The Spice Guy of the Stars Names 7 Lesser-Known Blends That Belong in Your Kitchen
Alex Wilkens of Chicago's The Spice House provides spices to Michelin-starred chefs around the country
Whether you keep them in a cabinet, on a rack or displayed prominently on your mantle for all to see and know, the spices in your kitchen say a lot about you and the type of food you prepare.
Salt and pepper: Standard. Everything bagel blend: Trendy. Vulcan’s Fire Salt: What the hell is Vulcan’s Fire Salt?
To answer that question and also get six more recommendations about the most underrated spices for bringing some heat to home cooking, we caught up with Alex Wilkens, the director of product and sourcing at The Spice House. Based in Chicago, the Spice House has been providing spices, herbs, blends and extracts to renowned Michelin-star chefs and home cooks for more than six decades.
Below, Wilkens — himself a specialist in making jambalaya — picks out seven lesser-known blends that belong in your arsenal.
“When we talk about heat at The Spice House, Vulcan’s is on the top of our list. It’s got a lot of kick,” Wilkens says. “It’s a dry spice blend, but it’s similar to a hot sauce in that it has a vinegar component to it. Hot sauce is usually just chiles and vinegar. This blend starts with a base of chiles, vinegar and salt. Then we add other components like garlic, shallots, allspice, smoked paprika and habanero chilies. Those are extremely hot, but they also have a fruity component to them. In terms of flavor profile, it’s like a Caribbean hot sauce.”
“We just launched this with Japanese master chef Masaharu Morimoto last fall. I think it’s balanced and has an East-meets-West profile,” Wilkens says. “We start with a base that’s similar to your favorite beef brisket rub, so a lot of brown sugar, garlic, Worcestershire powder and some chiles. Then we add some Eastern ingredients like Korean chili flakes for heat and also green Sichuan peppercorns. They do crazy things to your mouth and have a numbing effect. The idea is some of that numbing effect moderates the heat so you can enjoy the actual flavor of the chiles. I’m not sure how much it really cuts the heat down, because this one’s got a good amount of kick, but we love it.”
“When you hear Peri Peri, it can refer to the chilis themselves or the sauce that’s commonly used to marinate or served with grilled chicken,” Wilkens says. “As far as the chili peppers go, they are really a staple ingredient in countries like Mozambique, Namibia and Angola. Our Peri Peri blend is simple, but it’s got a really good amount of heat because it uses habanero chili powder. It makes a great marinade with just oil, vinegar and some additional lemon juice. Let it hang out overnight in the fridge and then throw it on the grill. It’s really delicious. I have to believe it’s good on more than chicken.”
“If you are familiar with the Sichuan peppercorns that are typically used in Chinese cooking, think of the Sansho as a related peppercorn that’s used in Japan,” Wilkens says. “They’re not botanically peppercorns and are unrelated to black pepper or white pepper. They come from a family of plants that is related to the citrus family. They have that really bright, citrusy, upfront effect on your tongue that Sichuan peppers have and then it washes out into an overall numbing effect. It’s not really hot and spicy at all, but it works so well with other spicy flavors.”
“This is a classic blend that’s been around in our company for a very long time. You can find Creole seasoning just about anywhere, but what separates ours is the freshness of the ingredients we use,” Wilkens says. “We’re talking garlic, onion and chiles. It’s a medium to medium-hot blend of spices. Creole blends tend to have a more herbal profile whereas Cajun blends tend to have a more earthy and bitter profile. Creole really accents the herb notes on top of everything else. This blend can be specific to Cajun or Creole cooking or you can use it just as an all-purpose seasoning. It’s pretty versatile in that way.”
“When we think about adding smoky chiles to something in the U.S., we commonly think about chipotle chiles. Those tend to be the most common way to add smoke and heat to a dish,” Wilkens says. “I think Spanish smoked paprika gets overlooked too much. It can serve as a secret ingredient in so many different ways. It’s got a good amount of heat, medium-hot. The smokiness is balanced. Sometimes when you get smoked products, they have an acrid and bitter note to them, but this is really smooth and sweet. It’s an essential spice to have in the kitchen if you ask me.”
“Tellicherry pepper comes from the southwest coast of India, where some of the nicest pepper in the world has always been grown. Most of the world’s pepper comes from Vietnam now, but we still blend with this Indian pepper just because it has the best flavor,” Wilkens says. “This is black pepper, but I think it’s a missed opportunity to think heat only comes from chiles. Everybody uses peppers. It’s the most used spice in the world, hands down. Salt and pepper is on everything. But on its own, black pepper can really dial up the heat if you really lean in and add a lot. It can be the flavor of the dish depending on how you use it and how much you add, it can get quite hot.”
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