Spice of the Day

To distract my co-workers while WFH, I produced little pieces of spice lore: one a day for what was then a five day work week. Though they appeared in serialized fashion, they are here united for a slightly longer read.

Day Five

Today’s spice (err, herb): mint

We investigate more than the usual suspects: peas and mint; mint sauce for lamb.

First the question of dried or fresh. I turn to Elizabeth David’s Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen. She comes to surprising conclusion, for me, about the substitutability of basil and mint. (Surprise until I was reminded of Thai basil). She writes:

With fresh mint we are on more familiar ground. Any self-respecting English cook knows that if she wants mint sauce then the fresh herb is essential. Dried, the crumbled leaves of common garden spearmint make a typical and equally essential Middle Eastern flavouring for curd-cheese fillings for pastry, yogurt dressings and sauces, stuffed or stewed aubergines, tomatoes and peppers, pilaffs, carrots, fish stewed in oil, soups. Quite often, in this type of cookery, mint can be substituted for dried basil, which is a member of the mint family and when dried takes on something of the same flavour.

I do not suggest the substitution in the opposite direction (basil for mint). How would Moroccan mint tea taste? And on the topic of this famous beverage opinions are varied as are the approaches to brewing a cup of the elixir. Jill Norman in Teas and Tisanes opts for green tea. While Arabella Boxer and Philippa Back, for China tea (i.e. black — they specify a preference for Lapsang Souchong). Both use fresh mint. I leave it to you devise a taste test and which suits your palate

Back to the question of substitutions. Niki Segnit in The Flavour Thesaurus complements David’s observations and supplies a recipe calling for the alliance of mint and garlic.

Mortal enemies in the breath wars. French chefs keep them apart, whereas their Turkish counterparts stir dried mint and garlic into thick, salted yogurt to serve with roast vegetables. Mint and garlic also feature in this unusual red lentil dhal from Madhur Jaffrey. Cook 2 crushed garlic cloves in 2 tbsp vegetable oil or ghee with 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper. When the garlic starts to sizzle, add 185g red lentils, 1/2 tsp turmeric and 750ml water. Stir, bring to the boil, then simmer until the lentils are tender. Add 3-4 tbsp chopped mint, 3-4 sliced green chillies and 1 tsp salt. Simmer gently while you fry 2 more sliced garlic cloves in 2 tsp vegetable oil until golden. Add these to the lentils, stir and cook, covered for a minute or two more.

This ends this week’s run of Spice of the Day. Remember when you reach for those herbs or spices you are touching history and making stories.

Day Four

Today’s spice: nutmeg / mace

Niki Segnit explains the similarities and differences in the head note to the “nutmeg” entry in The Flavour Thesaurus

Mace, nutmeg’s outer coating, is composed of the same flavour compounds but in different proportions, and contains slighter greater quantities of essential oil. They can be used interchangeably, but always opt for fresh rather than the pre-ground forms of either. Nutmeg is easier to grate than lacy pieces of mace, and is a little cheaper to buy.

I part ways with Segnit on the taboo against ground — perfectly fine bought in small quantities and used within a reasonable space of time. I do like however her suggestion for butternut squash and nutmeg: “try some freshly ground on butternut squash that’s been roasted with a mixture of 2 parts olive oil to 1 part balsamic vinegar.”

Back to the topic of grinding mace, I turn to the authority of Elizabeth David (Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen)

How mace came to be the hundred per cent traditional invariable and indispensable spice of all English potted meats and fish compounds is not at all clear. One explanation could be that the owing to the brittle, horny quality of that net-like arils, mace is next to impossible to grind or pound in a household mortar.


Ground mace is a spice which should be bought in small quantity and used while fresh. And if it happens to be missing at the moment it is needed to spice potted tongue or some other delicacy of the kind, then I would use nutmeg without further ado.

Suit yourself: grind or not.

Tomorrow’s Spice: mint (an herb actually)

Day Three

Today’s spice: star anise

1) a description of a spice used in many a Chinese dish
2) a description of a Chinese cooking technique
3) a description of a part of the Chinese batterie de cuisine

Irene Kuo in The Key to Chinese Cooking describes it thus

A hard, star-shaped spice, made up of the dried seeds plus pod of the anise shrub. It is used in simmering meats and poultry and in make flavour-pot brine. Sold by weight, often in small plastic bags, star anise should be stored as you would any dry spice in a tightly covered jar.

On red cooking (Kuo again)…

Red-cooking is Chinese stewing. The seasonings that give a red-cooked dish its special character are dark soy sauced for a deep reddish color; light soy sauce and a pinch of salt for added saltiness; star anise or five-fragrance powder for the distinctive aroma; and sherry and rock sugar for an overall mellowness.

On sand pots…

Anderson in his classic 1988, The Food of China, says that only a seasoned cook will attempt such a subtle, gentle, slow art. Not all would agree. Lilah Kan who is now re-issuing her long-missed 1978 volume, Chinese Casserole Cookery, asserts that this hearty and robust cooking is traditional to all Chinese cuisines. She believe that the Chinese attempt this gentle art almost on a daily basis. They are and you can easily become an expert. I certainly became one years ago using her book. Many dishes from it are part of my repertoire, make them part of yours.

from Flavour and Fortune – the magazine of the Institute for the Advancement of the Science and art of Chinese Cuisine [based in New York]

Tomorrow’s spice: nutmeg/mace

Day Two

Today’s spice is saffron.

Saffron is very evocative and also very expensive. But accept no substitutes. (I once gathered some saffron threads from autumn blooming croci grown in my own garden in Canada — it is indeed painstaking work but satisfying work).

Niki Segnit in The Flavour Thesaurus says it well:

Saffron is inimitable. Turmeric, safflower and annatto are often used in its stead but can only ever hope to impart an approximation of its colour, and maybe a little saffron-is bitterness. Saffron combines the flavours of sea air, sweet dried grass and a hint of rusting metal — it’s the spice equivalent of Derek Jarman’s garden on the bleak shingle beach at Dungeness, defiantly strange and beautiful.

On Derek Jarman’s garden see…


Niki Segnit has an entry on combining white chocolate and saffron

Artisan du Chocolat makes an elegant pink-gold bar of saffron-flavoured white chocolate. It says the white chocolate brings out the hay flavour of saffron. I’d add that the honeyed vanilla flavour of white chocolate shines a light on saffron’s floral complexity.

Unfortunately Artisan du Chocolat no longer makes that particular confection. But a Canadian to the rescue!

Chocolate Saffron Tart with Apples recipe by Lucy Waverman care of the LCBO

I had this in Spain at a special-event dinner in Madrid and it was wonderful. This recipe is my take on it. The combination of sliced apples baked with saffron custard then covered with a chocolate mousse is both unusual and divine. There are several steps to this but all the elements can be made a day or two in advance and the tart can be baked and kept refrigerated for up to 24 hours before you need it. The darker the chocolate the better. I used 70%. You can buy a pastry shell if you prefer.


Tomorrow’s spice: star anise

Day One

Today’s spice is cumin.

Grated carrot moistened with lemon juice and tossed in a sprinkle of ground cumin makes a lovely side dish. Niki Segnit in The Flavour Thesaurus reminds us of roasting carrot with cumin. She’s a bit particular about the provenance of her carrots:

It’s rare to sit down at a Moroccan feast without being offered a plate of sweet carrots in a robust, cumin-flavoured dressing. Cut into crinkly discs, like the metal from which Ingersoll keys are cut, they remind me, cumin’s efforts notwithstanding, of the sorry rounds of orange matter you get in tins. Home-grown carrots, on the other hand, tugged from the ground when they’re long, thin and pointed, are perfect for this combination. Toss them, washed but unpeeled, in olive oil and sprinkle with cumin before roasting. This will intensify both their earthiness and their sweetness, coaxing the sugars to the surface, where they caramelize and mingle deliciously with the spice.

Tomorrow: Saffron

And so for day 2727

This entry was posted in Food Writing. Bookmark the permalink.