Spice It Up

By Chandra Orr

August 3, 2011 6 min read

If you're not tapping into the hottest trends in spices -- think za'atar, ras el hanout, saffron and sumac -- then you're missing out on a lot of flavor.

You may not have heard of them -- heck, you may not even be able to pronounce them -- but they have the culinary world abuzz. Gourmet chefs and influential foodies are taking taste buds on a world tour with these exotic flavors from far-off lands.

If it's time to update the spice rack, check your local grocery and specialty shops for these modern kitchen must-haves:

*Za'atar

What it is: a Middle Eastern blend of dried thyme, oregano, marjoram, toasted sesame seed, salt, savory, cumin, coriander and olive oil.

Tastes great in: vegetables, meats and dressings. Mix with hummus, olive oil and tahini for an authentic Middle Eastern dip. If your taste buds crave something a bit more exotic, use it in lieu of tomato sauce for a truly unique pizza.

Pro tip: A little goes a long way, so use sparingly. "Za'atar is something adventurous and easy to incorporate to home cooking, but start out slowly," says personal chef Stephanie Heller, Le Cordon Bleu graduate and founder of Ripe Personal Chef Services. "It can seem as if you didn't use enough. Then it might overwhelm you. Add a sprinkle, and go from there."

*Ras el Hanout

What it is: a Moroccan blend of 15 to 30 spices. Loosely translated, ras el hanout means "top of the shop," or the very best spice blend a merchant has to offer. Each blend is different, but the mix typically includes cumin, coriander, paprika, ginger, turmeric, black pepper, cardamom, clove, rosebuds, nutmeg and saffron.

Tastes great in: spiced couscous and chicken or lamb tagines. To make spiced couscous, add a half-teaspoon of ras el hanout per cup of cooked pasta. The spice blend gives this Middle Eastern staple a delightful aroma, while the saffron imparts a golden yellow color.

Pro tip: "It is the quintessential Moroccan spice mix," says Ian Hemphill, author of "The Spice and Herb Bible." "Whether making tagines or spicing couscous, you cannot beat the complex yet fragrant aroma and taste. Ras el hanout also makes an excellent rub. Simply add a little salt and sprinkle onto chicken and fish before broiling, roasting or barbecuing."

*Saffron Threads

What it is: Saffron filaments are the dried red stigmas and the white style of crocus flowers. The flavor is complex, with woody, aromatic undertones and a touch of sweetness.

Tastes great in: yellow rice, stews, sautes and paella, the traditional one-pot Spanish dish of chicken, shrimp, clams and rice.

Pro tip: "For some recipes, I make a saffron infusion -- essentially saffron tea," says chef Tim Harlan, author of "Just Tell Me What to Eat!" "Letting the threads steep results in a more powerful, aromatic saffron flavor, especially when used in quick saute recipes."

To make the infusion, place 10 saffron threads in a glass measuring cup, and add a quarter-cup of boiling water. Steep for 20 minutes.

*Sumac

What it is: This Middle Eastern staple has a tangy, fruity flavor. The deep red powder comes from grinding the berries of the sumac tree -- not to be confused with poison sumac.

Tastes great in: rice, kebabs and hummus. Sprinkle on meat before cooking, or add a dash to salads.

Pro tip: Sumac is a versatile spice, so don't be afraid to experiment. "I love sumac for the same reason that I cannot cook without citrus. It intensifies flavors," says Patricia Mote, author of "Great Menus: Seasonal Recipes for Entertaining." "I just made a cucumber summer soup with yogurt and sprinkled sumac on top. Delicious."

*Smoked Paprika

What it is: traditional paprika that has been smoked over oak for a flavor boost. It adds a pretty red color and a bold, smoky taste.

Tastes great in: macaroni and cheese, omelets, cheese soups and barbecued meats.

Pro tip: "Smoked paprika is more than a spice; you can use it as you would a condiment. I like to keep a bottle on the table with the salt and pepper to use on anything that would benefit from a little burst of smoky flavor," says Diane McElroy, consumer affairs manager for ACH Food Companies Inc., makers of the Spice Islands Trading Co. brand of spices. "I especially like to recommend it for folks who are watching their salt intake. The flavor from the smoke really helps replace the salt you might usually use."

*Recipes

SMOKED PAPRIKA BUTTER

1/2 cup butter, softened

1/2 teaspoon Spice Islands paprika, smoked

1/4 teaspoon Spice Islands thyme

1/8 teaspoon Spice Islands garlic powder

Combine ingredients in a small mixing bowl. Mix well to blend spices evenly. Chill if desired. Serve with warm rolls or atop grilled steaks. Melted seasoned butter is excellent drizzled over tilapia, sea bass or mahi-mahi, or use as a dipping sauce for grilled shrimp. Makes 1/2 cup.

(Recipe from Spice Islands Trading Co., a division of ACH Food Companies Inc.)

TABBOULEH WITH SUMAC

Servings: 6-8

1/2 cup bulgur

1 cup tomato juice

4 bunches flat-leaf parsley, stemmed and chopped

3 bunches mint, stemmed and chopped

1 bunch spring onions, diced

2 large cucumbers, peeled, seeded and diced

1/2 cup olive oil

1/2 cup lemon juice

1 tablespoon cumin

Salt and pepper

1 large tomato, chopped

Large dash sumac

Mix wheat, and soften with tomato juice. Let sit for 30 minutes. Mix parsley, mint, spring onions, cucumbers, olive oil, lemon juice, cumin, salt, pepper and tomato. Sprinkle with sumac.

(Recipe from Patricia Mote's "Great Menus: Seasonal Recipes for Entertaining," Dicmar Publishing, 2011)

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