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Cook's spice road meanders from Morocco to Ethiopia

As cooks cut fat and salt from dishes, they can still embrace the spice of life.

Spices in all their zesty, tangy, earthy, pungent and piquant varieties are the theme of my latest column in the newspaper’s weekly food section. If your seasoning routine feels like Groundhog Day, take my suggestions for assessing, cleaning and restocking your spice cabinet before embarking on a journey down the spice road. Plan your trip cautiously or adventurously by incorporating either one new spice at a time or embracing an entirely new genre of cuisine.

My column cited the Moroccan staple “ras el hanout” and specifically the benefits of concocting this blend oneself from bulk spices, rather than pay many times more for a little premixed jar of seasoning. Use it in my recipe for a classic Moroccan lentil stew, known as “harira.”

On the other coast of Africa, Ethiopia has its own lentil stew and its quintessential spice blend, “berbere.” Compound your own and make many servings of hearty and wholesome “mesir wot,” which is perfectly aligned with the government’s latest advice to make every bite count.

Ethiopian cuisine also relies on an infused clarified butter — “nit’r qibe” — using some of the same spices in berbere. The butter helps to saute ingredients for the country’s beloved “doro wot,” which I’ll post, along with “mesir wot” over the next week.

But first, let’s stock the spice cabinet for these dishes and test our appetite for traveling on a culinary odyssey — from the comfort of our own kitchens. If you don’t want to leave the confines of home, these and other exotic spices can be procured online.

New Mexico chiles are available, often already ground, at Latin and international markets. The same goes for fenugreek and black cardamom pods. I love browsing The Spice & Tea Exchange in Ashland to obtain what I can’t from grocers’ bulk bins.

Berbere

1/2 cup ground dried New Mexico chiles

1/4 cup paprika

1 tablespoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon onion powder

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground cardamom

1 teaspoon ground fenugreek

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

Thoroughly combine all the ingredients. Store in an airtight container.

Makes 15 servings.

Nit’r Qibe

1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

3 black cardamom pods, not green

3 whole cloves

1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds

1 teaspoon coriander seeds

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

1/4 cup chopped onion

3 tablespoons minced garlic

2 tablespoons minced ginger

1 cinnamon stick

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 pound butter

Preheat oven to 200 F.

In a dry skillet over medium heat, toast the peppercorns, cardamom pods, cloves, fenugreek, coriander and cumin, stirring frequently, until fragrant, for about 2 minutes.

Place toasted spices in an ovenproof bowl, along with the onion, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, oregano, nutmeg and turmeric. Place butter on top and cook in oven for 1 hour.

Skim white solids off top of now-clear melted butter. Strain through fine cheesecloth or fine-mesh strainer into another bowl; refrigerate. When solidified, remove from that bowl, turn over and scrape white part off what used to be bottom. Place remainder in a bowl or ramekin, cover and store at room temperature for several weeks or in refrigerator for many months.

Makes 22 servings.

Recipe adapted by Tribune News Service from the Daring Gourmet.

Tribune News Service photo