Spiced Up Spices

Combinations of flavors add a new dimension to today's dishes

April 05, 2000|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun Food Editor

NEW YORK -- Spices are never going to be the same again.

On the 12th floor of a nondescript high-rise, not far from the Empire State Building, chef Allen Susser is mixing and matching several spices in strange ways.

Fennel, thyme and dill weed become unlikely partners in a fish dish. Vanilla flavors a classic beurre blanc. And basil, pepper and cinnamon put a new spin on hash.

But this is no cavalier experiment.

"The blending of spices is the new news," the Florida chef tells an audience of about 30 food journalists gathered to learn about the latest flavor trends. "Chefs today are using a tremendous number of spices."

The culinary event was sponsored by Hunt Valley-based McCormick & Co., which identified top flavors and trends in a recently released report after talking to restaurant chefs and others around the country.

The spice company found that, as a nation, not only are we ingesting 4 pounds of spices per person annually, but we're favoring basil, cinnamon, cumin, dill, fennel, ginger, red pepper, rosemary, thyme and vanilla in our cooking.

And while these may be familiar flavors in our spice cabinets, now they're being reinvented.

"A lot of them are very basic flavors you've worked with for years," says Laurie Harrsen, manager of McCormick consumer affairs. "The news is not how they are being used individually, but in combinations."

Others agree. An August 1999 Restaurants and Institutions article on the growing popularity of spices says, "Spices are beckoning, a call that's louder than ever. Why would anyone decline to heed the summoning of spice?"

The trade magazine attributes the increased use of spices -- and spice blends -- to the popularity of ethnic cuisine and the demand for flavorful foods. Spices are the answer to the call for bigger, bolder flavors, it says.

A May 1997 article in Restaurants USA also points out that we've come a long way from our grandmothers' spice racks. "In today's kitchens a smorgasbord of exotic spices, such as cumin, turmeric and white peppercorns, are filling up the shelves. Bland, commonplace flavors are out."

According to McCormick's report, flavor role reversal also is popular today. Rosemary and basil are sneaking onto the dessert tray. Cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg are showing up in the main course. And sweet and hot flavors are being brought together in desserts and entrees.

Think rosemary black pepper biscotti, tomato sorbet or chicken roasted with cinnamon.

If these unusual combos make you wary, you should know they usually aren't thrown together haphazardly. McCormick food technologists, who spend hours testing their blends, take our taste buds seriously.

They're the ones who engage in sensory tests to determine if a food has appeal. Aroma, appearance, taste and texture all must pass muster.

"Flavor is much more than taste," says Connie Jones, a McCormick technologist, who, with Nancy Farace, a technical marketing manager, leads the seminar group in a blind sampling of two kinds of cinnamon.

"The aroma and flavor have to be a perfect blend," says Farace, savoring a cookie flavored with Korintji cinnamon, the type used most often in the United States.

In the case of spices, Susser takes blending to new levels. Consider his Rosemary Mojo Roasted Lamb Chops. He complements the usual cumin-citrus sauce with rosemary, basil and thyme, and serves it with a meat other than traditional pork.

"I've taken [the mojo] out of context and used it with lamb," he explains. "All those flavors work in mojo. ... I call this layering or three-dimensional. It adds character and makes it interesting."

Susser, a cookbook author and owner of Chef Allen's in Aventura, Fla., was among the 18 chefs McCormick consulted for its report. Others included Baltimore chef Cindy Wolf of Charleston and Thomas Keller of the French Laundry in Napa Valley, Calif.

The study found that, as we eat out and travel more, we are incorporating our food discoveries into home cooking. Here's what we can expect in our kitchens:

* Bold flavors and textures, with whole seeds, crushed or smashed, adding a new dimension to foods. Flavor enhancers, such as ginger, fennel, cinnamon, cumin and red pepper, also heighten impact.

* Interesting fruits and vegetables, such as blood oranges, mango, chayote squash and fennel.

* Latin-inspired cuisine. This popular south-of-the border cuisine continues to influence traditional recipes with cinnamon, cumin and fennel.

* High flavor. Marinades, rubs, brines, stocks, reductions, foams, smoking, roasting and toasting infuse more flavor into food.

* Appetizers as entrees. More people are choosing to sample a few appetizers as their meal rather than limit themselves to one entree.

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