“You have to smell this, wait one second.” WHACK, WHACK, WHACK. Angelo Sosa, former Top Chef contestant, smacks a lemongrass stalk against the wall of Kalustyan’s, a New York City spice shop. Why? To extract the scent. “As a chef,” he told us, “you’re an extractor… you’re trying to extract flavors.”
To prove his point, he smashed the lemongrass stalk to release the oils and make it smell stronger – it really did. (The woman at the counter didn’t really seem to understand what had happened when we paid for it. “It came like this? Why do you want to buy it?”)
Recently, we took a spice shopping trip with Sosa to learn some tips about buying and storing spices and were joined by a woman, who despite having no clue who he was, quickly became his biggest fan. Sosa, a genuine and amiable person, began by earnestly displaying his passion for spices and how we should “think of spices like tea” when creating blends – the key is experimentation to find what works best for your needs and tastes. “Cooking is a feeling,” he says, “that’s how I navigate and create dishes.”
Standing in front of rows and rows of brightly colored spices, he explained that the essence of good quality spices is volatile oils; that’s what all spices are about. These essential oils give spices their aroma and robust flavor. (They are also what give them their color.)
When buying spices, look at how they’re stored because just like wines and oils there shouldn’t be too much exposure to light or heat, or else the volatile oils will deteriorate. You’ll be able to see by their color if they have been properly stored or not (compare different spices to judge the brightness level of the spice). At home, you should treat them like wines, he says, and keep them in canisters that aren’t porous like Ziploc bags, plastic containers, or metals.
But just then we were interrupted by an eavesdropping customer who had some pressing questions. Sue was visiting from Michigan where they don’t have these kinds of stores, so she’s trying to stock up on spices before she heads back. Sue had become enraptured by Sosa and couldn’t stop listening to his tips and advice even though she had no idea who he was. In fact, she kept saying how knowledgeable he is and does he have a web site where she can learn more? Sosa was a good sport, and patiently answered everything she asked about. (As you’ll see in the slideshow, Sue manages to take over the interview for a little while.)
Check out Sosa’s favorite spices below and see his answers to Sue’s probing questions about his favorite marinades and spices mixes here.
Sosa's Favorite Spices
Traveling is a really big part of Sosa’s inspiration when using new spices and combinations because he says that it really helps you to understand where the food comes from and how the flavors are used. He adds that salt is always great to add to a spice mixture because it’s a flavor enhancer and rounds everything out. Although he goes through phases with spices, here are some of his current favorites and how to use them:
Chipotles: He uses whole chipotles, grinds them to make infused oils* or adds them to soups during the last ten minutes of cooking.
Black Cardamom: Great for black/earthy blends and used on meats as a marinade or cooked with butter.
Oregano: A great spice to have, and not just for Italian foods.
Cloves: His spice version of “MSG.” Add it to sloppy Joe’s in the meat mixture, and it “numbs your palate and kind of tricks your nerves like MSG does.”
Saigon Cinnamon: Similar to regular cinnamon though much spicier. If you love cinnamon, this is great on duck and can be used in sweet or savory dishes.
Coriander Seed: The seed of the plant that grows cilantro leaves. It’s great for cooking and spice blends.
Turmeric: In powder or root form, Sosa says that the plant buds an edible and gorgeous flower and its leaves can be used in curries.
*Note: Infusing oils with spices is great to make a super-concentrated oil that’s very potent and strong. Always use whole spices (you don’t know how long ground ones have been there), toast them, cool, blend, and then combine with an oil.
Photos courtesy of Arthur Bovino.