Adding a Dash of Spice to Cleveland's Cuisine Scene
The last thing a home cook wants to hear is the word “boring.” Spice can add excitement, and with the growing popularity of world cuisine home cooks are using more of it. But knowing which spice to use, whether it’s fresh, and how much to throw in, can be challenging.
WKSU’s Vivian Goodman reports in today’s Quick Bite that a prominent Cleveland chef aims to help.
On a recent spring morning we find Chef Doug Katz hard at work in the catering kitchen of the Katz Club Diner in Cleveland Heights.
The chef and restaurateur is excited now about a new venture called Fire Spice Company.
World cuisine de-mystified
Today Katz is using one of his new products to prepare chicken the way you might get it in Casablanca.
“If you look in the Cleveland area at all of the different ethnicities that you come across, I think as chefs, it’s our job to really teach people at home how to make these dishes that they’re eating in the Indian restaurants, the Moroccan restaurants, the Thai restaurants. We love these things but we don’t think of making them at home.”
He’s making this North African dish with his bare hands. “I’ve taken all the spice, and now I’m actually just getting it all over all the surfaces of the chicken.”
To make the spice blend for it he had to toast, grind and combine three kinds of peppers.
“There’s guajillo, chipotle and ancho.”
Katz’s Moroccan Harissa chicken has onions, garlic, red bell peppers and jalapenos, too.
A dozen spice blends customized for specific recipes
Along with Harissa Spice, Katz has created 11 other spice combinations for Fire Spice Company.
He seals the blended spices in air-tight envelopes, packages them with recipes, and next month he’ll be selling them at his Shaker Square restaurant.
Fire Spices come in a little matchbox. In a small way, they’re a response to Katz’s restaurant fans.
“People are always asking me for recipes.”
But a home cook might need several different spices for that special dish.
“You end up using a teaspoon of each one, and then they sit in your cupboard for five years. And then imagine trying to use them again. You don’t want to waste them, but then they’re so old that they’re not really of use.”
Countering spice anxiety
He says even when spices are fresh enough, home cooks often worry about using too little or too much.
"They don’t want to waste the $50 they spent on their dinner adding spices and not knowing how it’s going to come out.”
Katz thinks he’s figured out a way to help by providing the right spice in the right quantity for a specific dish.
“It’s almost like I’m able to cook a meal for them in their home by giving them this box.”
The idea came to him one morning while he was making curry.
“I was sautéing my onions and my garlic, and I hadn’t had a cup of coffee yet, and I was sort of in that tired mode. And the minute I added the spices to the pot, it was the most energizing thing that I had done. And I thought to myself if there’s a way that I could bring these into people’s homes as a chef that would be the ultimate recipe to give someone.”
Spices lost or forgotten
He sympathizes with frustrated home cooks rooting around in their kitchen cabinets.
“They have 30 different spices in their cabinet, and they’re lifting every one and seeing which one this one is, and which one this one is, and you go to the stores and you buy an extra cayenne pepper because you couldn’t even find it, and then you find out you have three of them.”
What’s even worse is finding out you can’t use any of them. “What you buy in the grocery store is not necessarily the freshest,” says Catherine St. John. The owner of the Western Reserve School of Cooking warns her students about that.
A way to make sure its fresh
If you bought a bottle of spice more than a year ago St. John says you can usually tell if it’s stale by just
looking at it. “It’s very light in color. It doesn’t have that deep green that maybe an oregano or a basil would have. You could also rub a little between your fingers and smell it. If it’s not really fragrant, then I would pitch it.”
But she says you don’t even have to buy those little bottles.
“There are places all over that you can buy whole spices or herbs. There are places down at the West Side Market. You can go online.”
Your best bet, she says, is buying spices whole.
“Don’t buy ground cumin, buy whole cumin seed. Buy coriander seed instead of ground. Then toast them.”
Toasting your own
She does that in a dry pan.
“We’re going to break the cinnamon stick in there, coriander, cardamom pods. We’re just going to toast these over high heat. I’m going to keep shaking the pan.”
When the spices are toasted and fragrant a simple coffee grinder finishes the blend.
Doug Katz’s Fire Spice Company does much the same on a bigger scale.
“Once the whole spices come in, we take sheet trays. We line them with parchment, and we toast certain ones at certain temperatures to bring out the nuttiness in those spices. We grind those spices, and we combine them based on our recipes that we’ve come up with.”
Those include desserts, like a cocoa coffee spice for Katz’s Latin Chocolate Brownie and for a French spice cake, a traditional “quatreepices” or four-spice blend.
“Typically the quatre epices mix is pepper -- it can be white pepper or black pepper -- clove, nutmeg and ginger. We’ve added cinnamon and we’ve added mace to it as well. We just felt it gave us a unique balance of flavor that was uniquely ours.”
The chef plans further explorations into the world of spice.
“This is a great learning experience for me and my team. We are researching different ways to procure spices. We’re actually taking a trip to India next January to check out some different spice farms and learn about them as much as possible.”