The secret spice |

The secret spice

Sarah L. Stewart
Dominique TaylorAt Larkspur Restaurant in Vail, Chef de Cuisine Luke Venner has been experimenting with a variety of unusual spices. Clockwise, from top left: saffron, fennel pollen, hibiscus flower, Saigon cinnamon, piment d'Espelette, Szechuan peppercorn, cardamom, caribe chile flakes and vadouvan.

Most home kitchens host a pretty standard lineup of spices: black pepper, cinnamon, a shaker of Mrs. Dash, some curry powder or Hungarian paprika for the slightly more adventuresome.

But fennel pollen? Vadouvan? Hawaiian pink salt?

Plenty of home cooks may not have even heard of these, let alone own them. But they’re just a few of the more exotic selections you’re likely to find on local chefs’ spice racks.

“(Spices) are fun,” says Luke Venner, chef de cuisine at Larkspur Restaurant in Vail. “They add so much dimension to what you’re doing.”

Venner is just one of many local chefs who welcomes spices from around the world into his kitchen ” and onto your plate. They’re some of the more powerful tools in the chef’s arsenal, capable of making a dish mysterious and memorable: If you can’t put your finger on a flavor, there’s a good chance that a spice ” or several ” is at work.

It takes two weeks for piment d’Espelette, dried peppers from the Basque region of France, to arrive at Larkspur. But for Venner, the pepper is worth the wait, lending a smoky, mildly hot character to his encrusted, slow-cooked lamb.

Exotic spices often contribute flavors that their more common counterparts might not ” and that element of surprise is part of their allure.

Take, for example, cinnamon.

“Most people think that cinnamon is cinnamon,” says Juan Martinez, executive sous chef at Chap’s Grill and Chophouse at the Vail Cascade. But that’s not true of the up-and-coming Saigon cinnamon, a Vietnamese variety that Vail chefs are using in both desserts and savory dishes.

“It’s a little peppery,” Martinez says. “It just really jumps out at you.”

Martinez’s favorites also include lavender flowers and pink peppercorns. Pink peppercorns have a floral element and aren’t as sharp as other types of pepper, Martinez says. He blends them with lavender to encrust tuna.

Juice O’Sullivan, executive chef at Blu’s Restaurant in Vail, is a fan of star anise, a Chinese spice that tastes similar to licorice, and green cardamom, an aromatic Indian spice. The two spices appear in marinades and sauces at Blu’s.

“You can do just about anything with them, really,” O’Sullivan says.

Chefs have also made even the most basic seasoning exotic.

For most of us, salt is what comes out of the Morton’s canister and spends years in the decorative shaker next to its pre-ground pepper twin.

How pedestrian.

Martinez favors a salt from Bali that’s smoked over coconut husks. Kyle Cowan, executive chef at Up the Creek in Vail, likes the earthy flavor of Hawaiian pink salt, which is mined near clay deposits that give it its color, and green salt, which is infused with bamboo and pairs nicely with fish.

“I’m really doing a lot with different types of salts,” says Cowan, who also uses mint- and lavender-infused salts from Australia. “They all lend a different characteristic.”

Whether spices are floral, spicy, savory or aromatic, even trained chefs require some practice to make them harmonize with a dish instead of drown it out.

O’Sullivan relies on some waiters and fellow chefs to help him decide what spices a dish could be missing.

“It’s always trial and error,” he says. Sometimes, he succeeds on the first try; other, more frustrating times, it takes three our four tries to perfect the balance of flavors.

Venner has been experimenting with vadouvan, a curry-like spice that has been gaining popularity particularly on the West Coast. He uses it to make a broth, which he then aerates to form bubbles that counteract some of the spiciness.

“They’re all spicy, but we use them in a manner that we’re able to control that,” he says. “It’s our focus to use the spices, especially if they have heat, as an accent.”

Trial and error can yield some surprising combinations. Martinez, for example, has found that the sour, red powder of sumac pairs well with seafood and grilled meats. Juniper berries, in a marinade or ground in a sauce, accent game meats such as rabbit and elk. Fennel seed matches up with seafood, while its sweet pollen yields a toasty anise flavor in Venner’s fennel pollen frozen yogurt.

“I’m usually inspired when I go to a restaurant,” Martinez says. “I’m always interested to try something new.”

Walk into just about any high-end restaurant in the valley, and you’re likely to find at least one dish that owes its inspiration to some international cuisine. Japanese, Indian, Middle Eastern and other flavors have worked their way onto our palettes, and our plates.

“Global cuisine is kind of a food trend right now,” Venner says. “If you’re not using spices (in international dishes), you’re kind of molesting their cuisine.”

Still, there can be too much of a good thing. Cowan of Up the Creek likes to use various salts, peppers and a few basic spice blends, but that’s about it. He thinks too many spices mask the flavor of food and can be a cover for lower-quality ingredients.

“We let our food speak for itself,” he says.

Aside from some purists, however, many local chefs see spices growing in popularity. Martinez, who grew up in the Midwest and started cooking in the ’80s, says he’s seen a big surge in the use of spices during his career, and he welcomes the change.

“Food was pretty flat where I came from,” he says. “There’s so much food and so much flavor out there that we can all learn about.”

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