Fall means harvest time. In Ghana, it's the time of the yam festival. In small English farming villages, some farmhand is crying the neck right now. My people are shaking palm branches and lumpy citrons under huts in our backyards, under the biblical mandate to eat a lot, drink a lot, and sleep outside.
Around the world we're celebrating root vegetables, grains, thick-fleshed fruits, and hearty greens (to say nothing of robust meats and cheeses). Here are some of the best spices to make the most of them.
Whether you're roasting vegetables, searing a hunk of meat for braising, or chopping a hearty salad, smokey flavors are often welcome. They bring out the richness of foods while staying clean, adding flavor but not heaviness. Darker meats, especially those exposed to an open flame, take especially well to smoke.
My favorite smoke source is smoked salt, particularly Halen Mon Gold finishing salt, which comes in iceberg-sized flakes and has an intense but not overwhelming barbecued wood flavor. Chipotle and smoked paprika are other great smoke delivery vehicles: consider braised pork, sautéed corn with bacon, or mashed sweet potatoes.
I get teased for it, but try some smoked cinnamon. You can buy it in-store or online at La Boîte ´ Epices. It's magic in sweet and savory recipes.
Smoked chiles aren't the only ones I use come Fall: all dried red chiles become fair game. Aleppo-roasted fennel is a gorgeous side for just about anything. Ground guajillo is sharp and punchy enough to pair with a number of starches: winter squash, sweet potato, celery root, and parsnip.
Dried fruits start making appearances in recipes about now, especially raisins, apricots, plums, figs, and cherries. They enrich pan sauces and braises with sweetness and body. To enrich them further, and cut through the sugar, sprinkle on some raisin-y, roasty urfa biber. Remember, chiles are fruits, too, and they have an affinity for their cousins.
They're powerful accents for rich meats, lush stews, and most cruciferous vegetables (especially cabbage). Try a salad of chopped raddichio, juniper berries, chevre, and lemon; or make whizz up a batch of celery salt to top grilled sausages with a sweet relish. If you're feeling ambitious, make a batch of good-and-good-for-you sauerkraut, a Fall to Winter staple, and don't skimp on the dill seed.
"Gamey" is an odd descriptor for a spice, but I think one that's well fitting to cumin, asafoetida, curry leaves, and vadouvan. These spices have a wild, pleasantly raspy flavor to temper the sweet starches which accompany the season.
Starchy potatoes are the obvious candidates for the gamey spice treatment, but carrots, parsnips, and sweet potatoes are other worthy choices. Add either as a rub before roasting, or while sweating aromatics for a soup, purée, or sauté.
Black garlic and fermented black beans are other gamey spices. I use the former in a raw beet salad for a tart and funky dressing. The latter makes a stir fry of pork and cabbage complete for a much-better-than-takeout weeknight meal.
Sweet, Warming Spices
Okay, so this is kind of a no-brainer (apple cinnamon everything, for starters), but I couldn't leave out spices like ginger, star anise, clove, and allspice deserve credit, too. These spices add elegance to comfort foods by contributing curious accents as well as warmth.
Ginger is perfect with heavy, greasy ingredients; star anise takes cooked fruit from cloying to complex. Allspice, when actually fresh, tastes like plenty more than pumpkin pie. There's a reason it's one of the foundational spices of Jamaican jerk preparations, used for rubs and to create the smokey perfume that embodies jerk cooking.
What are your Fall spices?
This list is just a beginning of seasonal spices, and if hope counts for anything, we'll get more than a few weeks of autumnal glory before the skies turn a sinister shade of grey and the wind blows fierce. So what spices are you using this season? Summer is all raw tomatoes and bikinis and highball cocktails; now it's time for us to cook.
About the author: Max Falkowitz is a proud native of Queens, New York. He'll do just about anything for a good cup of tea and enjoys long walks down the aisles of Chinese groceries. He is known to make ice cream on occasion. You can follow his exotic spice- and ice cream-based ramblings on Twitter.