Great Ingredients — The Spice of Life

French-trained chef Lior Lev Sercarz is the spice blender of the stars.

Serious cooks who don’t pay proper attention to the spices they use — or worse yet, don’t use spices at all — are missing out on a higher realm of eating pleasure in their dishes.  “Spice” doesn’t automatically mean “hot,” although some cuisines like Indian can often be on the fiery side.  I adore spices and use them in many dishes, so during a trip to New York City recently, it was mandatory to visit La Boîte à Epice in a little art-gallery-like space in Hell’s Kitchen.

This tiny shop/atelier was launched by Lior Lev Sercarz, born and raised on an Israeli kibbutz and later trained as a chef in France. Quite simply, this slim, charming guy is the maestro of spice, developing unique blends for the likes of Daniel Boulud, Eric Ripert, Laurent Tourondel, other restaurant stars — and you, thanks to the Internet.

Sure, anyone who cooks with spices at all should know the drill — store spices in a cool, dry, dark place, freshly grind whole ones if possible, throw out old ground ones regularly, since they lose potency quickly — but it’s so easy to sprinkle on a little of Lior’s exquisite spice blends, which bring magic to food. To think of what’s in these little jars as just “spices” is like assuming La Romanée-Conti is just red wine.

Sourcing the very best ingredients, Lior has about 49 blends (including some recently developed Bloody Mary mixes) with exotic names like Luberon, Isphahan, Escabeche and Coquelicot. Each blend lists only three inclusions but most actually contain anywhere from nine to 23, with an average of 13.  Lior has been known to create a spice blend for someone he knows, such as Appollonia, named for the daughter and heiress of the legendary Parisian bakery, Poilâne. Here’s what Lior told a reporter about how it can be used:

“What’s truly great about spices is that you can use them all year round; season to season, you can give the spice a new interpretation. That, to me, is beautiful. For example I have a chef who used the Appolonia (cocoa, orange blossom, pepper) in a wild boar stew, then in ravioli and the following season in a lobster salad. When you think about it, cocoa powder makes sense – it’s used in French classic cuisine and Mexican cuisine, it’s versatile. Chefs are constantly using my blends in interesting ways I would have never imagined.”

Lior has been known to mix custom blends for regular humans as well as the famous chefs who hire him. Imagine having your own special spice melange that reflects your personality and preferences.  Ideally, this would involve a face-to-face meeting with Lior in New York and an opportunity to talk to this low-key, modest, multi-lingual spice master whose ethnic background is as rich as his spice blends: Belgian, German, Transylvanian, Tunisian.

I’ve become addicted to some of his blends, like Cancale, which is a spectacular salt replacement, mixing fennel seed, dried orange peel and fleur de sel, elevating whatever it hits. Then there’s haunting, irresistible Orchidea, which includes orchid root, Kaffir lime and Sichuan peppercorn. I mix it in my non-fat Fage yogurt with some vanilla Stevia and I’ve turned breakfast into an exotic, low-cal treat.  Add fresh pineapple and you’re in mouth heaven.  I’ve put it into buttermilk panna cotta and produced a dessert much more multi-dimensional than the plain version.

Evoking gingerbread from outer space is Reims, a blend of star anise, crystallized honey, cinnamon, cardamom and ginger that is an amazing replacement for plain, old cinnamon. Try it in hot cocoa or puddings or in oatmeal.  Slightly similar — as in, Chinese compared to Thai — is Sri Lanka, which adds layers of exotica to these complementary flavors. I completely adore Tangier, which adds rose petal to the Eastern aromas of cumin and cardamom.  I’ve made my own Vadouvan (called “French curry”) before but Lior’s blend of fenugreek, cumin, onion and garlic plus more is a faster way to create this heady substance.  And I know from experience how great some of his blends with saffron are on fish.

Lior  published an online book that I bought last year that includes some recipes but now he’s expanded his website with some recipes as well. However, it’s fun to experiment without directions when using such exciting, high-quality ingredients as those found in these spices.  Check them out on his website: http://laboiteny.com/

For those not cruising up 11th Avenue in Manhattan anytime soon, Lior’s blends can now be purchased directly from his site.

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