-grown thyme upon which most recipes for it are based. Lemony-tart powdered sumac and white sesame seeds are common components; variations include a range of additions from oregano to ground pistachios.

"Zaatar is best used with a heavy hand," says Ana Sortun, chef-owner of eastern Mediterranean-themed Oleana in Cambridge, Mass. "It's not mild; it's got a very distinct and addictive flavor. But a little is not enough."

Besides the traditional application of spreading it over flatbread with olive oil and sea salt, Sortun also generously sprinkles zaatar over half chickens with butter and lemon confit tucked under the skin. The birds are grilled and served atop Turkish cheese pancakes.

At Wave in Chicago, Executive Chef Kristine Subido dusts a house-made, oregano-spiked version onto olive oil-brushed lavash bread with sea salt and thin-sliced tuna, as well as over a breakfast entrée of beef tenderloin kebabs with basted eggs. Daniel Skay, executive chef at Parker Adventist Hospital in Parker, Colo., shakes prepared zaatar over pizza that's topped with baby spinach, roasted peppers and feta cheese.

Harissa: the Fire Inside

Harissa, a fiery North African chile paste traditionally used as a condiment with couscous, begins with red chiles, garlic, cumin, coriander and caraway.

At southern Mediterranean-themed Wave, Subido creates two versions. Her own recipe-hot red chiles, garlic, roasted red bell peppers, preserved lemon, cumin, cilantro and olive oil-accompanies whole, grilled fish in one entrée and is mixed with roasted-garlic aioli as a condiment for another. For another approach, prepared product featuring roasted chiles and cloves is sweetened with honey and used to coat chickpea flour-dusted calamari before frying.

"Spice blends and pastes definitely bring more character to my dishes and a little ethnicity as well. They're more aggressive in flavor than individual herbs and spices," Subido says.

Two types of harissa also are part of the kitchen inventory at the Los Angeles location of Emeryville, Calif.-based Napa Valley Grille. Executive Chef Anne Conness whisks one vendor's chunky version into another's spicier translation for a balanced blend. Too intense on its own to fit the wine-friendly menu, the heat is softened with rice vinegar, corn syrup and tomato juice, readying the mixture for three menu roles: a drizzle for summer bruschetta of goat cheese and roasted corn; a baste for grilled shrimp skewers; and as dip for small flatbread pizzas.

At multistation eatery Couch Cafeteria at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, harissa is made in a central kitchen for a concept called Athens Café. Some varieties of fresh chiles are hard to source, says General Manager Dorothy Flowers, so dried anchos, guajillos, chipotles and green chiles are ground with garlic, coriander, caraway, roasted bell peppers, sea salt and olive oil. The resulting paste is used in rubs and sauces.

Garam Masala: Indian Innovation

Literally translated, garam masala means "hot spice." In practice, though, it is not just a spice but a vast collection of permutations, each devised by Indian cooks who know intuitively how to blend complex flavors to create a desired effect for a preparation. The dried blend may include in varying proportions such spices as black peppercorns, cumin, coriander, fenugreek, cardamom and cloves.

At Parker Adventist, Skay calls on pepper, cumin, cardamom, coriander, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg for his custom blend. He dry roasts whole seeds and grinds them the day of service for fresh, intense bursts of flavor added to such items as lentil soup and yogurt marinade for chicken.

"Using different spice blends makes my options a lot broader," says Skay, who also relies on harissa and sambal oelek to keep dining options interesting for guests and employees. "If you start with chicken, for example, that's your canvas, and these are the paints we use to create new dishes."

Two variations of garam masala find their way into Executive Chef Justin "Raif" Raiford's globally influenced cuisine at 34th Street Café in Austin, Texas. For a Gulf snapper special, he mixes a blend that calls for the same components as Skay's plus fennel. The ground spices are combined with oil to make a paste that is thinned with white wine to avoid overpowering the delicate fish.

Less traditional is a combination of ginger, black pepper, cayenne, garlic, onion and cumin that Raiford says is similar in flavor and aromatic quality to more-traditional garam masalas. The mixture joins flour and cornstarch to coat fried calamari.

Achiote: Going for Gold
Many rubs, marinades and sauces common to Mexico's Yucatecan and Oaxacan cuisines call for the distinct, earthy flavor of achiote paste, made from ground, deep-red annatto seeds and often diluted with citrus juice or vinegar. Cumin, cinnamon and oregano are common additions.

At Border Grill locations in Las Vegas and Santa Monica, Calif., Chef-owner Susan Feniger enhances prepared achiote paste with cracked black pepper and garlic, tempering its intensity with orange, lime and grapefruit juices for applications such as achiote-marinated chicken or achiote-rubbed rack of lamb.

The mixture is best when cooked for long periods, Feniger says, to allow oils to be released and raw flavor to dissipate. That's one reason achiote is a staple in such recipes as cochinita pibil, a classic Yucatecan dish of slow-roasted pork wrapped in banana leaves that Border Grill also prepares using lamb shoulder.

While achiote most often is associated with Mexican and Central American menus, Corporate Executive Chef Guillermo Veloso concocts his own versions of the paste for the Cuban-themed menu at Cuba Libre Restaurant & Rum Bar in Philadelphia and Atlantic City, N.J. He experiments with various complements for the annatto seeds, often reaching for lime juice, cumin, granulated garlic powder and ground, dried chipotles.

"When blending spices, you're creating a homogenized flavor as opposed to creating layers as you do when using them individually," he says.

Olive oil is a common binding agent for such pastes, but Veloso also turns to lard for greater viscosity that helps rubs and marinades adhere to proteins such as whole swordfish or marlin. When time allows, he toasts whole spices, grinds them in a spice mill and combines the elements by hand to get a better feel for the texture.

Cajun/Creole: Alive and Kicking

Calling on a gumbo pot of culinary influences, the many incarnations of Cajun and Creole seasonings so closely linked with New Orleans often begin with paprika, onion, garlic and black and cayenne pepper.

Red Rock Chili Co., a five-unit chain based in Santa Ana, Calif., depends on a standard, prepared Cajun seasoning blend to highlight a creative take on chicken chili, elevated to the everyday lineup after strong success as a promotion. Based on CEO and co-founder Paul Collis' recipe and delivered ready-made to stores for consistency, the hearty entrée also features chipotle chiles, onions, garlic, bell peppers, tomatoes and cilantro.

At Commander's Palace in Las Vegas (sibling of the legendary New Orleans eatery projected to reopen in late spring or early summer), house-made Creole spice blends color much of Executive Chef Carlos Guia's menu.

Extra components often join the two main mixes to distinguish different dishes. More cayenne and paprika deliver a more potent kick to tasso ham, brined for six days and smoked with the regular meat coating of paprika, salt, black pepper, cayenne, and granulated garlic and onion. Seafood dishes call for the addition of dried thyme and oregano, while andouille sausage is bolstered with cumin, chili powder, filé powder and fresh-chopped garlic and onion.

Spice Marketing

Nearly every world cuisine boasts its own signature spice blends. Strict recipes don't apply, but options below offer a good start.

BAHARAT
Origin: Middle East
Common components: paprika, peppercorns, coriander, cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg
Potential additions: chiles, allspice

BERBERE Origin: Ethiopia
Common components: allspice, fenugreek, red chiles, black pepper, dried garlic, ginger, paprika, cloves, coriander
Potential additions: cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, ajwain seeds, turmeric

DUKKA Origin: Egypt
Common components: chickpeas or hazelnuts, cumin, black pepper, sesame seeds
Potential additions: dried thyme, sea salt, dried mint, coriander

RAS EL HANOUT
Origin: North Africa
Common components: ginger, black peppercorns, cardamom, dried flowers, mace, turmeric, cinnamon, nigella
Potential additions: galangal, cumin, paprika, ajwain seeds, grains of paradise

SHICHIMI TOGARASHI
Origin: Japan
Common components: red-chile flakes, sansho (ground berries of the prickly ash tree), seaweed flakes or crushed nori, black and white sesame seeds, poppy seeds, dried Mandarin orange or tangerine peel
Potential additions: ginger, hemp seeds, citric acid

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