Friday, March 23, 2012

Spice It Up

Normally the week after Saint Patrick’s Day here in Vermont is cold and gray with an average high of around forty degrees. If we’re lucky, we aren’t pummeled by a series of storms slicking the sidewalks with freezing rain and coating our windshields with sleet. This year, however, the whole week has felt more like June, with temperatures up in the 70s. Birds are singing, tulips and daffodils are shooting up, and the air feels like silk on the skin.

Last Sunday, instead of catching up on indoor chores like I normally would in March, I headed outside to get a jump on garden cleanup. I’m negligent about fall cleanup chores, so come spring my gardens are looking pretty scraggly. Somehow it’s a lot more appealing to emerge in the spring to tidy things up than it is in late fall, when the air has a bite and the stove beckons me to put on a soup  for an all-day simmer. The herb garden, which during summer months invigorates with varying shades of green and a heady blend of eau d’herbes, is today a tangle of brown oregano branches and shriveled sage leaves.

I brush aside the dried stems of last year’s chives to find bright green shoots of this season’s crop pushing themselves up out of the dirt.

We’ve mercifully skipped over “mud season” this year, although I did miss the snow and it’s hard to shake my concerns about climate change given our extremely mild winter and early spring. Still it goes against all of my sensory receptors to not give in to this delicious weather: blue skies, clear light, a sun that makes its warmth known but doesn’t feel oppressive.

Chris and I do a walk-around inspecting the house and yard and discover some peeling clapboards, dog poop littering our Westie Callie’s section of the yard, and a hole in the foundation that needs fixing, soon. But most of the discoveries are positive ones: fat buds on the temperamental magnolia, bulbs I planted last fall that survived the squirrels, and our Adirondack chairs that look like they’re good for one more season.

It smells like June too: that loamy scent of the newly turned earth and a grill going somewhere in the neighborhood. There’s no way that this weekend is going to get away from us without our firing up our own grill, so Chris and I haul it out of the shed and dust it off. We have many friends who grill all winter long, but we’ve never tried to pull that off and instead tend to break it out on the first warm weekend of the year, which happens to be unexpectedly in mid-March.

I decide to grill spice-rubbed salmon. I like using exotic spice rubs and sometimes make my own, but since I’ve discovered the spice blends from Teeny Tiny Spice Company in Shelburne, I find that I reach for theirs on a regular basis. A family-run company, they mix their blends in small batches and use 100% organic ingredients. A list of ingredients and a heat rating of one to five chile peppers can be found on each label. My three favorites (of the ones I’ve tried so far) are Vindaloo, Chocolate Chili, and Ras el Hanout.

Vindaloo is a vivid orange, Southwest Indian curry blend of fifteen spices. It has a warm fragrance, dominated by cumin, coriander, and cardamom, with hints of cinnamon and sweet paprika. Himalayan pink salt, Vermont maple sugar, and dried onion and garlic add depth. As for heat, it’s medium, earning two chili peppers on its label. One of my favorite ways to use Vindaloo is dusted on sliced tofu, which is then drizzled with soy sauce and toasted sesame oil and baked until it’s crisp on the edges. It’s also excellent  stir fried with garlic, fresh ginger, and baby bok choi.You can use it any time you would use curry powder, but want a more distinctive flavor.

Chocolate chili, garnering a four pepper heat level, is a South American blend of nine spices, including cocoa nibs and five different chiles. Juniper berries, oregano, and cinnamon round it out. Like Vindaloo, it also contains the Himalayan salt, maple sugar, onion, and garlic. This blend reminds me of mole and goes well with chicken; I use it to dust the meat when I don’t want to make a full mole sauce but am craving that flavor. It's great in bean soups and chile. I haven’t tried it in a dessert yet, but I would imagine it adds a surprising kick to brownies and homemade vanilla ice cream.

My favorite of the three is the Ras el Hanout which, as described on the label, is Arabic for “top of the shop,” meaning it’s a mix of the best spices offered by the merchant or home cook. It’s a complex North African blend of thirteen spices and Himalayan pink salt. The color is a rich gold, shot through with flecks of red and pink rose petals. Lavender flowers add another floral note to the dominant flavors of ginger, turmeric, allspice, and clove. I use it when cooking all sorts of things: roasted vegetables (it’s especially good with cauliflower and eggplant), turkey or chicken cutlets, and couscous. It really jazzes up a vegetable stew, and brings authentic flavors of Morocco to the home kitchen. 

For those of us who didn’t travel to an exotic locale this spring, the flavors in Ras el Hanout taste like a mini vacation without leaving your own backyard. Morocco is at the top of my list of places I want to visit, and when we were living in France, some of my favorite meals were in Moroccan restaurants. Grilling salmon with this zesty spice rub seems like the perfect complement to our record-breaking weather.

It’s also easy to do. You just take a filet of salmon, preferably about an inch think, and coat the top surface with the spices. (Any other dense fish such as halibut works well too.) To get an even coating, I put a thin layer of the spices in flat bottomed dish, and then lightly press the salmon top side down into the spices. I used about one teaspoon of spices for one medium piece of fish.

Grill over medium to hot coals for approximately ten minutes on the skin side and six minutes on the spice side. I find that if I grill it eight minutes on each side, the spices char too much, whereas if the skin chars it doesn’t really matter. The spices mellow out a bit when they’re cooked and form a crisp coating that seals in the salmon’s juices, making for a deliciously moist piece of fish and a nice balance of flavors.

Since the grill is already going, I throw on some bread that I’ve brushed lightly on both sides with extra virgin olive oil. I like to use a loaf of good Ciabatta, which is Italian table bread. It has a crisp crust and airy interior that makes it ideal for grilling. On a medium fire it takes about a minute per side, just enough to char the edges slightly and toast the oiled center. So simple, but so good. Grilled bread also makes an excellent base for bruschetta of all kinds.

A salad of mixed greens, thinly sliced Easter Egg radishes, and a little fresh dill rounds out the meal. I dress the salad with a classic vinaigrette: two thirds EVOO, one third white wine vinegar, and green peppercorn mustard to taste (about a teaspoon for a medium sized salad) are the proportions that I tend to prefer.

Finally, a glass of chilled Graves, a crisp, white Bordeaux that I managed to find at a reasonable price, and we sit down to savor summer on a plate.


  1. The Moroccan-spiced salmon sounds delicious. Next time we grill, we're going to try this!

    1. I think you'll really like it, Linda. It looks like no grilling this weekend though...