La Boite: Designer Spices

Recently in the New York Times Magazine, we came across a fascinating article featuring chef Lior Lev Sercarz who had opened La Boîte á Epice on the west side in NYC (11th Avenue) in 2006 to create his own unique spice blends. Mr. Sercarz is widely known among culinary circles as a “true” spice master and has worked as a chef for the likes of Daniel Boulud and Olivier Roellinger.We have been savoring an opportunity to visit La Boîte and finally did so on July 3.

Although La Boîte is technically open to the retail public from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. from Wednesday through Friday, we called and were told that they would be open on Wednesday morning. We were greeted by a cheerful and delightful young woman with the name of Tamar, which I understands means “fig” in Hebrew. She was both knowledgeable and helpful in sniffing our way through the 41 spice blends.

As described in the Times article Mr. Sercarz uses spices to create a sense of location based on his extensive travels. There is no question that he has succeeded based on our sampling.  There is no easy way to sample spices as your olfactory senses can probably not differentiate between more than 5 samples.  Nevertheless, there is a delightful  book which focuses on the different spice blends and explains how they might be used.   Indeed, there are some great pairings for fish and vegetables that we cannot wait to sample.

This evening we will be sampling his sauteed figs in butter and balsamic vinegar with the Ana spice blend.    This will be followed with mozzarella di bufala and heritage tomatoes with another La Boite spice blend.

A recent article in Food and Wine serves as a nice complement to the New York Times article but covers much of the same ground.  Right now you can only purchase these La Boite spice blends through the Ingredient Finder, but I have been advised that their website will be up in three months.   We suggest a visit to sample these spices yourself.  It is well worth the effort.

Finocchiona Salami and the Gran Sasso

finocchiona salamiThérèse and I will generally opt for finocchiona salami if pressed to make a decision for a picnic lunch.  This delicious salami has the distinct taste and smell of fennel which is often used to flavor pork in Umbria and Tuscany.  Whether you are using ground fennel seeds or the powerful fennel pollen, this delightful spice makes all the difference in pork, particularly salami.   I fondly recall pulling off the road to have a delicious porchetta sandwich for lunch.  In any event, a little finocchiona, fontina cheese and bread make for a great lunch, particularly for a jaunt in the lovely countryside of Italy.  As a side note, Mario Batali now uses fennel pollen for pollo al mattone (chicken under a brick) and, it too, is delicious.

One of our favorite weekend outings was to hike the beautiful fields around the base of the Gran Sasso in Abruzzi – about 1.5 hours from Rome.  During the spring, there were delightful flowers and pools of water that had been filled by the melting snow.  It was still rather cool at that time of the year, but hiking around these lovely fields kept you warm and certainly helped work up an appetite for lunch.

Gran Sasso

One of the curious things about the Gran Sasso is that we had to take a cable car up to the “Refugio” from which we began our walk. I believe the “refugio” has now become a hotel, but as most Italians remember, it is the site of the famous rescue of Mussolini by a German pilot, who flew Il Duce to the north to escape the invading allies. I’ve seen a few vintage photographs taken at the time of his “rescue” and, regardless of your feelings toward Mussolini, this was clearly a very dangerous and courageous mission. When asked to elicit a response from an Italian on the skill demonstrated by the German pilot, they will simply respond: “È tedesco,” implying that only a German would be crazy enough to try it.

Rescue of Il Duce

For those Gourmay readers with a bit of time, consider a spring walk on Gran Sasso with your finocchiona salami and, perhaps, a flask of wine or grappa.

Madras Curry Chicken

Thérèse and I love Indian food.  The flavor profiles are strong and there are so many variations of a recipe that it is practically impossible to eat the same dish twice even with the identical name.   Also, there is a definite bias toward vegetables in Indian cooking which certainly makes for more interesting dining.  People tend to think that Indian food is spicy – as in “hot” spicy – but this is generally not the case.  Sure, there are plenty of very spicy dishes like Vindaloo and most any competent Indian chef can add or subtract heat depending on your pain threshold.   Personally, I like a hint of fire, but I don’t go overboard because it tends to mask the great and varied flavors in Indian cooking.

Indian Spices - Madras CurryOne of our “go-to” home recipes is Madras Curry Chicken.  We pick up a can of “locally” prepared spices (no preservatives) at Whole Foods (see photo) and then simply follow the short recipe on the back of the can.  I don’t know if you can find the same spice mix at your local grocer, but I am quite sure you can pick up something similar.    In any event, this Madras Curry Blend has the following spices:  Tumeric, cumin, garlic, ginger, onion and other spices.  We generally will prepare this quick and delicious meal in the evening served over brown rice with broccoli as a side dish.

Madras Curry Chicken

Ingredients (serves 2 to 4)

  • dash of olive oil
  • 1/4 cup shallots/onions (diced)
  • 3 1/2 tsp of Madras Curry Blend (2 1/2 tsp if using tofu)
  • 1 1/2 tsp tomato paste
  • 1 1/2 tsp soy sauce (maybe a tad bit more)
  • 1 lb of chicken meat (we generally will go with the breast) cut up in 1″ square pieces
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 tsp of coconut milk

Preparation

  • Saute onions in a little oil until soft over medium heat (about 5 minutes)
  • Add curry blend, tomato paste and gently mix with the onions
  • Add the chicken, soy sauce and coconut milk and allow to cook (about 10 minutes).  Note: I normally will brown the chicken before adding the coconut milk.

Serve over brown rice.  For those not inclined to eat chicken; tofu, potatoes and lentils are great substitutes.  It is this great spice blend and the coconut milk that elevates this simple meal to something close to Nirvana.

Enjoy!