I was just on youtube having followed a link to the teaser for “Baking a Fool of Myself”, a new cooking show by Vancouver pot activist Watermelon.  It looks cute, her Mom’s cameos promise to be entertaining, and I would like to know where I can get a globe like the one featured in the closing montage.  Because my geography needs work.

However, today’s blog is not about that kind of herb.

Every cook at some time experiences the epiphany brought on by discovering quality seasonings.

Most of us start off with a sad collection of dried, flavourless powders and flakes ranging from grey-green to grey-brown, bagged sometime in 1983, and we wonder why our food tastes lifeless.  We think back to history class where we learned about how the spice trade shaped modern civilization and think to ourselves “Why would anybody venture across the cruel oceans for the contents of my spice cupboard?”

All humans may be created equal, but not so all cumin.

Somewhere along the way I learned a thing or two that helped my cooking immensely.  I know I’m mostly preaching to the converted here, so feel free to skip these if they bore you.

1) Very few dried herbs are a decent substitute for fresh.  Bay leaves, sage and oregano are on the good list, though of course fresh sage leaves are indispensable for some applications.  Almost everything else becomes a shadow of its former glory once desiccated.

foodsubs.com has a comprehensive list of herbs and substitutions that can be handy when a fresh herb is unavailable.  I know fresh herbs can be expensive.  If you can grow some, do!  It’s very satisfying.

Basil I started from seed this year

2) Buy whole seeds!  Ground spices lose their flavour rapidly.  One of the biggest revolutions in my cooking was learning to toast and grind my own spices.  It takes a little longer but the results are beyond compare.

Fennel, coriander and pepper for today's recipe

3) Buy decent spices and store them well.  Okay, I’m not an expert on the first half of that.  It’s all trial and error for me.  But I can say that the best spices I’ve ever used were the ones given to me as a gift from the Vij’s curry kit.  They come in an airtight tin.  The dear friends who bought them for me had been previously gifted the same kit (not the same exact kit – this wasn’t re-gifting).  One day they accidentally left the tin ever-so-slightly ajar, and spent the next week wondering who in their building was cooking curry every night.  These suckers are potent.

Vij's spice kit - my apartment smells sooo good right now!

Keep your dried seasonings in airtight containers away from light and heat.  Replenish them periodically, because they do degrade.

Recipe Time!

I can probably count on one hand the number of recipes I’ve made more than once in the last 6 years.  This one has been repeated about four times, which tells you how much I adore it.  Even when you execute it badly, as I did this time, the results are wonderful.  It’s a great example of how good handling of spices can really make a dish shine.

This recipe was inspired by an Epicurious recipe first published in Bon Appétit.

Spice-crusted Ahi Tuna with Lemon Aïoli

1 tsp fennel seeds
1/2 tsp coriander seeds
1/2 tsp peppercorns
pinch kosher salt

2 Tbsp mayo (light is fine)
Juice from 1/2 lemon (generous 1 Tbsp)
1 small clove garlic, minced

2 ahi tuna steaks (about 150g each)

Combine first three ingredients in a small skillet and toast over medium heat, shaking frequently, until fragrant and just turning colour.  Cool, grind in a spice grinder, transfer to a small bowl and add the salt.

Whisk together mayo, lemon juice and minced garlic.  Set aside.

Rinse tuna steaks and pat dry.  Brush with oil and coat liberally with spice mixture.  Heat and oil a skillet on high heat.  Sear tuna until it’s cooked to your liking.

Drizzle with aïoli and serve.

Spice-crusted ahi tuna (before the aioli went on)

I’ve been on a small fish kick lately for both sustainability and health reasons, but seriously, yum.  This is a wonderful way to enjoy one of the large fish, and a delightful way to appreciate the beauty of spices.

If foods are the canvas of our diets, then seasonings surely are the paints.  Why not try a new colour this week?  Maybe your kitchen isn’t yet acquainted with Kaffir lime leaves, or Asafetida, or Juniper berries.  See what kind of adventure your taste buds have been missing.

Bon Appetit,