The Arab Spring of the spice world is upon us. My favorite food trend for 2012 is the gentle invasion of American pantries by old world spices. Vying for the attention that all good spices deserve are Sumac, Za'atar, and Harissa (all of which, by the way, would make great pet names).
Find out what to do with these spices in the kitchen after the jump.
I enjoy shocking the occasional cooking class by suggesting that we add sumac to a sauce that's a little flat. Odds are that a fair percentage of the class will think sumac is synonymous with poison. It is, and then again it isn't. The sumac I keep on my spice rack is a dark burgundy-maroon powder that people have safely used to season food for centuries. It has a tart flavor, akin to lemon. Use sumac to flavor meat, fish, rice, and perk up sauces. It also looks great sprinkled on top of food as tasty, tangy garnish.
Za'atar is a spice blend. It almost always contains sumac, thyme, sesame seeds, and salt. It may also contain marjoram and/or oregano. It's available at middle-eastern grocery stores, but you can also make your own blend, or mine. Lately, I've been adding a tablespoon or two of za'atar to my pizza dough; especially when I'm making white pizzas. Finely ground za'atar and is a nice rub for fish or chicken. It also perks up tomato-based sauces.
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Harissa is to Morocco what hot sauce is to Mexico. Everyone's mother has her own recipe, but each is recognizable as a spicy red paste that adds zip to everything from cous cous to soup. The spiciness depends on the kind of chilies you use. If you're an anthropological cook, and insist on using traditional ingredients you'll use fiery African birdseye chilies. On the other hand, my harissa recipe uses a blend of more moderate chilies because I want more than heat from my harissa. I want the medley of flavors that a few tablespoons of medium-hot harissa adds to a soup or sauce. I want to spread some harissa on my pita, but I don't want it to overpower the falafel.
Spices and spice blends are the accessories of the food world. It's amazing how good your old recipes taste when you adorn them in a whole new way.
Andy Broder is the chef/owner of AndyFood, A Culinary Studio.