Cooks have been wielding spices for centuries, from preserving foods with them to masking smells and flavors in meats that were less than fresh. Almost every culture eventually developed distinct conventions, from the fiery curries of India to paprika-permeated goulash in Hungary.
At Elisabeth Daniel restaurant in San Francisco, chef-owner Daniel Patterson imports a tradition from Morocco: ras-el-hanout, or "top of the shop." Each spice shop there custom-mixes up to 125 spices for vegetables, poultry, and meats. Patterson coats lamb with a Moroccan ras-el-hanout blend for complex, fascinating flavors. "But using spices does not have to be difficult or exotic," says Patterson. He offers tips, and a simple rub for lamb, to make vibrant spices an easy custom in your kitchen.
Buy spices whole and grind them as you need them, since they deteriorate quickly once ground.
Smell bulk spices ― they should be fresh and aromatic.
Toast spices before using them: either heat in a pan in a 300° oven, stirring occasionally, or stir in a frying pan over medium heat, until aromatic.
Grind spices with a mortar and pestle or in an electric grinder. A coffee grinder works well; just make sure you have one for spices, another for coffee.
Make sure the container is sealed if you're buying a premade blend, such as curry powder; exposure to air degrades aroma and flavor.
Intensify a primary flavor: dust roasted fennel with ground fennel seeds.
Add a new dimension: cook carrots with cumin seeds; sprinkle beets with ground anise seeds; add a pinch of saffron threads to sautéed onions.
Make an everyday dish exotic: Season chicken with Thai curry or garam masala, an Indian mixture similar to curry.
Fresh-ground cumin and coriander seeds add a burst of flavor to lamb loin chops.