Q&A with Spice Girl Monica Bhide

This baking-centric season is the ideal time to replace past-their-prime spices with potent, aromatic new ones. (It’s also a good time to double-check your leaveners.) There’s no one better to ask about spices than Monica Bhide. She writes the A Life of Spice of Life blog, authored Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen (Simon & Schuster) among other cookbooks, and just released the iSpice iPhone and iPad app.

Is it really better to buy spices whole and grind them yourself?

I know I sound like a broken record when I tell people to buy most of their spices whole, but here’s the reason: As soon as you grind them, the flavors begin to soften and eventually will go away. Whole spices preserve their flavor longer and, honestly, there is no taste quite like, say, freshly ground rich coriander seeds. You can buy ground spices in a bind but, it’s a better investment to buy them whole and grind them as needed.

There are some exceptions, like turmeric, which I buy pre-ground. And with cinnamon, I buy both the stick and pre-ground cinnamon since it’s one of those ingredients that’s hard to grind well at home. If you’re going to buy ground spices, buy them in small quantities so you use them faster and they don’t sit around forever on your shelf.

What’s the best way to grind spices?

If the quantity is really small and you don’t mind using some elbow grease, then I say mortar and pestle. If not, you can use an [electric] grinder. I have a small grinder that I just keep for spices.

Also, one important note: I don’t grind a spice every time I make a recipe. I usually grind enough for a week at a time. That gives me the freshness without having to bring a grinder out each time I cook.

How should I store spices?

Away from heat and direct light. A cool, dark cabinet is fine.

How do I know when it’s time to replace them?

I have the Thanksgiving rule. Each thanksgiving I take out all my spices. I smell them first, if they have no aroma, they go in the trash (with the exception of cayenne–don’t stick your nose in that!). Also, if spices have been lying around for more than two years and I haven’t used them, out they go. [Editor’s note: Yes, Thanksgiving has come and gone, but if you’re like me, you probably haven’t gotten around to doing this yet. It’s not too late.]

What are some tips to enhance a spice‘s flavor?

First, always use fresh spices–spices that have an aroma, that haven’t been sitting on the shelf since Kennedy was president!

You can dry roast them: Heat a griddle on medium heat, add your spices and keep stirring them until they emit their fragrance. This often happens in seconds, so stay attentive! Burned spices smell bad and there is no way to save them. If they burn, in the trash they go.

Another option is to sizzle spices in hot oil. My personal preference is to use a neutral-flavored oil (such as canola) so the spices can do their magic, but there are many folks who like to cook their spices in say, olive oil. While there is no harm in doing so, why waste a good spice and a good oil? Good olive oil has so much flavor on its own, as do good spices.

How can I experiment with a spice that’s new to me?

Heat some butter and add the new spice in it. Let it simmer for a minute or so in warm butter and then strain it [reserving the butter]. Now, take a small portion of your prepared dish and drizzle this flavored butter on it and see what happens to the taste of the dish. I do this all the time and have created allspice-flavored oatmeal and many other interesting combinations!

How can I spice up my holiday cooking with alternatives to traditional flavors like ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg or allspice?

I’d recommend adding two spices to your holiday cooking: green cardamom and saffron.They are both diva spices! They give amazing flavor when handled with care. Crush the green cardamom and use the skin and the seeds to flavor cakes, cookies, soups, breads, muffins and more. For saffron, dissolve a few strands in warm milk or water and use it to flavor your breads, rice dishes, muffins, tea, French toast, pancakes. The possibilities are endless and the flavors very rewarding.


Monica’s Saffron Cardamom Coconut Macaroons

Cardamom Gingersnap Cookies

Build a Healthy Pantry

Let’s be honest. Come 5:30, how many of us throw open the fridge and hope something will shout, “I’M YOUR DINNER!”? Then, disheartened, we close the door and resort to pizza or take-out or Lean Cuisine . . . again. Having a well-stocked pantry can help you break that cycle by giving you the ability to transform whatever looks back at you from the fridge into a wholesome, home-cooked meal. Here’s how to build a pantry to nourish a healthier you.

pantry-postCooking oils. No matter whether it’s a head of broccoli or leftover chicken thighs in the fridge, a drizzle of oil in a hot sauté pan can transform it into something magnificent. Choose healthy oils like extra-virgin olive oil, expeller-pressed canola oil and peanut oil as your basics. Others, like walnut and toasted sesame oil, are great as finishing oils for adding depth of flavor.

A variety of vinegars. It may sound extravagant, but I heartily advocate for a half-dozen vinegars in your pantry. Sure it’s an investment initially, but the shelf-life of vinegar (unlike oils) is virtually infinite. My ideal spread includes good white and red wine vinegar, Champagne vinegar, balsamic vinegar, cider vinegar and sherry vinegar. You’ll be amazed how the variety zips up your vinaigrettes (and your desire to make homemade dressing). And don’t be afraid to use them in sauces or even as a braising liquid.

Whole grains and dried beans and legumes. Wholesome, quick-cooking starches like whole grain pasta and couscous, bulgur and farro make a substantial base for a variety of dishes in under half an hour. Dried beans can be soaked and cooked in about the same time using a pressure cooker, and many legumes, like lentils, cook in about 20 minutes on the stove top.

Canned beans and veggies. These are your secret weapon for rounding out a meal. Whip up a quick pasta sauce with diced tomatoes, turn a simple sauté into a hearty dish with canned beans, add a splash of coconut milk to a stir-fry to keep it from becoming ho-hum.

Stock. I go through about a quart of stock a week. I use it to deglaze sautés and stir-fries, I use it to stretch oil-based pasta sauces, I use it to braise anything from chicken to endive, and as a base for quick soups. I find having chicken, beef and mushroom stock (for vegetarian options, I prefer mushroom stock over vegetable stock, which can taste like smushed carrots to me) on hand leaves me well-prepared for whatever the fridge presents.

Basic aromatics. If you eschew the Champagne vinegar, fine. If you skip on the bulgur or mushroom stock, that’s OK. But don’t let your pantry go without at least one head of garlic, one onion and shallot, and a knob of fresh ginger at all times. Those are like the primary colors of your pantry palette.

Spices. If the aromatics are your primary colors, spices are the rest of the rainbow. Yes, grinding (and oftentimes toasting) your own spices is preferable to shaking them out of a jar, but in all honesty, I don’t do that unless I have an abundance of time. Instead, I rely on small jars (so they stay fresh) of basic spices like cumin, coriander, cayenne (I noticed when I was organizing my spices recently that a disproportionate number start with C . . . hmmm), chile flakes, cinnamon, curry powder, bay leaves, fennel seeds (which I do take time to crush in my mortar and pestle), nutmeg and oregano. If you want to expand a bit further you could include cardamom (like a heady, perfumed cinnamon), juniper berries (great with duck and pork), turmeric, fennel powder, five-spice, allspice and star anise. Beyond that there are a slew of other spices and mixes, like various chile powders, sumac and zaatar. As a general rule, if a spice smells musty or dusty, toss it.

Salt. I’m a sucker for salt. It may sound simplistic, but having a medium-grained crystal salt (like kosher salt) to cook with and a separate, coarser salt to sprinkle on almost as a condiment has changed everything in my kitchen. And I continue to learn about how different finishing salts—red Hawaiian, black Cyprus, pink Brittany—each have a distinct flavor and texture that can be used to enhance a dish. If your market carries various salts in bulk (which, pinch me, mine just started doing), I encourage you try a few. At the very least, stock kosher salt and a simple finishing salt like Maldon.

Nuts. Nuts, like beans, are another one of those satisfying, protein and fiber-packed add-ons. I like to keep peanuts, walnuts and pecans on hand, which can span from stir-fries to salads.

And . . . A few other also-nices are a jar of raw, unfiltered honey (a staple in many of our vinaigrettes); dried chiles and mushrooms; and a variety of cooking wines like dry red and white, marsala, mirin (sweet rice wine), sake and Shaoxing rice wine.