One day last week I was cooking a pork tenderloin for dinner. After perusing my recipe notebooks I chose an Emeril Legasse recipe for Asian pork tenderloin. Not having the requisite Emeril’s Asian seasoning mix, I reached for my container of Chinese Ten-Spice(which you will discover is made-from-scratch, so to speak).
Well, I shan’t go into the details, but the tenderloin was OK, not great, so I most likely will edit that out of my collection. Nonetheless, what arose was my need to replenish my ten-spice, because the amount for the tenderloin had depleted my supply.
If you’re not familiar with Barbara Tropp , considered by many the Julia Child of Asian/ chinese cooking and ever find yourself serious about Chinese cooking, whether Mandarin or Cantonese, by all means start with her books. Here’s a link to them both China Moon Cookbook and The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking. For beginning, I would recommend the China Moon Cookbook. It’s more home cook friendly and I find the font of The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking troublesomely small, even with glasses.
A lot of cooks are familiar with chinese five-spice, available in most grocers, but can you ever be sure exactly what’s in it and more importantly, in what proportion? As Julia said “Why bother going to all that trouble to make your own stock you may ask? Well, so it will taste like you and not the can!” So when I discovered in the first chapter of The China Moon Cookbook a recipe for China Moon Ten-Spice some 15 years ago, I had to try it. I’ve made my own ever since.
The list of ingredients is fairly un-exotic except for the Szechwan peppercorns. It requires fennel seed, star anise, coriander seed, cloves, cumin seed, black peppercorn, ground cinnamon, ground ginger and turmeric. After a brief contemplation, I decided if I was going to go to the trouble to toast whole spices and concoct this mixture, fresh spices were in order. You tell me, when was the last time you replaced your turmeric? You know, it’s the yellowish powder that looks good on your spice rack or shelf and stains anything it touches. When did you use it last?
The next day when I ran errands I made a stop at the Taj Mahal Imports and bought every ingredient fresh that I wasn’t sure was recently purchased from the list. I did have to go to the Buford Highway Farmer’s Market for the Szechwan peppercorns. I like buying from the Taj Mahal for a number of reasons. Mainly because they sell a LOT of spices due to their Indian clientele and secondly because they package their spices in small 1 & 2 oz. sizes, so for a minimum investment, you can replace them often.
Seriously, why go to all this effort to cook like a mad scientist with old, stale ingredients?
When I referenced before this mixture being made-from-scratch, I meant I didn’t actually grow the cinnamomum tree and harvest the bark and grind it into powder, but I did toast the spices, stir in the powdered ones and whirl it up in a grinder and finally, because I wasn’t happy with the coarse grind I ended up with, I pounded it mercilessly in a mortar and pestle.
The aroma was enticing and intoxicating. I can’t wait to add it to some sautéed vegetables or my next plate of pasta. It’s also quite tasty in mayonnaise.
Next time you reach for a spice bottle and it’s a little dusty or covered with kitchen ‘grunge,’ ask yourself, “How fresh is this?” Maybe a venture to the market would be the best commencement.
Toujours, bon appétit!