Bold Cajun blends, Chinese five-spice powder, Caribbean jerk, garam masala from India, Middle Eastern baharat, Thai green curry paste – each of these blends of spices and herbs has its origins as a cornerstone of a regional cuisine. Traditionally developed over time and honed through generations, spice blends are calculated combinations of fresh or dry ingredients that create a symphony of flavors. Walk the spice aisle of any store and commercial variations abound.
But make your own and you’ll be delighted at how fresh, vibrant and aromatic the flavors are. And you can tailor your blends to suit your tastes and your family’s palates.
To make dry spice blends or powders, use a spice mill or coffee grinder; for a more rustic version, use a mortar and pestle and a little elbow grease. To make spice pastes or fresh blends that incorporate such ingredients as garlic, lemon and herbs, try a food processor or blender. Dry blends will keep for weeks properly stored in an airtight container; fresh will keep refrigerated for a week or so, ready to punch up a last-minute meal.
Start with a single spice or herb and build around it. This foundation doesn’t need to dominate the mix, but it’s a base. Construct your blend along the lines of a classic or create your own medley.
For example, not only does allspice fit into a traditional Ethiopian berbere blend alongside cardamom, garlic, coriander, fenugreek and red pepper, it also marries well into a chili powder of garlic, oregano, coriander, cloves and a range of chilies. Amber-colored, white or black cumin seed, each with its own flavor, might be the basis for a Southwestern-style rib rub or an Indian-style masala for braised vegetables.
Two of the lesser-known traditional spice blends, poudre de Colombo and charmoula, are terrifically versatile, easy to make and great to have on hand for everyday cooking.
Poudre de Colombo, or Colombo powder, is the quintessential spice blend of the West Indies. Recipes vary. There’s a fresh-paste Colombo of ground chilies, garlic, lemon and aromatics; the powder is a dry blend of toasted spices, including mustard, cumin, coriander, turmeric, peppercorn and fenugreek (toasting the spices gives the mix an earthy, rounded profile). It’s used as a flavor base in a traditional stew of the same name, although it also can be used as a marinade or rub for any meat.
Charmoula – a North African blend of fresh herbs and spices that includes garlic, lemon juice, parsley, cilantro, salt, pepper and oil – can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week.
In this recipe, garlic, ginger, parsley, cilantro and lemon are ground to a paste, then mixed with ground cumin, bay leaf, saffron, cayenne pepper and Spanish paprika.
The paste is mixed with olive oil and then stored overnight for the flavors to develop. Use charmoula as a 30-minute marinade for fish, a finishing sauce for meats and vegetables, or even a dip with bread.
To really show off a batch of poudre de Colombo, try the dish called Colombo pork loin curry from “Creole,” a new cookbook by Babette de Rozieres. Pork loin is marinated in a blend of onion, garlic, cumin, habanero chilies, vinegar and oil, then quickly stewed in a broth that’s flavored with half a cup of poudre de Colombo (there’s also a fresh paste of garlic, ginger and habanero chili). Potatoes, zucchini and eggplant are cooked quickly in the broth, and the spicy dish is finished with a splash of fresh lime juice.
Charmoula is a perfect complement to fish and shellfish. For a fabulous entree that, with some planning, requires very little last-minute effort, marinate jumbo shrimp for a couple hours in a charmoula blend, then thread them onto skewers with sliced fresh lemon and grill over a hot fire. The flavors are vivid and bright, rounded out with just the faintest heat from the cayenne.
You can blend even more ingredients into your spice blends. Sweeten poudre de Colombo with some agave syrup or honey and rub it on a pork roast or rack of ribs. Combine the powder with a citrus marinade for zesty chicken on the grill. Mix charmoula with a little yogurt as a marinade for lamb chops, or thin it with a little more oil and use it to baste halibut or salmon on the grill.
At the end of the day, it’s your blend.
Store the charmoula for up to 1 week, refrigerated, in an airtight jar or plastic bag.
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon minced ginger
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1/3 cup chopped cilantro
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
2 teaspoons sweet Spanish paprika
Pinch cayenne powder
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 dried bay leaf, crumbled
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
Using a mortar and pestle, or in the bowl of a food processor, grind the garlic and ginger to a paste. Add the chopped parsley, cilantro and lemon zest and coarsely mash. Stir in the lemon juice. Stir in the paprika, cayenne, cumin, bay leaf and saffron and grind to incorporate.
Slowly pour in the olive oil while blending to form an emulsion, then stir in the salt. Adjust the seasoning as necessary, then cover and refrigerate at least 1 day before using.
Grilled Shrimp Skewers with Charmoula
1 pound cleaned, tail-on jumbo shrimp (12 to 16)
Charmoula (see recipe), divided
1 large lemon, sliced crosswise into 1/8-inch slices
Oil for the grill
Combine the shrimp and 1/3 cup charmoula in a large nonreactive bowl or resealable plastic bag and marinate in the refrigerator for 2 hours. Ten minutes before removing the shrimp from the refrigerator, soak the bamboo skewers in water to prevent the wood from burning.
Remove the shrimp from the marinade and thread with the lemon slices onto the prepared bamboo skewers.
Heat the grill to medium-high heat. When the grill is ready, oil the rack and place the skewers on top. Grill the skewers until the shrimp are puffy, pink and opaque, about 2 to 3 minutes per side. Serve immediately with the remaining charmoula sauce.
Yield: 4 servings
Approximate nutrition per serving: 172 calories, 5 grams fat (1 gram saturated), 18 grams protein, 2 grams carbohydrate, no dietary fiber, 68 milligrams cholesterol; 218 milligrams sodium.
Poudre de Colombo
The spice mixture can be stored in an airtight jar or plastic bag for up to 6 weeks.
3 tablespoons cumin seeds
3 tablespoons coriander seeds
1 tablespoon black or brown mustard seeds
1 tablespoon fenugreek seeds
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon whole cloves
3 tablespoons turmeric
In a large saute pan, combine the cumin, coriander, mustard and fenugreek seeds with the peppercorns and cloves. Toast the spices over medium-high heat until fragrant and lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the pan and cool, then grind to a fine powder using a spice or coffee grinder.
Toast the turmeric over medium-high heat until fragrant and lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Combine the turmeric with the rest of the spices.
Colombo Pork Loin Curry
Adapted from “Creole” by Babette de Rozieres. To make the ground rice, toast a single layer of rice in a heavy-bottom skillet over medium-high heat for 5 minutes until golden, shaking frequently. Cool the rice and grind to a fine powder using a spice or coffee grinder; sift the rice through a fine mesh strainer to remove any large particles.
2 pounds pork loin, cut into 2-inch cubes
1 medium onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons minced ginger
1 to 2 habanero peppers, seeded and minced
Pinch ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 tablespoons white-wine vinegar
Place the meat in a large sealable plastic bag or nonreactive container. Add the onion, garlic, ginger and peppers, then the cumin, salt and pepper. Pour in the oil and vinegar and mix well. Cover and chill for 2 to 3 hours. Shake off and discard the excess marinade.
3 tablespoons canola oil, divided
1 cup chicken broth
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 sprig thyme, leaves removed and chopped
1 sprig flat-leaf parsley
1 bay leaf
1 or 2 habanero chilies (optional), as desired, seeded and minced
Scant 1/2 cup poudre de Colombo (see recipe)
2 cups diced potatoes, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch cubes
1 eggplant, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
3 medium or 2 large zucchini, sliced on the bias crosswise into 1/2-inch slices
1 1/2 tablespoons toasted and ground rice
Juice of 2 limes, plus lime wedges for serving, divided
Freshly ground black pepper
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large, heavy-bottom soup pot over high heat. Add the marinated pork pieces and sear over high heat, careful not to burn, about 5 minutes (the pork will not brown).
Stir in the chicken broth and 3 cups water, then stir in the onion, garlic, thyme, parsley, bay leaf, cloves, chilies and poudre de Colombo. Season with 3/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste. Cover and bring to a boil; cook for 15 minutes.
Stir in the potatoes, cover and reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Continue to cook, at a bare simmer, for 20 minutes, until the potatoes are just tender. During the last 10 minutes, remove the pork (keep it warm) and stir in the eggplant and zucchini. When the vegetables are tender, strain them and add them to the pork. Discard the bay leaf, parsley sprig, thyme sprig and cloves.
Bring the sauce to a simmer and gently rain in the ground rice, whisking until it’s fully incorporated with no lumps. Simmer the sauce until the rice is cooked and the sauce is thickened, about 5 minutes. Add the lime juice and the remaining oil, and season with 1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste. Pour the sauce over the meat and vegetables and serve immediately.
Total time: 1 hour, 20 minutes plus marinating time
Yield: 6 servings
Approximate nutrition per serving: 429 calories, 24 grams fat (6 grams saturated), 28 grams protein, 26 grams carbohydrate, 6 grams dietary fiber, 80 milligrams cholesterol, 411 milligrams sodium.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Spokane7 email newsletter
Get the day’s top entertainment headlines delivered to your inbox every morning.