Lior Lev Sercarz, the Israeli-born owner of the spice shop La Boîte in New York, is a master at creating nuanced, mouthwatering, mysterious flavor combinations that enhance most any food or drink.
He can even transform a Thanksgiving turkey into an inspired, interesting dish. Yes, you read that right.
Turkey gets a bad rap: It’s often overcooked and under-seasoned. But what if you could approach the bird with any number of different spice combinations? “People make a big deal out of turkey,” Sercarz said. “I started perceiving turkey as just a big chicken and people are like ‘Wait, I can make turkey in 200 ways?’”
His first book, “The Art of Blending,” was a guide to using specific spice mixtures in a variety of recipes. Now he’s out with a beautiful follow-up, “The Spice Companion: A Guide to the World of Spices” (Clarkson Potter).
So, having written an entire book on spices before, hadn’t he covered the topic? Well, no.
“‘The Art of Blending’ was about the spice blends that we do at La Boîte, a guide to how to use the blends,” Sercarz said. “We wanted to educate people about single spices. So the [new] book describes the flavor and aroma, origin, harvest season, parts to use and how anybody can use those spices in their home, whether they’re starting to cook, better at it, or even if they’re professionals.”
There are 102 spices in the book, which is an A–Z encyclopedia of sorts, complete with gorgeous photographs and illustrations of each and every one. In addition to recommended food and drink pairings, traditional uses and recipe ideas, each entry offers a quick, easy blend that can be made by combining the particular spice with a few others.
“For each spice we picked over 10 different applications that are very common in every day, from beverage to food and showing you how to use them,” he said. “You can create your own unique blends; you don’t have to rely on ours.”
I asked Sercarz to point me in the direction of a couple of spices or mixtures that I could use to add interest to my Thanksgiving meal. As he did for us at Valentine’s Day, he recommended using one blend and taking it from cocktail to main course and sides all the way through to dessert.
First, he directed me to the Ancho chile entry, which features instructions for making a quick blend Sercarz calls “Puebla.” It’s made by mixing the ancho with cumin, cocoa powder, toasted sesame seeds and chipotle powder. (The exact recipe is on the Ancho page.) This mixture, he said, “could go very well from sweet potatoes to vegetables to turkey.”
As an alternative, he suggested a mixture called “Daisy,” based on chamomile, which is combined with vanilla bean, pink peppercorns and ground sumac. (See the recipe on the Chamomile page.) He said this mixture would make an excellent seasoning for mulled wine. “Often they’re made with red wine, but here, because of the elegance, the chamomile being delicate, I’d use a riesling as a base. It could be done ahead and warmed up and garnished with some citrus.”
The same blend could be used with any type of roasted poultry, he said. “And even some roast vegetables, and if you had some left and wanted to use it for fruit, a roast apple or quince or pear — that could definitely work out.”
I had to try it. So earlier this week, I procured the ingredients and mixed up both blends. I happened to have a duck breast in the fridge, so I cut it in half and rubbed each piece with salt and one of the mixtures. (I have to say, I was skeptical about the chamomile one. It seemed like it might be too delicate and flowery to work with the gamey poultry, which I figured had a somewhat similar flavor to the dark meat of a turkey.) As I seared the duck, I poured riesling into a pot and added a sachet I’d made of the chamomile blend. I let it simmer while the duck finished cooking.
After letting the duck rest to seal in the juices, I cut it into thin slices and tasted both versions. I tried the Daisy first, because it was more subtle: It was incredible, fragrant and slightly floral, but also complex from the sumac and slightly hot from the peppercorns.
Next, the Puebla. This was also utterly delicious; medium-spicy, rich and nuanced with the chocolate and sesame notes showing up behind the more assertive chile flavors.
As for the mulled wine, it was beguiling; a comforting, satisfying brew that I sipped from a mug thinking it tasted like lovely alcoholic tea. (The riesling I used was fairly dry, but a sweet one would be even better.)
I’m looking forward to testing all of this out for my Thanksgiving dinner. And now that I have a comprehensive and gorgeous guide to making my own spice blends, my turkey will never be boring again.
Liza Schoenfein is food editor of the Forward. Contact her at email@example.com and on Twitter, @lifedeathdinner