Michael Solomonov’s Mediterranean Spice Pantry

Keep these herbs and spices in your kitchen, and the warm, sunny flavors of Israel, Turkey and beyond will be at your fingertips. Chef and author Michael Solomonov shares his cooking essentials.
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Michael Solomonov's Seasoning Essentials

Why stress over complicated techniques or fancy equipment when a cast-iron pan and a little turmeric and dried lime will get you a meal you can happily share with friends? Michael Solomonov has been the pied piper of the lush flavors of his native Israel, spreading the word though his celebrated restaurants Zahav and Federal Donuts. We asked the Philadelphia chef and James Beard Award winner for his list of seasoning essentials. Here are his top 10 picks.

 

Photography by Heather Ramsdell

Dried Lime

A staple of Iranian cooking, these are limes that have been brined and left to dry. "They smell like orange Tang," says Solomonov of the citrusy spice. "We grate a lot at a time in a spice grinder for the restaurant, but you can use a rasp grater. It works well in stews, particularly Persian style. I like it with turmeric, black-eyed peas and fresh dill."

Urfa, Aleppo Peppers & Sumac

"Urfa peppers [left] evoke dried fruit, raisins and cinnamon, almost like a chipotle or roasted coffee," says Solomonov. "We do a hot Turkish hummus with Urfa pepper, and I use it in white chocolate desserts," he says. "It works for sweet and savory." He keeps his fresh in the refrigerator. Aleppos (right) are from Syria. "They're not as sharp as Urfa peppers. They have a sweet heat. I like to roll goat cheese in them. Or to dust fried okra." And sumac? "Like pink lemonade, sumac (center) is sour and lemony," says Solomonov of the ground dried berries. "Before the Moors brought lemon to the Middle East, they used this. It's rosy, like grenadine. Sprinkle it on cucumbers or arugula. I like to mix it with onions on top of grilled meat."  

Za'atar

"There are many versions in the Middle East," says Solomonov. Most contain a blend of green herbs (like thyme), sumac, sesame seeds and salt. "It is probably the most-important spice blend. It goes well with everything savory — on top of any red meat, fish or fowl on the grill. It goes incredibly well on bread with a drizzle of bitter olive oil. Or on feta with olives and olive oil. On top of tomatoes. On top of potatoes and chicken. Sprinkle it on at the end and in the beginning." 

Turmeric

"Really good turmeric smells like carrots," says Solomonov, inhaling deeply. "It should smell sweet, fragrant and super earthy. We are used to it in Madras curry." But it's good for so much more than that, he says. "It works well with butter, and adding to stews and legumes."

Mahleb

"Mahleb is from the kernel of the pit of the sour cherry. It is floral, nutty and toasty," says Solomonov, "and also sweet and bitter. It's used in Greek Easter breads. We use it dairy desserts. Try it in a crostata or streusel topping with cherries. Put it in cherry pie dough. I like it with savory, too — with shellfish, scallops and lobster." He keeps mahleb in the freezer. 

Coriander

The seed of cilantro, this is sold ground or whole. "It tastes of citrus zest, and almost like violet," says Solomonov. "It's good with lamb, in stews, with bread and chicken. Tomatoes and coriander are my favorite combination. High-quality coriander even goes with vanilla ice cream." Thinking about dinner? "Take a boneless, skinless chicken breast and rub it with coriander and cumin, and let sit one hour before grilling." 

Cumin

"A lot of people have bad association with cumin because they taste it stale in bad chili," says Solomonov. "Good cumin should be sweet, malty and a little toasted. It's fantastic. It has an exoticism. It helps out turmeric. Carrots are never the same without cumin. You can pair it with something yeasty like bread. Even doughnuts!"

Paprika

This spice is made from ground-up, dried sweet red peppers. "When cooked, paprika does the same thing for me as tomato paste does. It adds sugar and sweetness," Solomonov says. "Try it with things like chicken and lamb. It has a heady, rich dark flavor."

Spice Smarts

Keep your spices in a cool, dry place, says Solomonov — "not over the stove or by the window. The heat destroys them." When you open the jar, spices should smell fresh, not stale. They don't last forever, so buy a little bit at a time for home cooking — go for small jars or just-what-you-need portions from the bulk bin at the grocery store. And don't hesitate to toss old jars that have been sitting around, says the chef: "In the same way you look through your clothes and if you haven't worn them in a year you get rid of them, it should be the same with spices."  

For More

Learn how to incorporate these spices and more into classic Mediterranean dishes with Michael Solomonov's new cookbook, Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking.

Get the Recipes: Quinoa, Peas, and Mint Tabbouleh

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