Exotic Seasonings Show Up In Our Own Backyard

Here are 10 21st century seasonings to know.

Named for a city in northern Syria famous for its chiles, Aleppo pepper is a coarse, rust-colored pepper, moderately spicy, earthy, rich and deeply fruity. It will last longer if refrigerated.

-- CONTEMPORARY IDEAS: Sprinkle on poached eggs, steamed cabbage or Italian bean and pasta soup. Add to tomato sauce for pasta, to gazpacho or to eggplant- and-tomato dishes, to pizza.

Also known as galanga or galangale, this knobby rhizome resembles a pale, thin-skinned ginger and is, in fact, a relative. It is drier and woodier than ginger, however, with a pungent bite and a sharp, piney aroma. It usually is sliced very thinly, slivered or minced; unless the skin is rough, it doesn't need to be peeled.

Southeast Asian markets typically carry two types, known as lesser and greater galangal. Lesser galangal is smaller but more pungent; greater galangal is preferred for Thai cooking.

Europeans used galangal in the Middle Ages, both as a spice and a medicinal plant to aid digestion, banish nausea and minimize flatulence. Now, it is primarily associated with Southeast Asia. In dried form, it is a component of Moroccan ras el hanout.

-- CONTEMPORARY IDEAS: At Citizen Cake, Elizabeth Faulkner uses it in a Thai-inspired coconut sorbet. At Rubicon, Dennis Leary occasionally uses it in crab soup. Slices of galangal add a Southeast Asian accent to chicken soup or fish stock, to court bouillon for salmon, to pork brine.

North Indian cooks rely on garam masala (literally, a hot spice blend) to give their dishes warmth and aromatic complexity. There is no single recipe for it, but a typical blend might include cinnamon, clove, cumin, cardamom, coriander, black pepper and nutmeg. Usually the spices are dry-roasted to enhance their flavor, then cooled and ground.

Although you can buy the blend at Indian markets, a homemade version will be fresher. It keeps well in an airtight container in a cool place for up to three months.

-- CONTEMPORARY IDEAS: Add a pinch to stewed okra, lentils, split pea soup, lamb stew. Season a beef brisket with it, then sear and braise slowly with lots of onion.

The spicy, red-pepper paste condiment of Tunisia, harissa differs in proportions from cook to cook. You can buy it ready-made in tubes, but it's much better when freshly prepared.

Fresh harissa is a thick paste. It should be covered with olive oil to protect it from air and then refrigerated. To use it as a condiment for couscous or a dressing for salads, thin it with water, lemon juice and more olive oil.

-- CONTEMPORARY IDEAS: Add a spoonful to dressings for hearty vegetable salads. Stir into soups, especially fish or bean soups, and stews. Add a spoonful to the pot when steaming mussels or clams.

Thailand's roasted chile paste is an irresistible blend of dried red chiles roasted in soybean oil with dried shrimp, fish sauce, tamarind, sugar, shallots and garlic. It is reddish-brown and thick, with a rich, roasted- garlic aroma and caramelized shallot taste. Thai cookbook author Kasma Loha- unchit recommends the widely available Pantainorasingh brand and suggests buying at least the medium-hot version.

-- CONTEMPORARY IDEAS: Add to a barbecue sauce for spareribs or chicken, or to braised short ribs. Stir into chicken rice soup or fried rice. Add a dollop to a shrimp stir-fry or to stir-fried broccoli or Asian greens. Stir into mayonnaise to make a dip for crab or fried calamari, or put a spoonful in the pot when steaming clams.

The Spanish pimenton de la Vera is a name-controlled paprika, meaning the Spanish government regulates the kinds of peppers used, the process and the peppers' place of origin.

La Vera is a district in the Extremadura region of western Spain. The peppers grown there are roasted over an oak fire for at least 10 days before being ground, resulting in a seductive, smoky aroma.

The paprika may be sweet, bittersweet or hot.

-- CONTEMPORARY IDEAS: Heidi Krahling at Insalata puts it in piperade (the Basque mixture of tomatoes, peppers and onions). At Citizen Cake, Jennifer Cox adds it to rouille (Provencal roasted red pepper sauce) and romesco (Spanish red pepper sauce). Try it in a shrimp stir-fry with sliced garlic, or on yogurt salads, fried potatoes, baked fish, omelets.

A North African spice blend that varies widely. Depending on the maker, ras el hanout typically contains 20 or more ingredients, sometimes as many as 80 or 90. The name means "head of the shop," possibly referring to the custom of each merchant making his own blend. The actual recipes are closely guarded secrets.

Although many Moroccans buy the merchant's ground blend, knowledgeable cooks buy their ras el hanout "brut," meaning the spices are whole. At home, depending on the dish, cooks remove the appropriate spices and grind them as needed.

Warm spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, allspice and cardamom are common components, along with exotics like orris root and grains of paradise, and aphrodisiacs such as Spanish fly. For American cooks who want to grind their own, Paula Wolfert has a 16-ingredient ras el hanout recipe in her book "Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco," (Harper & Row, 1973).

-- CONTEMPORARY USES: Krahling fries it in olive oil, cools it, then whips it into butter as a seasoning for green beans. Mourad Lahlou at Aziza uses it as a dry rub on red meat and chicken breasts before grilling; with chicken, he thins it with olive oil to make it less pungent.

Fresh and dried rose petals and the aromatic water distilled from roses are fundamental to Persian and some North African dishes. If using fresh roses, be sure they come from an unsprayed source. With dried rosebuds, use the petals only, removing any bits of tough stem.

-- CONTEMPORARY USES: Rose petal creme brulee is a signature dessert at Citizen Cake, where Elizabeth Falkner also slips rose water into her Mayan- spiced chocolate ganache tart. Rose water makes a delightful addition to poached fruit and fruit compotes. At Chez Panisse, rose petals are steeped in the cream used to make ice cream.

The sumac bush (Rhus coriaria) grows wild throughout the Middle East. Its red berries are harvested just before they ripen, then they are dried and sold whole or ground. Ground sumac is brick-red, with little aroma but with a fruity and pleasantly lemony tang.

-- CONTEMPORARY IDEAS: Marinate meaty white fish in olive oil, sumac and garlic before cooking; sprinkle it on swordfish, halibut or lamb after grilling. Use it to season roasted beets or steamed carrots. Stir it into lentil soup. Sprinkle on cucumber-yogurt salad or green salads. Add to vinaigrettes.

In the Middle East, its home ground, za'atar has two meanings. It refers to an herb or family of herbs, as well as to a popular seasoning blend made with that herb. Most written recipes for the blend call for mixing dried thyme or oregano with ground sumac and toasted sesame seeds. In shops, you can find a variety of za'atar blends, some brick-red with sumac, some green with herbs.

-- CONTEMPORARY IDEAS: As an hors d'oeuvre, serve triangles of warm pita bread or sliced focaccia with bowls of extra virgin olive oil and za'atar for dipping. At Rubicon, Dennis Leary adds za'atar to a chicken salad with pine nuts and raisins.



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