The Day Herbs and Spices Changed My Life

I’ll never forget the day that herbs and spices changed my life. I found a new best friend!

It was a hot summer day and my husband and I had taken the Salem Ferry into Boston to go to the New England Aquarium. After seeing all of our fishy friends, we headed to the Quincy Market Place and ended up in Haymarket. Haymarket is an outdoor farmer’s market that has been part of Boston’s charm forever!

Wandering through the food stalls, we came across this nice man with great smile and a wooden box bagged spices and filled with colorful bags of spices! It was beautiful! It smelled so good, how could we not stop? There were some I’d never heard of and I was so excited! I ended up buying almost one of every kind of spice he had. They were $1.00 a bag! this was around15 years ago. I really didn’t know where I was going with this! I was so intrigued and over time, and a lot of thought, mixed with experimentation, I find myself here.

By the time I was up to $20.00, the man threw in 2 bags for free! I thought I’d died and gone to heaven! What a nice gesture! I stuffed all these bags of delight in my pocketbook and we headed back to the boat. On the way back, I spread out all my bags on a table and we smelled and tasted our way home.

I was familiar with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, caraway, oregano, basil, sage, thyme, but this is where I discovered turmeric, cumin, aniseed, fennel, cardamom, coriander, sumac, curry etc. so this opened up a whole new world of cooking to me!

My husband also discovered his new favorite spice, Black Onion Seeds, or Kalonji or Nigella Seed.

nigellaHe uses it on almost every type of meat he grills. As a matter of fact, Nigella seed is one spice in an Indian blend called Panch Phoron, that makes a yummy vegetarian curry dish with cauliflower. One of my favorites.

The bags of spices had the name written in magic marker on each bag. There were a few spice mixes that were new to me.

Spice Cabinet

This was the start of my new spice cabinet.

Since then it’s grown, but I started researching what I could do with all of these exotic spices I had just purchased.

I read cookbooks, added more to my collection, made my family guinea pigs and totally fell in love with spices. Most of the spices I found to be components in Middle Eastern spice blends.

I had never eaten Moroccan, African or Lebanese dishes before, and I found out that these cuisines are awesome! So flavorful, and come to find out, healthy too!

The recipes may seem redundant, because they call for similar spices, but by mixing in different amounts and making one particular spice the star, the flavors come out so different.

I started to try recipes, and as I went along, I tweeked them, because that ‘s what I do!

spice routes
Ancient Spice Route

This is where Spice It YOUR Way was born!

I plan on starting my journey along the ancient spice route  exploring and indulging in these exotic flavors of the world. Everything will be explained here as I go along. I hope to educate everyone and have fun while we discover all the tastes of the world! Let’s start exploring………….

Since I’ve begun in the Middle East, we’ll start there. If we were to begin in China, it’s about three quarters of the way through, so we’ll just loop around. This is going to be so much fun!

One spice mix that I had purchased was Za’atar, and this is where I started. It was recommended to me by the salesman at the spice stand. He handed the bag to me and said I had to try it. I had no idea what to do with it. I had no idea what was in it, so I started searching around. What I found was that this is one of the most popular, and well-known blends throughout the Middle East!

Just looking at what was in the bag, I could see that it had sesame seeds, green dried herb, salt and something red. It wasn’t hot peppers, it was sweeter. Come to find out, it was Sumac. Little did I know that the weeds growing on the edge of my property were actually edible! Za’atar is a mixture of freshly ground sumac berries, earthy herbs, toasted sesame seeds and salt.

Sumac is tangy and sweet. It really rounded out the flavors of the herbs. The sesame seeds gave it a textural chew.

We tried  Za’atar:Za'atar

I stayed simple and sprinkled it generously over pita bread brushed with olive oil. I baked it at 350F until hot and crispy, cut it into wedges and dunked it in fresh made hummus sprinkled with the Za’atar as well. It was delicious! For me, the spice that stood out most was the sumac. I had also bought a bag of just sumac, the color intrigued me. So this is what you do with it!!! This was a good place to start!

To make a more substantial meal, I coated chicken with olive oil, sprinkled it with Za’atar and grilled it. It was just the beginning. Since I love spicing everything my way, I now make this into one of my DIY blends, which is so much more dollar friendly! Now, one of my favorite summer lunches is grilled chicken (really good with the Savory Hawaij seasoning), warmed pita with Za’atar and olive oil and hummus. A small salad on the side rounds it out. Serve with Moroccan Mint Iced Tea. WOW! you can invite friends too! Talk about traveling for free! Almost.
middle eastern chicken dish

Other uses for Za’atar: add to a salad dressing, liven up roasted vegetables, sprinkle on deviled eggs, use in place of garlic for “Za’atar Bread”. Smear hummus sprinkled with Za’atar on toast, add sliced veges’s and you got a quick, tasty, high protein breakfast or lunch.

This is how I develop recipes.

I research them, I make and try it according to the recipe, and then I tweek it to taste the way I like it to taste! I get ideas from cookbooks and then develop something completely different by what I think sounds good! Following are a few Middle Eastern Spice Blends that I have tried.

Going from there, we will touch on some flavor blends and take them to different recipes on this great spice journey!

First, we have Za’atar which I just spoke about.

Next, the king of all blends, Baharat is a staple in Turkish kitchens. Baharat means “spices” in Arabic.

Fusion Baharat Chicken and Ravioli
Fusion Baharat Chicken and Ravioli

You can use Baharat in everything from soup to seafood. Try my Fusion Baharat Chicken Stew.

Ras El Hanout is the golden blend and merchants in Morocco pride themselves in their own Ras ElHanout blends. They usually use the best spices they have to create this heavenly blend.

Hawaij (Pronounced “hu-why-adge,”) is so versitile. It is a spice blend from Yemen. This one is quickly becoming one of my favorites.

Hawaij can be made two ways. Sweet or savory. The sweet blend is most commonly added to coffee, why not try it

Hawaij Snickerdoodlessprinkled on hot cocoa too? But I like it mixed with sugar and sprinkled on buttered toast. It’s great for a snack at tea time. I make mine with less ginger and more cinnamon. Again, spice it YOUR Way! Use as a streusel in coffee cake and quick breads. Savory Hawaij is yummy sprinkled on chicken before you roast or grill it. Also delicious added to soups, stews, curry dishes, rice and vegetable dishes.

Food for thought, I  substituted sweet hawaij mixed with sugar as my snickerdoodle sugar on my favorite cookie. It was snowing and seemed like the thing to do. They came out delicious!

Berbere is the famous spice mix of Ethiopia. It is complex in flavor as it is both spicy and smoky. This spice mix is used in dips, stews, and as a rub for meats.

Stay tuned, as we will be adding recipes that I develop using these and more spice blends. My recipes will fit into any hectic lifestyle, welcome to my world! I love soups and quick breads, and always family friendly one-dish meals that are not only delicious, but will have your family and friends coming back for more!

Please leave comments, I am learning along with the rest of us and I share what I find! If you know of a spice mixture, or just one spice that you are fond of, please let me know, I’d love to try it!

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