Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Terra Noble photo courtesy of the producer
Spice Lab Redux
We’ve written in the past about the Spice Lab Mexican Spices (see Spice Lab article), it is now time to talk about their Middle Eastern and North African spice blends.
They have exceptional spice blends that one would find in any bazaar in North Africa, the near-East or the middle-East. They don’t offer every blend they can make on their web site but, if you can’t find a spice mixture you are looking for, e-mail them, they probably either have it in stock at their retail outlet or they can mix it and prep it for you.
I was looking for Baharat, a blend very popular in the middle-East. I’ve been trying to recreate some of the more elaborate middle-Eastern dishes and baharat is an essential ingredient. The word baharat (or bahari, in Greek) actually means spice in Arabic.
Baharat can be used in many ways in the kitchen. It can be a dry rub for grilled meat, can be added to a marinade, or used as a seasoning for roasted or potted beef, lamb and chicken recipes and can, of course, elevate rice dishes. It is an almost ubiquitous seasoning along the Eastern Mediterranean that will vary slightly in ingredients, depending on where the blend is made. The reddish-colored powder has a mildly sweet taste with a touch of smokiness. It’s similar to the Indian Garam Masala, though simpler because it doesn’t require as many ingredients.
In Turkey, baharat often contains dried mint, but the basic ingredients in other cultures are fairly consistent, including black pepper, coriander seed, paprika, a small amount of cumin and cardamom, nutmeg, turmeric, cloves and cinnamon, sumac and saffron.
It is often used with ground meat to make Kefte or Köfta; baharat is mixed into it before cooking using about a teaspoon for every pound of meat. For example when making meatballs (Kefte) they use a blend of 75% ground beef and 25% ground lamb or goat meat with onion and parsley and a touch of garlic, ground with the meat, and 3/4 teaspoon of baharat mixed into the final blend; then they make meatballs that are the size of a ping-pong ball, flatten them and flour them before frying them. In a Lebanese version, a flat metal skewer has the meat, aromatics and spice blend wrapped around it, then grilled on a brazier.
Baharat is also used to flavor numerous rice dishes or pilafs as they are known to the rest of the world.
Another spice blend I have been looking for and found at Spice Lab is Harissa; it is hotter (spicier) than baharat but can be used in a very similar manner, mixed in ground meat when making hamburgers cooked on a charcoal grill. Grilling is one of the most popular ways to cook meat in the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, whether you are cooking chicken, pigeons, beef, lamb, goat or camel. It is also added to couscous, soups, pasta, and a wide range of other dishes.
Harissa is a very popular spice in Tunisia, where it is used either as a dry rub or a paste. If you order a sandwich in Tunis, the counterman will spread harissa paste over the bread, the same way we use mustard on a hotdog bun. One of the very popular Tunisian snacks is a sandwich made with fresh “village” bread and a soft, creamy processed cheese (like La Vache Qui Rit cheese triangles) with harissa mixed into the cheese.
One of my favorite appetizers when having arrack or ouzo or, when in Crete, tsipouro, is green olives coated with a very light layer of harissa mixed with the brine. In Crete, they are usually part of a small meze plate accompanying your drink that includes a slice of hard, salty cheese like kefalotyri; a tomato quarter; a couple boiled or grilled or floured and fried snails (hohlie) and, sometimes, a stuffed yalanji dolma (stuffed vineleaf with rice and herbs) or a small sweet kalitsouni, sweet dough filled with a mixture of mizithra cheese and honey.
Harissa is also brought to the table as a dip mixed with extra virgin olive oil.
One of my favorite dishes that I had in Anatolia was herbed rice; a prized dish with roots in the Arabic Peninsula, accompanying grilled chicken or grilled or fried meatballs.
It is a versatile dish because you can use either baharat (Persian version) or harissa (North African version) while the rest of the ingredients are the same wherever you might be.
¼ cup butter
2 1/3 cups chicken stock
1 cup long grain rice - basmati preferred
3 green onions, green part only, finely chopped
1 tbs chopped parsley
1 tbs chopped cilantro
1 tbs slivered almonds or pine nuts
1 tbs dry currant or sultana raisins
1 heaping tsp baharat or harissa
Salt to taste – sea salt preferred
Chop all herbs and green onion tops and put aside.
Wash rice in warm water and drain. Make sure there are no impurities, like little pebbles, among the rice kernels.
In a saucepan heat the chicken stock and mix in the spice blend. When stock starts boiling add the rice and lower temperature to medium low. Cover and let cooking. When much of the liquid is absorbed (approximately 15 to 17 minutes), add the slivered almonds or pine nuts, currants and herbs except for the cilantro and let it continue cooking. The total time should be between 23 and 25 minutes. If by 20 minutes all the stock has been absorbed, add ¼ cup of additional stock and fluff the rice with a fork, then continue until the rice is fully cooked. In another saucepan, melt the butter over low fire. As soon as the rice is fully cooked, poor the melted butter over the rice. Sprinkle the reserved cilantro on top and serve immediately.
Another spice blend from Spice Lab that I enjoy is Épice Berber. It is a staple in Moroccan cuisine and we’ve had many dishes prepared with it during our Moroccan trips. Of course, because of COVID, we have not traveled for a couple years and I’m looking forward to resuming our trips, as they give me the opportunity to taste food made with numerous spice blends in the countries where these dishes and blends originated.
Traditional Moroccan cuisine is one of the most diverse in the world. Morocco sits on the northern edge of the African continent. So, its cooking is flavored by Berber, Spanish, Corsican, Portuguese, Moorish, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and African cuisines. The emphasis is more on big flavors with such spice blends as Ras el Hanout, Épice Berber and Épice Juiff. Additional flavors commonly found in Moroccan cuisine include lemon juice and zest; fresh herbs such as mint, cilantro and basil; garlic and onions.
In Moroccan souks, at least one spice shop is always present. Every city we visited has a souk (bazaar) and the spice merchant usually has one of the best locations. See our story Moroccan Spice Markets.
Rib eye with Épice Berber:
The butcher at one of my local supermarkets has been showing exceptional rib eye steaks at really low prices, as low as $6.99 per lb. for what looks like prime beef even though the package is marked as “choice”! So, I’ve been indulging in great thick steaks, about 1 3/4 or 2 inches thick, washed down with Cabernet Sauvignon wines from Chile.
The Épice Berber spice blend is fiery, bright red, highly aromatic and flavorful. I start by mixing it with lemon juice and a little olive oil to make a paste; I make enough paste to lightly cover the meat.
I spread the paste evenly over the entire surface of the rib eye; a pastry brush is very effective. I wrap the rib eye in plastic wrap and marinate, chilled, for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight. I remove the meat from the fridge at least half-hour before cooking to let it warm a little before roasting.
I preheat the grill. I lightly oil a baking pan and place the rib eye in a rack in the pan. I roast it in the center of the oven for 9 to 10 minutes, flipping the meat once, halfway through.
I remove the pan from the oven and let the rib eye rest for 10 minutes before slicing and serving.
The last Chilean wine I opened to have with my rib eye was a bottle of 2018 Terra Noble Gran Reserva. It is a wine blend made from grapes of 2 different vineyards in the Colchagua valley. 70% comes from vines in the Los Lingues DO up in the Andes and 30% from another vineyard in Marchigüe, another part of Colchagua, that is between the mountain ranges (Entre Cordilleras).
The wine, though young, is perfect for the roasted rib eye with its lemony, peppery, spicy rub. It is well priced (from $17 to under $20 per bottle depending on the retailer) bold but well structured, round and elegant with velvety tannins showing red fruit, and spice with herbal notes, with a long ending dominated by hints of chocolate and tobacco. The perfect wine for a perfect steak!
For more information see: www.spices.com
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