Tuesday, April 13, 2004

With a touch of spice, the simplest ingredient goes global. You can tour the world in your own back yard with the help of Chinese five-spice powder, Indian garam masala, Cajun seasoning and many more spice combinations.

There are dozens, even hundreds, of possibilities, many of them now available locally. Spices suit the heat, and it’s no accident that every tropical nation has a characteristic dry spice mix, often called a rub.

Making your own rub is fun, and the result is far better than a commercial mix, which may be stale. The sensory impact of freshly ground spices is astonishing, and a dry rub lasts several months in an airtight container, losing its punch only gradually.

For grinding, traditional cooks use a mortar and pestle, but as far as I’m concerned, electricity has taken over. To pulverize spices for garam masala, the basic seasoning mixture for northern Indian meat and rice dishes, I use my electric coffee grinder (and the exotic tinge given to the next brew of coffee takes everyone by surprise).

Garam masala is an excellent rub for poultry, as well as other meats. Use it to spice steaks and lamb chops for the grill, or roll chicken breasts or a whole bird in it before roasting. The term “stew meat” takes on new meaning when tossed in masala before cooking.

Garam masala: In an electric coffee grinder, combine a cinnamon stick, broken in pieces; 1 bay leaf; 1 tablespoon cumin seeds; 1 tablespoon coriander seeds; 2 teaspoons black peppercorns; 3 whole cloves; the seeds from 6 cardamom pods; and 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg. Grind to a fine powder. Makes about cup, enough for 2 large chickens or 3 pounds stew beef or lamb.

Cajun seasoning is the main element of the famous New Orleans blackened fish, and it’s great for grilled vegetables, too. Dip cut surfaces of the fish or vegetables in spice, patting dry with your hands to obtain an even coating. As with all spice mixes, there are many versions. Here’s mine:

Cajun seasoning: In a coffee grinder, mix a tablespoon of fresh thyme leaves and a teaspoon each of paprika, fennel seed, cumin seed, black peppercorns, mustard seeds and sea or kosher salt with a pinch or more of cayenne pepper (to taste). Work to a powder. Makes about cup, enough for 1 pounds fish fillets.

To moisten a rub and turn it into a spicy paste, I add garlic, fresh ginger root and vegetable oil. A paste can be spread on food more generously, and it sticks better than a dry rub, but it can be kept only about a week in the refrigerator. Use a moist rub when grilling meats, poultry and robust fish such as tuna. Pork, lamb and chicken rubbed with this paste are especially good grilled and served cold.

Spicy garlic paste: In a small food processor, combine 20 garlic cloves, cut in pieces; 2 tablespoons garam masala or Cajun seasoning; and 1 tablespoon sea or kosher salt. Add cup olive oil, and puree the mixture to a paste. Spread the paste on meat or chicken, and chill it 1 to 2 hours. Scrape off the paste before grilling. Enough for 1 chicken, 1 leg of lamb or 6 pork chops.

For fish, such as swordfish, and vegetables, such as eggplant, that dry out on the grill, it’s hard to beat vinaigrette as a moist marinade and basting sauce.

Basic vinaigrette is a combination of just four ingredients: oil (my favorite is olive oil), vinegar, salt and pepper, but then the fun begins.

The vinegar can be red wine, white wine or sherry. It can have balsamic sweetness or the fragrance of fruit. It can be replaced altogether by another acid, such as citrus juice, particularly the tropical favorite lime.

When a rub is mixed with vinaigrette dressing, it becomes a delicious, spicy sauce, wonderful with grilled vegetables.

The following Italian version is good with radicchio, treviso and any of the slightly bitter relatives of the endive family. Serve grilled radicchio on its own as an appetizer or as a delicious accompaniment to grilled chicken and fish.

Spicy grilled radicchio: Light the grill. Trim 1 pound radicchio, discarding any wilted outer leaves and leaving enough stem to hold the leaves together.

Cut heads in quarters. In a bowl, mix together cup olive oil; teaspoon each of salt, ground coriander and ground cumin; and teaspoon each of ground black pepper and ground red chili pepper.

Brush the radicchio generously all over with spiced oil. Brush the grill rack with oil and set the radicchio on it about 3 inches from the heat. Grill radicchio until slightly charred, 3 to 5 minutes, brushing occasionally with more oil. Turn and brown the remaining sides until tender but still firm when poked with a knife, 5 to 7 minutes longer. Serves 3 to 4.

In Texas, seven time zones away from Italy, barbecue cooks follow the same spicy principles. This “quail in a basket” is to be savored with a large margarita.

Quail in a basket: Light the grill or preheat the broiler. Cut the backbone from 8 quail, flatten them, and thread them on skewers. In a small bowl, whisk together cup olive oil, 3 tablespoons lemon juice, 1 teaspoon cracked black pepper and to 1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes. Brush sauce on quail, and sprinkle it with a little sea salt.

Set the birds on an oiled rack 2 to 3 inches from the heat. Grill or broil them, breast toward the heat, 5 to 6 minutes until brown and lightly charred. Turn and brown the other side 3 to 8 minutes, depending on plumpness of the quail. Poke a breast with the point of a knife; it should remain juicy and slightly pink. Serve the quail to 4 in a basket lined with a paper napkin.

On the opposite side of the world, in Indonesia, chicken breast is cut in strips to make satay, skewered as kebabs and soaked in a fragrant marinade that is lively with lime. Satay should come with a spicy peanut sauce you can find in jars on supermarket shelves.

You can make small appetizer-size skewers or larger ones to serve as a main course. A pilaf of fragrant basmati rice is the ideal accompaniment.

Chicken satay: Soak 6 large or 12 small wooden skewers in water. Trim 1 pounds skinless, boneless chicken breast in strips about -inch wide (length does not matter). Drain skewers, and thread chicken strips on them. Lay them in a shallow dish. In a bowl, mix 2 chopped stems of lemon grass or 2 chopped shallots, 2 chopped garlic cloves, 1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger root, 2 teaspoons five-spice powder, 2 tablespoons soy sauce, 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, and 1 tablespoon honey.

Pour marinade over the skewers, then cover and refrigerate 1 to 3 hours. Light the grill or preheat the broiler. Grill or broil kebabs, about 3 inches from the heat, until brown, 2 to 3 minutes.

Turn and brown the other side. Serve with peanut sauce to 6.

Our global tour comes to a rich spicy sauce from the Republic of Georgia, where walnuts flourish. Enjoy satsivi hot or cold with chicken, fish or vegetables.

For extra flavor, you may want to slice the main ingredients after cooking and leave them to marinate in the sauce for an hour or two before serving. Saffron adds color as well as fragrance to the sauce.

Georgian walnut sauce (satsivi): In a food processor, combine 1 cup walnut pieces, 3 peeled garlic cloves, 1 teaspoons ground coriander seed, 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, teaspoon ground cloves, teaspoon ground fenugreek or aniseed, a pinch of saffron infused for 15 minutes in 1 tablespoon boiling water, 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, salt and pepper.

Puree until smooth and thick. Work in about 1 cup warm water to make a sauce that’s thin enough to pour. Taste and adjust seasoning, including spices. Makes 2 cups sauce.


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