Winter holiday cuisine has evolved its own distinct palette of spices and seasonings.
“Cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg — that evokes the holidays,” said Meg Whitlock, vice president of sales for Baltimore-based Vanns Spices. “And all the pumpkin pie spices, and apple pie spices, and ginger. And don’t forget sage for the turkey rub.”
Scents and tastes are powerful memory triggers. For so many people, the tangy, aromatic mélange of exotic herbs, seeds, and spices conjures holidays past and sets the mood for this year’s festivities.
At Vanns Spices, the months before the winter holidays are the year’s busiest. Two shifts of workers, working six days each week, turn out 45 bottles every minute of spices, spice blends, and extracts to meet the seasonal demand. Each year, the company packages and ships 2 million bottles of spices, herbs, chilies, peppers, salts, extracts, beans, and grains, primarily to food retailers, restaurateurs, professional chefs, food service operators, and food manufacturers, often with private labels and custom packaging.
Despite Vanns’ largely wholesale business, customers can visit the plant to purchase a bottle of the newest spice blends or stock kitchen pantries. The atmosphere within the building is an added benefit. Entering Vanns’ operation gives immediate evidence of the power of the aroma generated by grinding, preparing, and packaging all of those spices.
“Our most popular spice is ground cinnamon,” said Whitlock, “then Chesapeake Bay Seafood Seasoning.”
She mentioned that cinnamon — the bark of a tropical tree — has a number of varieties, with much of it coming from Ceylon. Recently, cinnamon from Saigon entered the market with a spicier flavor. The latest trend is for Mediterranean spices and peppers, Middle Eastern chilies in particular. “A lot of ‘warm’ spices: bold but not hot; a full pepper flavor, but not spicy.”
From adobo and allspice to wasabi and zahtar, Vanns purchases bulk ingredients in small lots, turning over inventory within three months to keep the on-hand supplies fresh and potent.
Whole spices generally last longer than ground or powdered spices — only grind the amount that you need when you need it. Best practice calls for keeping open containers of spices away from heat, in a dark cupboard, because light can dull the seasonings’ colors.
“Now is a good time of the year to restock your spice cabinet,” advised Whitlock. “Whole spices will keep three to four years, but with time, the aroma and potency declines. Ideally, use them within a year of purchase.”
I usually purchase small lots of spices and always check the sell-by dates. I generally favor whole spices that I can grind as needed. A separate, inexpensive coffee grinder serves well to freshly prepare the toughest cinnamon sticks, cloves, or cardamom pods. For frequently used spices, such as black peppercorns, an inexpensive hand grinder or grinder-top jar can be a good investment. However, for coarse grinds and spice blends, a good mortar and pestle just feels right, enables easy adjustment of ingredients, and can send up waves of fragrance.
This month’s recipe comes from “OvenBits: The Official Vanns Spices Blog,” written by Lydia Whitlock at vannsspices.com. The Raz El Hanout spice blend uses sweet spices to enhance Moroccan dishes such as couscous, or any dish that combines fruit and meat.
Raz El Hanout Roasted Squash
Servings: 4 to 6
1 large (about 2 pounds) butternut or other winter squash
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon Vanns Raz El Hanout
1/2 teaspoon Vanns ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon Vanns kosher salt, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon Vanns black tellicherry peppercorns, freshly ground
Preheat the oven to 450 F. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
Peel the squash, remove the seeds, and cut it into 1-inch cubes. Place the squash cubes in a large bowl. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle the Raz El Hanout, cumin, salt, and pepper on top. Toss with your hands to coat evenly.
Spread the butternut squash cubes in a single, even layer on the baking sheet. Roast for 20 to 30 minutes, until golden brown and tender.