I do not have that seemingly instinctive trait some people have for combining the right spices with other spices or even particular foods. Sure, I know that EVERYTHING tastes better with garlic, but it mostly ends right about there.
[Photograph: Max Falkowitz]
If you walk down the spice aisle of your local grocery store, you’ll find as many spice blends as actual spices. Some of them are painfully, eye-rollingly cheesy (“New Orleans-style flavor? Seriously?). Others, like five spice powder and vadouvan, are more worth your while.
I’m a big fan of spice blends when they’re made with care and quality ingredients, not just some ham-handed effort to reduce a cuisine to a dust. They’re quick ways to deliver powerful flavor that often come with some storied tradition, and they’ve saved many a late-night meal from blandness.
The problem, though, is even if you’ve made a blend yourself, your spices are locked into a set ratio. One blend may be perfectly balanced for sautéed fish, but it falls flat over roasted vegetables. A chili powder could be great on duck but too spicy for a pot of beans. If I have all the time in the world, I’ll make small batch of blended spices for every dish I cook. Since that rarely happens, I rely on spice kits.
A spice kit is basically a blend-to-be, a shortcut that can still be customized for specific dishes. Cooks familiar with Indian cuisine may recognize my inspiration: the masala dabba, a tin with small containers of like-minded spices, to be pulled out of the cabinet and used in a moment’s notice. A kit may contain cumin, coriander, fennel seed, and peppercorns (more or less a stripped-down garam masala)—spices that are used in all sorts of Indian dishes but in different proportions. Stashing spices together will make you more likely to use them. You won’t have to dig through cabinets for a missing ingredient. You can adjust ratios to the taste of your diners (especially helpful when chiles are involved). And you can also add spices to your dish at different times to get different levels of flavor from them.