Decades ago, I warned Toronto Star readers in my “Taste of Asia” column to throw out any ground spices and herbs in their cupboards older than six months. I said they were past their prime. Defunct. Bad stuff.
“If you can’t smell anything, toss it,” I cajoled.
Well, I’m still on a spice rant after all these years. Commercially dried and ground spices and herbs lose most of their je ne sais quoi the moment they are harvested and processed, for it is at this juncture that their flavour-filled essential oils begin to degrade.
It gets worse.
When herbs and spices are ground into a powder, they are exposed to the ravages of oxidization and time… especially if they fall into obscurity in a deranged spice drawer like mine.
Luckily, mine underwent a radical makeover last week. I threw out all the wizened and yellowed dried red peppers, aroma-less ground powders of dubious distinction and the contents of any package, bottle or tin box that landed in said drawer prior to 2015 – with the exception of nutmeg.
I’m the proud owner of some relatively ancient nutmeg nuts, encased in shells and decorated with a fancy filament of mace. They come from Grenada and I began to horde them after several culinary visits to the Spice Island of the Caribbean. Alas, these nutmegs have broken all my self-imposed “Spice and Herb Guidelines”. They demonstrate incredible flavour once I hack off the shell with the blunt end of a knife and finely grate with my Cuisipro rasp.
The places this nutmeg goes! Sometimes it’s just a sprinkle over a Grenada-style rum punch. Or, a teaspoon into garam masala bound for a Punjabi-style curry. So alive are my nutmeg relics that a taster at my table recently detected a single smidgen slipped into a creamy, rich Yukon gold potato gratin.
Despite an undeniably close connection to the ever-popular nutmeg, mace is one loner of a spice. It boasts a well-known affinity with pumpkin, but just doesn’t seem to pop up on the recipe radar otherwise. You can imagine my glee, when I stumbled on a rub recipe calling for a whopping teaspoon of the stuff. I had some whole mace at my fingertips and was ready to put it through the grinder.
I simply peeled the lacy filaments off my whole nutmegs and placed them in my trusty spice blender that has continued to get revved up over all the cumin, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom (green and black), peppercorns, hot peppers, coriander, all spice, fennel and fenugreek I have been feeding it for the past three decades.
In went the mace filaments and out came a surprisingly pumpkin-toned powder that tasted more pungent and citrusy than its soul-sister nutmeg. When I closed my eyes and did a side-by-side sniff of the two, it was difficult to tell them apart. No wonder McCormick spice’s web site suggests putting either one in many of the same destinations, be it custards, eggnog, spice-filled quick breads or dusted on steamed veggies like carrots or sugar snap peas.
Back to the rub, which I spotted in my beloved Joy of Cooking but as per usual, put my own riff on. I chose it not only for the mace, but all the roasted cumin and cracked peppercorns.
Admittedly, cumin is my favourite. Sometimes I grind it raw, but I’m more apt to first toast the seeds in a dry frying pan over medium heat until they start to smoke. (Dry-frying spices is a risky venture as there’s a fine line between browning and burning. It helps to keep a sample of raw cumin seeds nearby as you dry-fry, to offer a visual comparison.) I like to grind the cumin seeds while they’re hot so as to savour the hot cloud of nutty cumin smoke released when the lid comes off.
I used my Thai mortar and pestle to crack or coarsely grind the black peppercorns used in this rub. To add authenticity, I took my hulking mortar outside, placed it on my back deck and visualized the northern Thai town of Fang where I saw countless fine cooks squat and pound – a satisfying way to approach this kitchen tool and more effective than placing it on a kitchen counter.
Last but not least, salt. If you like smoky flavours, check out Salish, an Alderwood smoked sea salt.
Smokey, toasty pork rub
Get out your spice grinder and have some fun concocting this gorgeous mixture. Whole nutmeg nuts can be found in Kensington or St Lawrence Market or Little India. Try this on grilled pork chops, baby back ribs or slow-cooked pork shoulder. Rub one tablespoon per pound just prior to cooking or better still, rub and refrigerate overnight.
½ cup sweet or smoked paprika
¼ cup ground roasted cumin
¼ cup packed brown sugar
¼ cup cracked/coarsely ground black peppers
2 tbsp hot cayenne powder
2 tbsp sea salt
1 tbsp smoked salt
2 tsp mace
Makes 1 ½ cups