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Season of the Mix: It's an Herbal, Spicy Age

October 19, 1995|BY LUCY BARAJIKIAN

Cooks today face a mind-bending array of herb and spice blends--fragrant combinations that evoke everything from a night in Marrakesh to mom's apple pie.

The old-time American standbys--poultry seasoning, pickling spice, garlic salt, lemon pepper, apple and pumpkin pie spice blends, beau monde , Italian herb blend and chili powder (yes, this, too, is a blend; pick up a bottle and read the label)--are almost eclipsed by the new arrivals: Cajun, Thai, Greek, Chinese, Mexican and Bavarian-style seasonings.

And there are seasonings for beef stroganoff, Swedish meatballs, tacos, fajitas, stir-fry chicken, and much more. All are designed to help re-create exotic flavors in a flash.

Certainly, there is nothing new about this. Herb and spice blends have been used almost forever in cuisines all over the world.

The Chinese use five-spice powder, a holdover from days when spices were used as medicine as well as in cooking. The number five had symbolic power and ensured the effectiveness of the medicine. This popular mix, consisting of fennel, cinnamon, cloves, star anise and Sichuan pepper, might also have additions of licorice root and ginger as well. It is used sparingly for seasoning meats and poultry that are to be roasted or broiled.

In Japan--one of the most spice-free cuisines in the world--cooks rely mostly on wasabi powder, dried chiles, mustard powder and sansho , a Sichuan-type of peppercorn, to season food. Yet, the Japanese, too, have a spice blend called shichimi , or seven spices, or more accurately, seven flavors. It's comprised of sesame and black hemp seeds, bits of seaweed, chile pepper, orange peel, poppy seeds and sansho . It's not a winning mixture visually. Some people liken it to the stuff one finds on the bottom of bird cages.

The Middle East uses zaatar, a delicious mixture of two parts thyme, one part sumac, one part sesame seeds and a little salt. Served with a high-quality olive oil and flat Arab bread, it is a popular breakfast throughout the Middle East. Or it can also be used as a seasoning for kebabs, dips or fried eggs.

The most complex spice blend is undoubtedly the Moroccan ras el hanout , used to flavor game, lamb, stuffings and other dishes. Among its 50-some (no, this is not a typo) ingredients are cardamom, cloves, turmeric, peppercorns and other common seasonings, along with orrisroot, rosebuds and lavender.

ITALIAN HERB MIXTURE

From "Herbs," by the Herb Society to Greater Cincinnati (Pelican Publishing Co).

3 tablespoons dried leaf oregano

3 tablespoons dried leaf marjoram

1 tablespoon dried leaf thyme

3 tablespoons dried leaf savory

3 tablespoons dried leaf basil

3 tablespoons dried rosemary, crumbled

1 tablespoon dried sage

Combine oregano, marjoram, thyme, savory, basil, rosemary and sage. Keep in tightly closed container. Use for meatballs, salad dressings, eggplant dishes, sauteed chicken and veal.

Makes 1 cup.

CHINESE FIVE SPICE

2 tablespoons fennel seeds

2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

2 tablespoons whole peppercorns

6 whole star anise

2 tablespoons whole cloves

Grind fennel, cinnamon, peppercorns, star anise and cloves in blender or spice grinder. Use to season meats and poultry to be roasted or broiled, and in salad dressings and sauces.

Makes about 1 cup.

HOT CURRY POWDER Adapted from "The Von Welanetz Guide to Ethnic Ingredients," by Diana and Paul Von Welanetz (Warner Books).

1/4 cup coriander seeds

1 tablespoon cumin seeds

1 tablespoon shelled cardamom seeds

1 1/2 teaspoons fenugreek seeds

2 1/2 tablespoons black peppercorns

1 1/2 teaspoons whole cloves

1 1/2 teaspoons ground mace

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1/4 cup ground turmeric

3/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

In heavy pan over low heat, toast coriander, cumin, cardamom, fenugreek, black pepper, cloves, mace, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger and cayenne, stirring often, until spices have darkened in color slightlyand are aromatic, about 5 minutes or so. Remove from pan and let cool. Coarsely grind and transfer to container for storage.

Makes about 3/4 cup.

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