Notes from the Field
What do you do when one of Seattle’s premier cheese makers needs a hundred pounds of ground black pepper? Or how about when everybody’s favorite artisan salami shop needs twenty pounds of fennel cracked to just the right size?
Last week I talked about some options for grinding spices at home, but grinding the amount of spice some of our commercial clients use with a small blade grinder or a hand cranked burr grinder would take ages! Down at the World Spice Professional Division we’re just as committed to providing fresh, ground-to-order spices as our counterparts at the World Spice retail store, so we’ve come up with the perfect solution: a re-purposed espresso grinder. By using a high quality, Ditting brand, Swiss, espresso grinder, we have the ability to precisely control the coarseness of our grinds. Using a large mechanical burr grinder like this also allows us to grind large amounts of spice quickly while maintaining a nice even grind.
As you can see in the picture above, just a few months of use begins to wear down the burrs in our machine, requiring near constant resharpening and replacement. By constantly examining the results of grinding a small test run of cumin, we’re able to know just when to ship the burrs back to the factory for professional resharpening to ensure that our clients are getting the highest quality grind around!
How often do we acquire pre-ground black pepper or nearly any other spice for that matter? Never!!
Our store is bustling with spice merchants grinding spices right when folks order them. Why do we keep pure spices and our house-made blends whole until you tell us to grind them? It keeps our spices exceptionally fresh; some especially dedicated spice connoisseurs prefer to grind their spices in their kitchen, right before adding them to their recipe – now that’s fresh! Grinding a spice releases much of it’s great flavor and aroma, but more aroma in the air means less flavor in your food. Grinding spices to order also lets you request a custom grind for certain spices. Need your black pepper extra coarse for a nice steak au poivre? Sure! Need your white pepper really fine so it just disappears into a cream soup? No problem! Want us to crack some fennel for your homemade sausage? You got it!
There are many different ways to grind your spices at home. A mortar and pestle works well for most things if you don’t mind your final product being a little coarse. A special blade grinder works for a finer grind. Some folks even have their coffee grinders pulling double duty. Don’t want your spices to taste like coffee? Easy, simply grind rice or stale bread to clear out the leftover flavors. If, like me, you’ve encountered a couple of groggy mornings making curry coffee you may want to keep a separate grinder for coffee and spices. Our recommendation for a great all purpose grinder is a burr grinder. The burr grinder on the shelves at World Spice Merchants is a great model that’s hand-made right here in the United States. So go ahead and start grinding your own spices at home, there’s a reason those fancy restaurants offer you freshly ground black pepper on your soup or salad – it tastes better freshly ground! If you kitchen is void of a grinder, take advantage of our low purchase minimums and rest assured that all of your spices will be ground to order. Come back for part 2, where I’ll give you a behind the scenes look at how we grind as much as 200 pounds of spice in a day at our professional division.
“Salty” is one of the five basic flavors that the human palate can detect, along with sweet, sour, bitter, and “umami.” A baker might tell you that salt makes “sweet things, sweeter,” but more specifically, salt clarifies all flavors. The human mouth is saline, or salty, to begin with, so in order to begin to taste the more nuanced flavors in our food, the salt level in the food first has to match that in our mouth. The wisest of chefs know that the goal with a sprinkle of this prized mineral is not necessarily to achieve a salty flavor, but to elevate and complement all of the flavors in a dish. Here are a few of our favorite varieties, and what we find to be their best uses!
We love Alderwood Smoked Salt, arguably the most dramatic of our offerings. Fine grains of Pacific sea salt are cold-smoked over locally-harvested alder wood chips to achieve a charcoal grey color, and a distinctive smoky aroma and taste. Shop visitors consistently describe Alderwood Smoked Salt as a “campfire in a jar.” The spice team finds that Alderwood Smoked Salt makes meat dishes somehow “meatier,” and enhances grilled flavors both inside and out. We also love it on heartier vegetables like eggplant and squash.
Murray River Flake Salt is another shop favorite. This flaky, apricot-colored salt is harvested from a dry river bed in Australia. The flakes are delicate, and almost crispy when eaten whole. We love to bake with this salt, as it mostly dissolves easily, but often leaves just a smidge of crystal behind, so one stumbles upon a tiny bit of salt as they make their way through dense banana bread or peanut butter cookie.
Sel de Mer, the aged scotch of salts! This French grey salt is light grey in color, and its medium-sized crystals tend to clump together with its high moisture content. The subtle flavor is deep and earthy, and is right at home atop fish of all kinds. We also prefer it over all others on our caprese salads, for the great contrast in texture between the crisp tomatoes, the creamy mozzarella, and the crunch of the salt, not to mention how well the heartiness of the flavor plays against the sweetness and acidity of the balsamic vinegar.
Black Lava Flake Salt is as delicious as it is visually intense. The pyramid-shaped crystals are black in color, rendered so because of natural charcoal deposits. This salt is best used as a finisher, as all of what makes it unique would be lost once dissolved. We like its assertive flavor sprinkled on slices of fresh cucumber seasoned with a dash of sweetened rice wine vinegar, as well as a whimsical addition to a fresh watermelon and mint salad- the crystals appear to be watermelon seeds at first glance!
As we often remind you, there are no wrong answers in food! (Well, okay, sometimes…) Any of these salts could lend a fun update to a standby dish. Salts are a wonderful way to break in to the world of experimental cooking and seasoning, and make a great gift for both the seasoned (yes, pun intended!) chef, and the novice foodie alike. Happy cooking!
Historically speaking, spices have played a large part in the colonization of the world. Most of us remember from the fourth-grade pageant that Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue at the behest of Isabella and Ferdinand in search of black pepper, and that spices are what prompted Vasco de Gama to sail directly from Europe to India. But what of herbs and spices for the common folk?
Reflective of common concerns of the day, many ancient texts reference the properties of herbs and spices in protecting from the supernatural. Ancient Romans called basil “basiliscus” for its supposed ability to ward off a fearsome, dragon-like creature known as a basilisk, who could kill a person by looking at them. Dill was burned to clear clouds and stop thunder, or hung in bunches by the door to dissuade witches. If one had been struck by a spell, drinking dill water was considered a remedy. Marjoram was also considered a witchcraft inhibitor, while it was believed rosemary under the pillow kept the demons away.
Rosemary was also thought to be a memory enhancer, leading ancient Greek students to weave sprigs in to their hair during exams. Cinnamon was often used by psychics to increase vibrations and psychic awareness, along with lemongrass to increase abilities, and star anise to clear the mind, making it more receptive to visions. Saffron has historically been used to treat depression, while sage was reputed to make those who consumed it smarter.
Herbs and spices are also deeply rooted in romantic tradition. Basil, chamomile, clove, coriander, ginger, junip
Several of us spice merchants could use that rosemary memory enhancer, but for the most part, we find the culinary properties of our spices magical enough! We can’t comment on how effective any one of the above mentioned “treatments” are, but we can tell you that any one of our spices or blends can cure a terribly pervasive and common malady- that of bland food! What ever you use our wares for, though, we hope you do so in good health.
We have an enchanting story to share…it tells the tale about the very special saffron that comes to us from the folks at Fair Trade Morocco.
Fair Trade Morocco is a small importing business founded by Randy Thompson and Felicia Cain. While volunteering with the Peace Corps in Morocco, Felicia and a fellow volunteer met with a local association that was interested in exporting the exquisite saffron grown in the Suktana region of Morocco. Randy and Felicia have collaborated with the saffron association and the community of Taliouine, Suktana, to provide the highest quality, sustainable product to the U.S. market.
The saffron is harvested in October and arrives in our store, not long after, personally delivered by two Peace Corps volunteers. We get giddy over the beautiful, certified organic, aromatic threads. We ooh and ahh, take zillions of photos, talk about saffron laden recipes, inhale the luscious bouquet and carefully place the saffron in 1 gram jars for our customers.
Oh yes, saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. Always has been and probably will always be. Here at the shop, we are often asked about the price of our saffron by the ounce. We normally sell it in smaller quantities, by the gram, and the staff was shocked to realize that it would cost $520 for just one ounce!
The beautiful yellow, orange, and red stigmas from the small purple saffron crocus must be handpicked from the center of the flower, each crocus provides only three stigmas and it takes 14,000 stigmas to yield one ounce of saffron. It can take 40 hours of picking, a full work week, just to pick a couple pounds. Luckily, one gram is more than enough to enjoy this exotic spice.
The golden threads of saffron infuse both an elegant flavor and a golden color into recipes. Saffron is part of the culinary culture in many different regions of the world. In India saffron is an indispensable ingredient in many recipes of rice, sweets and ice-creams. It is also used in Ayurvedic medicine and in religious rituals. In Saudi Arabia, a real Arabic coffee should have saffron and cardamom. In northern Italy and southern Switzerland, saffron is essential in the preparation of a traditional Risotto. In Sweden it is a traditional to bake saffron bread on the day of St. Lucile. Bouillabaisse, a fish stew from Provence in France, is traditionally served with a saffron broth. Finally, in Spain saffron is an indispensable ingredient in such famous dishes as Paella, Fabada or Pote Gallego.
That’s our Saffron Story…..we hope you enjoy both the story and the saffron as much as we do.
Easter can be the time for pastel-dyed confections, day-glo-hued eggs, baskets filled with cheap, plastic toys, waxy chocolate, and dapper-dressed rabbits intent on stuffing you with all of the above… unless you’re World Spice! We’re big believers in featuring the earth’s natural gifts, and with a host of spices and teas to choose from, we decided try our hand at the season’s chosen craft of dyeing eggs. What resulted were beautifully dappled eggs in a rainbow of subtle spicy hues. Below are our favorites, and a bit of our process, too!
The vibrant yellow you see, is of course, from turmeric. The pinkish color is from beet powder, which we expected to make a more intense color, but instead came out as closer to a dusty rose. Hibiscus flower tea made the periwinkle color right in the middle, but combining beet powder and hibiscus made the intense indigo up in the left-hand corner. The hibiscus was so intense that if another of our experiments didn’t work, we soaked them in the hibiscus after, and came up with all sorts of odd colors, some even close to black!
We used white vinegar for our mordant, but you can use cream of tartar, as well. Distilled water works better than tap for dyeing, too. We were less than scientific in our measurements, but a good ratio is two tablespoons of mordant per four cups of water, and about a half cup of dyestuff. Bring mordant and water to a boil with your spice or tea to dye, turn off the heat, and allow the eggs to soak for at least half an hour, but in the fridge as long as overnight for the best results.
To make designs on your spice and tea dyed eggs, you can draw on the shells with beeswax prior to dyeing, or wrap the egg in rubber bands for a fun batik effect. To increase the dappled look, marbleize your egg by adding a drop of oil to the dye liquid. If you prefer a smoother look, strain the dyeing liquid before soaking the eggs. Which ever you do, be sure not to stir or shake up the eggs when they’re soaking, or you’ll disturb the setting of the mordant, and they won’t color as deeply. Happy Easter from the World Spice team!
We never cease to be amazed by the sheer variety of tastes, aromas, and appearances among different spices. Grow the same plant a few countries away and the miracle of different air, water, and soil gives each crop its own unique character. It’s almost as though they have distinct personalities, which rather suits our varied staff, and even our eccentric old building.
For those of you who order from us online and haven’t had the pleasure of visiting us in person, our shop sits in one of Seattle’s older buildings, the venerable Fix Building. Built in 1910, its exposed brick walls and quirky corners invite all sorts of discovery, and it has provided the perfect backdrop for our message of exploration through food.
And, though we love our building and all of its idiosyncrasies, the time for updating is upon us. We’re working on reducing the number of oddly placed stairs and steps and improving the shop’s flow, so those customers who wish to linger and sniff no longer have to be in direct competition with those who need to be in, out, and cooking in under a minute. We’re looking into expanding the staircase to the downstairs, and most excitingly, adding a fully-operational commercial kitchen for spice demonstrations and cooking classes!
Last week, a few spice merchants stayed late in to the evening to tear up our aging carpet, in an exploratory mission to determine what lay underneath. We’ve found plywood subfloor, and LOTS of glue… but a solid surface to begin construction on a shiny new floor. Folks who visit us in the next few months will be ordering their spices in what amounts to a construction zone, though we’ll try to make it as painless as possible for you, and make sure you still have access to every thing you need to make your cuisine unforgettable! We can’t wait to show you our new look and make shopping for spices even more enjoyable than it already is.
By now most bagel lovers in Seattle have discovered Eltana and as an ex-pat from the East Coast, I can tell you it is about time. The perfect crust on their bagels comes from being boiled in honey water and then baked in a wood burning oven; yielding a hint of sweetness with a very light smokiness that is out of this world. Of course, they use our spices in many of their dips, spreads & salads too which always makes for a superior schmear.
With a recent spice delivery, I found Daniel, one of the founders of Eltana, working on something new that was too good not to share. He was making tuna salad using our Kharcho blend. This rare mixture of spices is typically associated with the hearty stews of the former Soviet state Georgia, and its unusual flavor profile often leaves folks wondering what to do with it. When I tasted this Kharcho Tuna Salad, I was sold. This is no ordinary tuna salad. Daniel starts with high grade albacore tuna which is cooked in house before getting mixed with all kinds of delicious goodies, including our Kharcho. I haven’t been able to pry the secret recipe from him yet, but if he does share it, we will pass it along. Until then, we’ll see you at Eltana!
The spice shop is a special place for many of us, staff and customers alike. For two decades we’ve swapped stories of favorite recipes and moments shared, but recently we heard a story that touched us like no other.
Meet Pooja, and her groom-to-be, Sanjay. They first found each other on an online dating site, but when discussing a place to meet in person, Sanjay suggested World Spice. On the 15th of January, 2012 the couple met for the first time right here in our shop, and spent the afternoon sharing stories about spices and favored dishes. For the couples’ second date, Pooja prepared a pumpkin coconut curry and Harissa shrimp, and they realized a mutual love of ethnic foods, and big flavors. “We feel lucky to have found each other,” Pooja told us. Fast forward to February of 2013, and the happy couple is preparing to marry, still eating together, and when their busy schedules allow, cooking meals like grilled Tandoori chicken with roasted onions and peppers, and spicy burgers with sweet potato fries.
Herbs and spices are deeply rooted in romantic tradition. Giving gifts of spices for weddings is still very much alive. In modern times, spices can symbolize a fresh start. Pooja and Sanjay are giving away small tins of Indian Garam Masala to the friends and family who are sharing their special day. Congratulations, Pooja and Sanjay, we wish you a long and happy life together, full of love, spice, passion, and good food!