Gifts from the Kitchen: Homemade Spice Blends Add a Personal Touch to Gift-Giving

Gifts from the Kitchen: Homemade Spice Blends Add a Personal Touch to Gift-GivingThe greatest gift anyone can give me is to do my dirty dishes. I would rather have that than anything material. I would rather have that than a diamond bracelet or an expensive purse or spa treatment or most anything else on earth. – Pioneer Woman, September 2009 

The holidays offer people of all cultures and countries a reason to celebrate, to feast and perhaps most importantly, an occasion to give. In his 1924 essay on The Gift, Marcel Mauss studied the human phenomenon of gifting by analyzing the habits of remote Polynesian tribes. His conclusion was that gifts are a primary source of social exchange that hold particular value in forming and maintaining bonds. Since Mauss’ thoughtful writing, many social scientists have added to the growing body of literature surrounding the simple act of giving.

Gifts can take many forms: an unencumbered (strings-free) present; food (in the form of ingredients, meals, or restaurant tabs); lodging; services; shared experiences; and care or physical aid. One thing is for sure, when gifts are a result of obligation or blind adherence to tradition, the whole process can be depressing. On the other hand, when a gift comes from the heart, because of a profound desire to please, or in an effort to reinforce meaningful relationships, it is a source of pleasure to both the giver and the recipient. This kind of gift seems to be more in line with the purest sense of the meaning of the word ‘gift.’

With gourmet and international food items becoming more commercial and widely available on supermarket shelves, there is more value in the ‘real deal’ of a homemade food gift. Admittedly, homemade gifts are labour-intensive. But that is the point – and part of the gift itself. The fact that we have happily spent precious time making a whole food confection makes it a ‘pure’ gift of the highest value. I usually thumb down to my “Baking Christmas” playlist and lose myself in holiday sounds, traditions and memories, as well as the true sentiment of the season and the peace and joy of a fragrant kitchen. I guess you could say the whole experience is a gift to me, as well – actually a three-way gift – if I have chosen wisely and experience the delight on the face of the giftee.

If you are a part of what Ethan Watters describes as an Urban Tribe, in his 2003 book (Bloomsbury Publishing) by that title, you will be even more driven to find a pure gift: one that resonates with the importance of your friendships…one that money can’t buy.

RECIPES

I have yet to find spice blends for sale anywhere that can match my own for freshness and flavour. When friends ask for a recipe and learn that I have used one of my own spice blends, they always ask me to ‘lend’ them a spoonful so they can get the same result from the recipe. Try some of the recipes here and then try blending your own for a truly unique taste. Get to know some of the more popular spice houses, because they will have the freshest bulk whole spices and that is the key to the intense flavours.

Presentation is important with handmade gifts, and yet so easy with a little thought. Look for small glass jars (coloured are best to preserve the freshness) and make your own labels for them. Be sure to store spices and spice blends in the refrigerator, or a cool dark place for up to two months. Include your favourite recipe or one that you know the giftee loves. Better yet, make their favourite dish and freeze it to use at their convenience. I have given a set of my own spice blends with recipes and a wok to use for cooking the dishes.

Whole Bulk Spices

Spice woks are tiny heavy pans shaped like Chinese woks. They are used to toast whole spices to release their fragrances. In place of a spice wok, a small heavy-bottomed skillet or copper pan may be used to toast spices. (Makes 3/4 cup)

Ingredients:

  • 2 dried cayenne peppers
  • 1 Tbsp whole brown mustard seeds
  • 1 Tbsp whole black peppercorns
  • 1 Tbsp whole allspice berries
  • 1 Tbsp whole fennel seeds
  • 1 tsp whole cloves

1) Using scissors, cut cayenne pepper pods into small pieces. In a small spice wok or dry cast-iron skillet, combine pepper pieces with mustard, peppercorns, allspice, fennel and cloves. Toast over medium-high heat for 2 to 3 minutes or until the seeds begin to pop and their fragrance is released. Let cool.

2) In a mortar (using pestle) or small electric grinder, pound or grind toasted spices until coarse or finely ground.

Masala is the Indian word for a blend of spices. A masala may be hot or sweetly fragrant, ground fine or crushed. It is added at different stages of the cooking process. Garam masala is the most common ground spice blend and is usually added towards the end of the cooking time. This masala is aromatic but not very hot and can be used in small amounts in sweet dishes and beverages. (Makes 1/4 cup)

Ingredients:

  • 1 piece (2 inches/5 cm) cinnamon
  • 2 Tbsp whole cardamom pods
  • 2 Tbsp whole coriander seeds
  • 1 Tbsp whole cumin seeds
  • 2 tsp whole black peppercorns
  • 3 whole cloves
  • 1 whole star anise
  • 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg

1) Break cinnamon into small pieces and separate cardamom seeds from their papery pods. Discard pods. In a small spice wok or dry cast-iron skillet, combine cinnamon and cardamom seeds with coriander, cumin, peppercorns, cloves and star anise. Toast over medium-high heat for 4 to 5 minutes or until the seeds begin to pop and their fragrance is released. Let cool.

2) In a mortar (using pestle) or small electric grinder, pound or grind toasted spices until coarse or finely ground. Add nutmeg to ground spices and mix well.

In Morocco, every stall in the attarine (spice street in the market) has its own Ras el Hanout. The literal meaning is “top of the shop,” and it is the very best the spice merchant has to offer. This is a secret blend of upwards of 25, sometimes 100 different spices, herbs and aphrodisiacs that people search out until they find the one they love best. A mortar and pestle works best to crush and grind the toasted spices, but if necessary, use a spice grinder or small food processor. (Makes 1/3 cup)

Gifts from the Kitchen - Spice BlendsIngredients:

  • 1 Tbsp whole allspice berries
  • 1 Tbsp whole coriander seeds
  • 1 Tbsp whole fennel seeds
  • 1 piece (2 inches/5 cm) cinnamon, broken into pieces
  • 2 tsp whole cardamom seeds
  • 2 tsp whole cumin seeds
  • 2 tsp whole fenugreek seeds
  • 2 tsp whole black peppercorns
  • 3 whole cloves
  • 1 whole star anise
  • 1 Tbsp sea salt
  • 1 Tbsp ground turmeric
  • 1 tsp ground ginger

1) In a small spice wok or dry cast-iron skillet, combine allspice, coriander, fennel, cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, fenugreek, peppercorns, cloves and star anise. Toast over medium-high heat for 4 to 5 minutes or until the seeds begin to pop and their fragrance is released. Let cool.

2) In a mortar (using pestle) or small electric grinder, pound or grind toasted spices until coarse or finely ground. Add salt, turmeric and ginger to ground spices and mix well.

3) Variation: Just before adding to a dish, add one minced garlic clove and 1/4 tsp finely shredded fresh gingerroot for every 1 to 2 Tbsp Ras el Hanout blend.

A creative person could think of all sorts of ways to use this delicious blend of spicy tea in personalized gifts. One would be to combine this chai blend with inexpensive tea accessories found all over Toronto in its Asian markets. The Japanese tea ceremony might be a unique gift to research and perform for a few close friends. Of course, if you were gifting the experience to a small group of friends, you might want to use an authentic Japanese tea blend and give a gift of the tea itself or this dried chai blend to all who attend. You might even create your own tea ceremony borrowing from the Japanese traditions and incorporating your own recipe for chai tea. (Makes 4-1/4 cups chai mix)

Ingredients:

  • 6 Tbsp fennel or anise seeds
  • 6 Tbsp coriander seeds
  • 2 Tbsp green cardamom seeds
  • 20 whole cloves
  • 4 two-inch cinnamon sticks, crushed
  • 3 cups non-fat dry milk powder
  • 1/2 cup black tea leaves
  • 1 Tbsp dried lemon peel

1) The above amount makes 8 cups of chai tea. I suggest dividing the amount in half to make 2 gift jars.

2) Include these directions on gift tag: • To serve: In a saucepan combine the contents of the jar with 4 cups of water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer gently for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, and let stand for 5 minutes. Strain through a wire strainer lined with cheesecloth or a coffee filter. Add honey to taste.

Gift Tag: Light and lemony, use this dressing for salads and cooked vegetables as well as in fresh fruit salads. Keep refrigerated for up to one week. (Makes 2/3 cup)

Ingredients:

  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 Tbsp fresh lemon thyme leaves
  • 1 stalk lemongrass, lightly pounded and cut in half
  • 1 cup vegetable stock
  • 1 Tbsp pure maple syrup
  • 1 Tbsp grated lemon zest
  • 2 Tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

1) In a small saucepan, heat oil over medium-low heat. Add garlic and cook for 2 minutes or until soft. Stir in thyme, lemongrass and stock. Increase heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and keep gently boiling for 7 minutes or until liquid is reduced by half. Stir in maple syrup, lemon zest and lemon juice. Simmer for another 2 minutes. Add salt and pepper, to taste. Remove lemongrass before serving.

Gift Tag: Creamy and thick and with a slight sweetness, this dressing may serve as an alternative to the traditional Caesar salad dressing. Store tightly covered in the refrigerator for up to three days. (Makes 1/2 cup)

Ingredients:

  • 1/4 cup buttermilk
  • 1 roasted garlic head
  • 1 Tbsp rice vinegar
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 to 1/2 tsp ground cayenne powder

1) In a small bowl, combine buttermilk, garlic, vinegar and salt. Using a fork, whisk and add cayenne powder, 1/4 tsp at a time, tasting after each addition.

Gift Tag: A dipping sauce for appetizers and a glaze for steamed or stir-fried vegetables, this is easy to make and keeps very well. Store tightly covered in the refrigerator for up to 10 days. (Makes 1/2 cup)

Ingredients:

  • 2 Tbsp tamari or soy sauce
  • 2 Tbsp rice vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp brown rice syrup
  • 1 Tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • 1 clove garlic, minced

1) In a small bowl, combine tamari, vinegar, olive oil, syrup, lemon juice, sesame oil and garlic. Using a fork whisk to mix.

Gift Tag: Use this dressing to heighten the flavour of stir-fried vegetables and as a dipping sauce for sushi or other Asian appetizers. Store tightly covered in the refrigerator for up to three days. (Makes 1/2 cup)

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup Yogurt Cheese (see below) or drained natural yogurt
  • 3 Tbsp pure maple syrup or liquid honey
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla

1) In a small bowl, combine Yogurt Cheese, maple syrup and vanilla. Using a fork, whisk to mix.

2) To make Yogurt Cheese: Set a large strainer lined with cheesecloth over a bowl. Pour a container of plain yogurt into the strainer, cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or as long as overnight. Discard or use the watery liquid that is collected in the bowl for stock or other recipes

Za’atar is a term used for a blend of spices that have an overall aroma of thyme or oregano. Use as a rub for fish or sprinkle over oiled flat bread and toast for a tasty snack. (Makes 1/4 cup)

Ingredients:

  • 2 Tbsp toasted sesame seeds
  • 1 Tbsp dried thyme
  • 2 tsp ground sumac or paprika
  • 2 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 tsp sea salt

1) In a small jar, combine sesame seeds, thyme, sumac, oregano and salt. Cover with lid and shake to mix well. Caution: Purchase sumac from specialist grocery stores selling Middle Eastern ingredients. Some members of the sumac family (found mostly in North America) have poisonous berries.

Recipe Books by Pat Crocker:

Sources and Resources

Choate, Judith and Jane Green. The Gift-Giver’s Cookbook. New York NY: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989.
Crocker, Pat. The Vegetarian Cook’s Bible, Toronto: Robert Rose Publisher, 2007.
Crocker, Pat. The Vegan Cook’s Bible, Toronto: Robert Rose Publisher, 2007.
Hines, Thomas. I want that! How we all became shoppers. New York: Harper Collins, 2002.
Mauss, Marcel. The gift: the form and reason for exchange in archaic societies. London: Routledge Classics, 1990.
Williams, Chuck, editor. American Christmas, Menlo Park, CA: Oxmoor House, 2004.

Pat Crocker always makes her own spice blends. “Just the aroma of toasting herbs infuses the whole house and lingers for days. And then when I use them in recipes, the flavour is so much more intense,” she says. Pat is a Culinary Herbalist, cookbook author, photographer, writer, and lecturer. She is the author of several award-winning books, available at bookstores throughout Canada and the United States. Write or e-mail Pat at 536 Mill Street, Neustadt, ON, N0G 2M0, pcrocker@riversongherbals.com (http://www.riversongherbals.com, visit her blog: http://www.foodwedsherbs.blogspot.com)

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