Monday, February 18, 2013

The sincerest form of flattery: the "8 spice," reverse-engineered

The eight spices in the most whole, dry form I had on hand. One of a handful of photographic clues I left for myself  for reverse-engineering a popular cook's published recipe for an 8-spice mixture.
Home cooks have cooked from cookbooks for centuries. Modern cooks also cook from recipes found on the internet. I've been delighted and let down by recipes from both sources. There's a cookbook I still own with a recipe in it so bad that I consider the book to contain a kind of evil by its inclusion.

But I don't generally just hang on to cookbooks to prevent their evil from spreading further into the world. A problem I have with my hard media is that I am a generous, yet forgetful, evangelist. I loan out my favorites and then when I try to loan one out again, find it has already been loaned out, I do not recall to whom. And since it's been so long, I assume, since I've forgotten, I probably won't get it back and, until I buy another copy, will have to live without whatever recipe is in it that I was such a fan of that I loaned out the source.

Such was the case of a cookbook by Ming Tsai that Kevin got through one of those cookbook-a-month deals (in hardcover, even). I can't find it, and so it's either misfiled in the stacks, or I've loaned it out to somebody. Until it resurfaces, I will have to go on recreating from memory the two recipes I really liked out of it, one of which is this one.

I remember enough clues of Ming Tsai's 8-spice that I have confidently reverse engineered it at least twice since losing his cookbook, each time forgetting in my hubris to write down the secret eight. One clue was that five of the spices are in traditional Chinese five spice. I knew that I included salt and pepper, but that they were not counted toward the eight. And I remembered that two are cumin and coriander, a complementary pair of the earthy and the flowery that I associate with Indian curries. But what was the eighth spice?

I turned to the photographic clues I've left myself. Knowing that I'd want to blog about this recipe someday, and that I would likely forget to write down the eight spices, I took pictures. I took the picture above in March, 2011, and the one below, that I took in August, 2011, is very probably based on the one taken in March. I have been using one or the other of them as a "recipe" ever since.

You see that I like a challenge, because while I can see the seeds, I can't see the labels on any but the fennel.
I can never remember what the five in Chinese five spice are, but it's the kind of fact I can Google. They are, according to Wikipedia, today, anyway: star anise, cloves, Chinese cinnamon (meaning, not Chinese cassia, which most Americans accept as "culinary cinnamon," and which I probably have got here as well), Sichuan pepper, and fennel seeds. I can see from the pictures that I didn't use star anise either time I took photos, but substituted regular, tiny anise seed. However, I can remember making this with star anise, the first time I made it. On the other hand, I'm sure I've never had Sichuan pepper in the house, so I must have substituted black peppercorn for this spice every time. Perhaps Tsai made this substitution in his original, or else I have always made it.

Studying both photos, I see the same eight spices: cinnamon, fennel, cloves, anise (four out of the Chinese five spice), plus cumin, cardamom, coriander, and ginger. Salt and pepper (the fifth Chinese spice) are extra, resulting in a nine ingredient spice mixture, plus salt, in my recipe for 8-spice. Good thing I had photos, because that book is long gone, and Tsai's eight spice recipe is not on the internet.

Which left proportions to figure out. When I first made this, I sniffed and eyeballed and weighed spices in my hand, and combined this with my experience of spice ratios in recipes. Starting with a teaspoon, ground, as my basic unit, I cut back on cloves and cardamom, and amped up the cumin to give it more depth. I like a lot of ginger, so when I made braised lamb shanks using this spice blend yesterday, I cooked them in a mixture of softened onion, garlic, and fresh ginger with wine and lamb stock. I was trying to approximate a recipe in which I might have used tomato instead of wine, but again, it was a case of cooking without a recipe and then not so much documenting the results as being proud of them.

Another picture from the November photo shoot, reminding me that 8-spiced braised lamb shanks are delicious.
A note on salt in spice rubs: I don't usually blend the salt into my spice blends when I'm saving them for future use, but when I'm making them up to season a dish I'm going to cook, I mix in salt. To do this, I figure out how much spice blend I'll use on my dish, separate that out into a bowl, and then mix salt into it sufficient for the quantity of food I'm seasoning. Then, I use all of that salted spice blend to ensure the dish gets salted enough. This is especially helpful when I'm seasoning something I want well salted from the start, like meat or pulses.

I had had good results winging it with these approximations. There's a forgiving tradition of mixing together good quality spices to achieve deep flavor, and using that blend on various dishes as a signature flavor, like Emeril's "essence," various curries, and ras el hanout. My favorite use for this 8-spice blend is as a rub on lamb before braising. It is sweetly aromatic and a good counterpoint to strong meat.

Justin's Amnesiac Eight Spice Blend

Half a cinnamon stick, or 1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 T fennel seed
7-8 whole cloves, or 1/4 tsp ground cloves
One whole star anise, or 2 tsp whole anise seed, or 1 tsp ground anise
2 T cumin seed, or 2 tsp ground cumin
1 cardamom pod, or 1/4 tsp ground cardamom
1 T coriander seed, or 1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp dried ground ginger
2 tsp black peppercorns, or 1/2 tsp ground black pepper

Grind any whole spices you are using in a mortar or a small electric coffee grinder. Then, mix all ground dry spices together. You can store this mixture for future use.

To use the spice blend as a dry rub on meat, mix it with salt (see note above about salt) and rub it liberally on  raw meat. Allow to rest before cooking. The spice blend is also good mixed into sauces, cooked with onions and garlic into pulse dishes, and sprinkled over sweet and starchy cooked vegetables.
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