Lior Lev Sercarz's pursuit of flavors has taken him across the globe, from childhood and young adulthood in Israel, with jaunts to areas of what's now Palestine and meals at homes of Moroccan and Persian friends. Then a stint in South America, which spawned enrollment in culinary school in Lyon, France. Finally, he ended up in New York City, working for Daniel Boulud and creating signature spice blends, which ultimately led to the opening of his own shop, La Boîte, on 11th Avenue in Hell's Kitchen.
Now Sercarz has collected his thoughts on spices into a compendium on the subject, The Spice Companion, which covers the basics of spices including purchasing, storing and employing them, in addition to an exhaustive, alphabetical list of spices, herbs, flowers and other food flavorants. The man loves a DIY blend, too.
We picked Sercarz's brain about spices even the most novice of cooks should have on hand, how to trust the supermarket to sell you a quality spice, and what's hot and fresh in the realm of spices.
What are the essential spices for a home cook? What do you recommend people always have on hand in their kitchen? I think you should have what you're actually using. I know that sounds like a smart answer, but I think one of the things that we are trying to do with people—and throughout this book and when we do classes and what not—is to try and have people pause for a second and realize, 'Do they cook?' If so, what do they cook? The idea is really for people to evaluate what they cook and how they cook and then start from there. Meaning there's no need for you to buy a whole spice rack with things that you are never going to use at first.
I say the thing that everybody probably should have is some sort of salt or sodium component. And it could be fine salt, coarse salt, it could be fish sauce. It could be some sort of an element that brings salt to food because that is pretty important when it comes to seasoning. And the same thing would be a sort of a heat component. So I know most people have a pepper grinder or pepper shaker. I don't know that it's a must, but some sort of heat element is important. So if you don't care much for pepper, maybe a chili flake or chili powder or maybe even hot sauce. So it's really based on your lifestyle. If you just have a pepper grinder that's been sitting there for years and collecting dust then just get rid of it and switch with a little shaker that has chili flakes or chili peppers.
Aside from the salt and pepper I think its always good to have some more warm spices; paprika, nutmeg, those are always really handy. When it comes to paprika it can be either sweet or it can be a smoked one that has a nice depth element to dishes. We could go on and on about adding more, but I think if you have those three or four, that's already a great beginning.
You mentioned nutmeg just now. I've heard before that nutmeg is something that you should buy whole, but I'm wondering what you think of that and also what are some other spices that we should be buying whole and grinding ourselves at home? You can record the next phrase and quote me on that: it's okay to buy ground spices.
All right! [laughs] I said it! It's okay if you're buying good quality ground spices and you are rotating your stock often enough. Two challenging things with ground spices are you don't always know who ground them and what they put inside. There are quite a few cases of adulteration of spices, meaning they will add some other product. They aren't poisonous, but they just aren't spices. And the second thing is that you aren't exactly sure when they were ground and ground spices are a bit like a clock ticking because they are exposed to air.
But if you do identify a good source for ground spices, you can definitely do that because the challenge with whole spice is although they're great and they keep longer, most people just don't have the patience to grind spices. And when you're in a rush and you're living a pretty hectic lifestyle, nobody wants to start grinding cinnamon sticks at 8:30 at night, or grabbing a microplane and start grating nutmeg over some sort of preparation. I think it's amazing if you can, I do encourage people to do so, but, as we said earlier in the conversation, once you realize who you are and try not to lie to yourself about it, and say "I am a lazy cook, but I do like cooking," buy great ground nutmeg and just buy a little of it so that you don't keep it forever. It's not like a bottle of wine that's going to become better with time.
Spices in action (courtesy The Spice Companion)
You mentioned buying quality products. How do we know what to trust and how do we know what a good quality spice looks like? Most of us are just going to the local supermarket and picking out whatever is on the shelf. Can we trust those products? That's a great question. The good news is that there is more and more awareness. So even your local bodega will start having better quality products than what I saw when I moved here fourteen years ago. Couple of small tricks when you do go to buy spices is visually evaluate them. Meaning if you are looking for whole black peppercorns, yet the package you are looking at has green, brown and grey particles in it, by definition it's not so black. So I would stay away from that brand or that package. And if it says that it's whole peppercorns, and yet there is a lot of dust and powder at the bottom of that container or bag, then also there's a chance that they are too old.
As much as I like deals and bargains, when it comes to certain things—meat, fish and spices—I stay away from it because there is a reason that they are discounted. I'm not saying that what is expensive is always good, but when it comes to spices, generally things that cost a little bit more could potentially be better because they were sorted properly and packaged properly and chances are they are going to be a better quality. Keeping in mind that if you do buy a very cheap spice, you are often going to have to use a lot of it, while if you buy something a bit more expensive, you are going to use a bit less. So at the end of the day, it's pretty much the same.
Again, it's about trial and error. It's the same as finding your favorite butcher, or vegetable vendor. You try and if it's good you stick around, and if not, you switch to the other person. I don't think the internet is the only solution, but it is a great solution for spices because not every city or every neighborhood has a local store with great choices. Luckily, there are more and more online solutions for purchasing great spices.
So talking about storing, what's the best way to store spices? Should some of them be refrigerated? The rule of thumb, it's a bit cheesy, but it's like me and you. I don't know, but personally, I hate extreme heat, and I also hate extreme cold. And my not-so-long hair doesn't like humidity. So the spices want to be wherever you want to be, in that same environment. They should be in containers in your kitchen, away from heat and cold, with a lid on them. If you refrigerate or freeze them, the risk is of absorbing humidity from your refrigerator, so they will just go bad. They will also act like the container of baking soda in your refrigerator, they will just absorb all the scent and odors. So there's really no need to put them there.
In terms of what kind of containers, anything that's sealed with a lid. Preferably glass, because it doesn't interact with the spices. However, if you have young kids, it's dangerous. Plastic is also great. Both plastic and glass are transparent so you can just see what you have in your container, versus metal or wood, where often you want to start cooking and you realize that jar is empty. Metal also conducts heat and wood interacts with spices, so it starts creating a sort of interaction that you don't really want.
Is there a good rule of thumb for how long you should be keeping certain spices? There's really no expiration date. Chances are you will never get sick from an old spice, they'll just have no more flavor. And because there is no real regulation in terms of "best before" on spices, what I suggest is just whatever it is that you buy, that same day take a pen and write [that day's date] on that container and add another year from the date of purchase.
Should someone ever buy a jar that says "curry," for example? Because from what I understand, that doesn't really mean anything in terms of the dish "curry" that we might think of. Again, good point. What we try to do with our single spices that we sell or the blends is to leave it up to you. Meaning, that if you have a jar of curry that you bought, flavored curry something or madras something, don't hold yourself just to that. Try and use it in as many possible things, even to the extreme of using them in desserts. Before you ruin the whole preparation, just make the dish that you were planning on making and try it with just a little bit of that spice. If it doesn't work, then don't try it. If it does work, then next time you could use it in your cooking or baking or what not.
To me, names don't mean much. A rub is just an application. So if somebody says they are selling a rub, what if I infuse it, is that okay? Yes, it's become an infusion. Or a marinade. So we really want to get people to be creative and not to have to own 10 or 20 different seasonings when they could do really well with just four or five really good ones for everyday for everything.
Aleppo (courtesy The Spice Companion)
What are a few underrated spices that you think people should know more about? And in your experience, have you seen certain spices become very trendy, or are their certain ones that are having a moment right now? In the last couple of years I know chili types, like aleppo, have become more and more popular because of their complexity of flavor. So its opened up to people who usually don't care much for hot food, but because they have some nice acidity and sweetness, they are more and more popular in the last few years. Persian limes are also pretty popular in the last couple of years and still have a very good momentum because of their nice sourness and acidity and scent. Things like nigella seeds, which were around for a very long time but kind of underrated because they are just thrown on some baked goods. But they really offer nice nutty flavor, a bit more complex than sesame at times.
So those are three examples. I guess the great awareness or trend or momentum in spices, generally speaking, is the idea that spicy does not mean hot. And you can enjoy spices or cook with spices but it doesn't mean you are using any heat. It's the idea that ethnic cooking is becoming more and more relevant every year, and embracing your family's heritage, or places that you visit and then you want to try and recreate these dishes. So I think with that comes more and more usage of spices every year.
Do you have a favorite spice? I do not have one in particular, but I probably have around ten that if I really, really had to choose, those would be the spices, and that I could cook with them all the time. Of course a good pepper and a good salt, and then some cumin and cinnamon and cardamom. The list could go on and on [laughs]. It's really hard to narrow it down, but the way for me to kind of cheat is instead of saying just one, what I do is I get these individual spices and then I make a blend, so then I have one great blend that could have five or six of my favorite things. And something that we try to convey through the book is that it's very challenging to have a lot of single spices, most of us just jump ship. So instead of that, if you are able to create your own unique blends at home, using very simple guidelines, you can enjoy a much bigger array of spices and much more complete flavoring.
The Spice Companion is available online and at La Boîte (724 11th Avenue, (212) 247.4407)