In addition to knowing what they’re doing, I’m going to guess that great spices are what really set their food apart.
I can’t tell you how often I find elderly spices hidden away in cabinets, as if at the ready for some unforeseen spice emergency. One host even boasted, “This is my Grandma’s cumin!”
Unfortunately spices are not something that get better with age. The things that make spices so good are volatile compounds that dissipate over time, and once ground you have two to three weeks max. Hardcore spice enthusiasts will generously give them a day before they hit the trash. This means that most ground goods on the shelf are already past their prime.
Grind your spices once and I guarantee you won’t bother with pre-ground ever again. The difference in flavor is astounding, that’s the main thing, but the benefits don’t stop there. If you can find a decent store where you can buy in bulk, then you’ll have the system beat. You can get them in smaller amounts, usually for cheaper, and toast and grind them in little amounts as needed.
Be sure to keep your whole spices in a temperate, dry, and dark place, ideally in opaque airtight containers. Light, heat, and air will sap the yumminess away and moisture can make them rot. For this reason I’m not a fan of spice racks or lazy susan’s that sit out on countertops. Spices should be stowed away in cabinet, far way from your stovetop and oven NOT in a spice rack over it.
For use, start by toasting your spice(s) in a heavy bottomed skillet. I prefer a cast iron skillet for this. Heat the skillet over medium heat and drop in your whole spices, keeping them moving until you see a light smoke. The smell should be potent and amazing. Transfer them to a plate to cool.
You can grind them in a coffee grinder, which I do from time to time, but since I only have one, I end up hating my coffee for a week. I don't have space or funds for separate grinder. This bamboo Mortar & Pestle cost me ten dollars, and it gets the job done just fine. The secret is not crushing down, but using a stirring motion to grind.
I usually leave spices in a rustic grind, but if you'd like a finer powder you can pass it through a small sieve.
Spice Crusted Shrimp
2 Lbs Shrimp, peeled and deveined
3 tbsps Vegetable oil
1/2 tsp Cumin
1/2 tsp Caraway
1/2 tsp Coriander
1/2 tsp Mustard Seed
1/4 tsp Black peppercorns
6 Cardamom pods
1/4 tsp Turmeric Powder
1/2 tsp Garlic Powder
1. Toast and grind the cumin, caraway, coriander,mustard seed, peppercorns and cardamom.
2. Add the turmeric and garlic powder.
3. In a separate bowl, sprinkle the spice mix over the shrimp while tossing; add the oil and mix well. Stick them in the fridge for at least 2 hours and up to 24.
4. Heat a heavy bottomed skillet (I prefer cast iron) over medium high heat untill very hot and, working in batches "grill" the shrimp for around a minute and a half on each side.
For better searing, don't crowd the pan.
*to check for doneness, I'll nip off the head end to see the center. It should be just opaque, if not put a lid on the skillet to trap the moisture, it will cook the shrimp through in a snap.
*** Special thanks to Ryan, Kathy & Carla.