Photography

Focus on spices

Since I decided at the beginning of the year that I was going to curate a collection of photos on the theme of purple vegetables, I’ve ended up taking “arty farty” photos of other foods as well. Two weeks ago I was on holiday from work and decided to spend some time indulging in photography to work on an idea that I’d had for a while, which was to take close up photos of a selection of spices. I’ve seen some great dark and moody ingredients shots online and on instagram that focus on whole spices and I wanted to try and have a go at creating my own version.

A few months ago I picked up a rather pretty tarnished old teaspoon and a decorative small pestle and mortar from the market. These have been sat in my kitchen waiting until I had time to start playing around with my spices. The pestle and mortar didn’t end up being used in this series of photos but I have (vague) plans to use it in a different series of photos at some point in the future. In the meantime it just looks nice in my kitchen.

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The spices selected here are just a small sample from my kitchen, I have many many (possibly too many) more on the spice rack and in the cupboards. There was no particular theme when I selected the spices for this photo shoot, I just chose the ones that I thought would work best for close ups. This is why I’ve used whole spices instead of powders, more interesting to look at (and easier to tidy up afterwards).

Actually not all the photos are of spices, I’ve also included one herb and one flower. But they are fragrant and are used to add their own special flavour to food therefore I think I’m justified in including them here.

Cardamom

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A very fragrant member of the ginger family with an easily recognizable citrusy scent that becomes stronger when the pods are bashed in a pestle and mortar to release the seeds. Frequently found in a range of Indian curry recipes where the hint of sharp citrus flavour helps to cut through rich sauces. Cardamom is not just for savoury dishes though, it pairs well with chocolate and is of course excellent in Swedish cardamom buns. It also works well in a range of fruity bakes as it pairs well with bananas, berries and citrus fruits.

Cardamom is also a key ingredient in Bedouin coffee where coffee beans are roasted with cardamom, cloves and saffron before being ground and brewed into a strong coffee served in small cups1. This is not a drink that I have ever tried but I would certainly like to.

I’ve tried using ready  ground cardamom which is great if it gets used up fairly quickly otherwise the flavour begins to disappear. I found an almost finished packet of ground cardamom recently that had been neglected and used what I thought was a generous amount in a cake recipe only to discover that because the packet of ground spice was quite old, I couldn’t taste it in my cake which was disappointing (the cake still tasted good though). Therefore I’d recommend grinding your own cardamom seeds as you need them. It might take a little longer than opening a jar or spice packet but it’s worth it for the smell.

If you fancy trying cardamom in something other than your favourite curry recipe then maybe one of these recipes will inspire you.

Wholemeal vegan banana, blackberry and cardamom cakes

Olive oil, cardamom and blood orange polenta cake – Recipes From A Pantry

Coffee, cardamom, chocolate mousse cake – Tin & Thyme

Cardamom cold brew iced coffee – Veggie Desserts

Cardamom is also an essential ingredient in a proper homemade garam masala such as this one on Kavey Eats.

Fenugreek

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Fenugreek is a spice that I have only started using in my cooking relatively recently as it hasn’t always been easy to find even though it is often listed in curry recipes. Whilst researching for this post I was fascinated to discover that fenugreek seeds are used in the production of fake maple syrups1. This surprised me because when I smell the seeds I can only associate the fragrance with the smell of generic curry powder which is where the spice is most frequently used. After reading about the use of fenugreek in fake maple syrup production I did go and sniff the jar again, I agree that there is a sweetness there but it still doesn’t say maple syrup to me. I think it gives a slightly earthy spicy flavour to curries which comes out best when used as part of the spice blend Panch Phoran (more on this further down).

Toasted fenugreek seeds make a great start to a simple curry recipe such as this red snapper curry with fenugreek and lime from Natural Kitchen Adventures.

Kaffir lime leaves

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Wonderfully fragrant and an essential ingredient in many Thai curry recipes. Difficult to find fresh in my part of the world but easily available as dried leaves. They look a little bit like bay leaves but taste very different with a sharp citrus flavour that when combined with tamarind and lime juice gives the sour flavour that I love so much in Thai curries. We started selling large packets of dried kaffir lime leaves at work recently and when the first delivery arrived, I spent a few moment inhaling the delicious scent through the perforated holes in the packaging. It’s one of my favourite smells along with lemongrass, I really need to make something other than a Thai curry to combine the flavours. I’ve had an idea to make a lime curd infused with kaffir lime leaves but I just haven’t got round to it yet, maybe one day I’ll do it and possibly add some lemongrass too. I’m feeling inspired by Ceri’s recipe for an instant kiwi coconut sorbet infused with lime and lemongrass. Kellie’s courgette, coconut and lime leaf coffee cake is also calling to me. I must start experimenting more with this fabulous leaf.

Black mustard seeds

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I think this might be my favourite photo from this collection. Until I was processing the images in Lightroom I had no idea that the seeds were so textured as it is difficult to see with the naked eye and it’s not as if I’ve spent time closely examining my mustard seeds before cooking with them. This is why I find macro photography so exciting, it brings out the hidden details that you didn’t know were there and wouldn’t have looked for. I might try shooting mustard seeds again with a longer extension tube attached to my lens to see if I can bring out more detail. Who would have thought such a small innocuous looking seed could be so interesting? Mustard seeds really are tiny, about the same size as poppy seeds.

Black mustard seeds are one of my go to spices when I want to make a mild curry with a hint of heat but without using chillies. They can also be great at perking up leftovers such as in this leftover roast beef and potato hash from Elizabeth’s Kitchen Diary.

Nutmeg

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Nutmeg is described in The Flavour Thesaurus as “… an exotic, beautiful double-agent of a spice, apt equally to make sweet, creamy dishes less cloying and cruciferous vegetables less bitter.”2

Nutmeg for me is an essential ingredient in a bread and butter pudding, however I tend to use it more often in savoury cooking than for baking and desserts.  I add a grating of nutmeg to creamy mashed potato, cheese sauce or to leeks sweated in butter. A couple of weeks ago I made a soup with celeriac and parsnip that was finished off with a good grating of nutmeg and a few crispy shards of smokey bacon. Nutmeg is excellent with butternut squash especially when paired with cheese as in my Cheesy Roasted Butternut Squash Pasta Bake.

Green vegetables such as spinach definitely benefit from a little nutmeg as demonstrated by Tin & Thyme in her green vegetable galette recipe and so does chard such as in this rainbow chard souffle from Fab Food 4 All. I mentioned parsnip and nutmeg above, a truly delicious combination in soup and just as delicious in cake form with parsnip, maple and nutmeg cake with sweet potato and ginger frosting from Veggie Desserts.

Black onion seeds aka nigella seeds

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These little black seeds go by various names, sometimes called Nigella seeds, sometimes black onion seeds or sometimes kalonji. Whichever you see written in a recipe, it means these triangular teardrop shaped seeds that you’re most likely to find sprinkled on top of naan breads or middle Eastern flat breads. Despite their name, they do not taste like onion and do not come from an onion plant, they just look like onion seeds. Instead the seeds are harvested from a plant similar to love-in-the-mist and have a peppery taste which works well with stir fried vegetables and in pickles or chutneys3.  The seeds look remarkably attractive in this pumpkin chutney recipe from The Crafty Larder, a great way to use up pumpkin flesh if you’re carving one these weekend and fancy trying something a bit different.

Panch phoran

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I first came across panch phoran in Gordan Ramsay’s Great Escape (2010) which is his Indian recipe book. It wasn’t until earlier this year that I finally got around to mixing up my own batch of this fragrant Bengali spice mix. It’s a very simple blend of whole spices, no need to get the grinder or pestle and mortar out. Add equal quantities of fennel seeds, fenugreek seeds, black mustard seeds, cumin seeds and nigella seeds to a jar and shake together. Use a tablespoon of each spice to make the first batch then add a couple of teaspoons of the mix to the base of your next curry. I made an delicious impromptu rainbow chard and tomato curry a couple of weeks ago using about a tablespoon of panch phoran. I added this to the pan after softening an onion and fried for a few moments before adding freshly chopped tomatoes, cooking until they released their juices then added a large bunch of chopped rainbow chard (stems and leaves) and cooked until the chard was tender. A very satisfying mildly spiced vegan curry that even the carnivorous boyfriend enjoyed.

Another way that I enjoy this spice mix is with new potatoes. Halve (or quarter if large) new potatoes and boil in salted water until just tender, drain and then add to a hot frying pan with oil and a good spoonful of panch phoran, fry until the potatoes are just starting to colour on the cut edges and serve with anything you like. This makes a great alternative to rice or bread to serve with a curry.

Dried rose petals

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I know I said I loved the mustard seed shot, but I’m also pretty enamoured with this one as well. While rose petals aren’t really considered a spice but they are just so beautiful and I’ve been wanting to photograph them like this for so long that I thought I could get away with including them in this collection. I’ve had a little pot of dried rose petals in my cupboard for ages, I think the only time I’ve used any is when I decorated my Strawberry, Rhubarb and Rose Macarons last year. They do have a strong perfumed fragrance that can be overpowering if you use too much.

I know that rose works well with other spices though as it is often included in ras el hanout blends and I also received a sample of harissa powder with rose from Steenbergs recently. I need to start using my rose petals rather than leaving them languishing in the back of the cupboard. I want to try and use rose in more savoury dishes and I think these two recipes are probably a good place to start.

Rose petal and roasted tomato pesto – Recipes From A Pantry

Rose chermoula roasted chickpeas and carrots with griddled courgettes – Natural Kitchen Adventures

Sumac

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Sumac is a dark red powder made from dried and ground sumac berries. It has a tart astringent taste and is often used in place of lemon juice in middle Eastern recipes where it can be used as a marinade for fish or poultry3. I quite often sprinkle it generously over cous cous salads to add a bit of tartness. It also works well mixed in with yoghurt to make a cooling dip to serve with hot and spicy dishes. Sumac is a spice that has only become available in this country fairly recently within the last 15-20 years after being popularised in recipes by Ottolenghi and others1.  My favourite way to use sumac at the moment is in the spice blend za’atar which is made with sumac, dried thyme, salt and sesame seeds, this is excellent spread liberally over chicken legs or mixed vegetables before roasting.

My friend Kavey was fortunate enough to visit a za’atar producer in southern Lebanon a few years ago, definitely worth a read. She also has a recipe for za’atar and sumac crusted roast of leg of lamb. Sumac is versatile addition to a variety of salads where its tartness brings flavours alive as in Family Friends Food’s garden tomato salad with olives, Greek basil and sumac.

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As you can probably tell if you’ve made it this far, I love cooking with spices. It’s rare that I go a day without using some kind of spice in my cooking, even if it’s only a pinch of paprika or a good twist of freshly ground black pepper. Spices make food so much more interesting and many of them also have health benefits such as being anti inflammatory. Just don’t ask me to pick a favourite spice, there’s too many to choose from.

Notes

The Book of Spice (2015) John O’Connell
The Flavour Thesaurus (2010) Niki Segnit
Sophie Grigson’s Ingredients Book (1991) Sophie Grigson

All photos shot with a f/1.8 50mm lens on a Canon EOS 1100D with either a 13mm or 21mm extension tube attached between camera body and lens. No extension tube used on kaffir lime leaf shot.

  • Choclette
    October 25, 2016 at 6:57 pm

    What a fabulous post Jen. Your photos are just amazing. You’ve come so far from the old days where light and camera was an issue. My favourite photo is the mustard seeds. Who would have thought they had such detail on them. I’m in love with both spoon and pestle AND would find it very hard to live without spices. Like you, I use them every day.

    • Jen
      October 27, 2016 at 8:22 am

      Thank you Choclette. I think understanding lighting has been the biggest challenge in improving my photography, so glad I’ve been able to spend a lot of time practicing.

  • Camilla Hawkins
    October 25, 2016 at 8:15 pm

    Lovely photographs Jen and great to see how you can use different spices;-) Thanks for linking to my Chard Souffle:-)

    • Jen
      October 27, 2016 at 8:24 am

      Thank you Camilla.

  • Bintu | Recipes From A Pantry
    October 25, 2016 at 9:33 pm

    I love, love, love the spice photoss Jen. Make we wanna run to the kitchen and cook all night.

    • Jen
      October 27, 2016 at 8:25 am

      Hope you didn’t stay up all night in the kitchen!

  • Jemma @ Celery and Cupcakes
    October 26, 2016 at 5:46 am

    Great post! That pestle and mortar is so pretty. I love using lots of different spices in my cooking, especially the more obscure ones.

    • Jen
      October 27, 2016 at 8:26 am

      Thanks Jemma, I think it’s really exciting cooking with different spices and discovering new flavours.

  • Ceri Jones
    October 26, 2016 at 6:17 pm

    I love this post, so many gorgeous ideas for what to do with these ingredients, and some inspiring pics too!

    • Jen
      October 27, 2016 at 8:27 am

      Thanks Ceri, I love trying new ideas with spices.

  • Lucy Parissi
    October 26, 2016 at 7:21 pm

    I love macro photography too – my macro lens was an Ebay gift from me to me! The lime leaves and black mustard seeds are my favourites. Feeling inspired to try some new dishes too – great recipe inspiration!

    • Jen
      October 27, 2016 at 8:28 am

      I’m pushing my budget equipment as far as I can before I splash out on a macro lens, there’s so much exciting hidden detail in macro photography, especially of food.

  • kellie@foodtoglow
    October 26, 2016 at 8:20 pm

    What a lovely idea for a post, Jen and you executed it beautifully. Your mustard seed image is my favourite. 🙂 One of my favourite uses for rose petals is making rose petal harissa. I keep little baggies of it in the freezer and use it most frequently on salmon for a quick no-brainer meal.

    • Jen
      October 27, 2016 at 8:29 am

      Thank you Kellie, I think I’m going to have to make some harissa now you’ve mentioned it!

  • Sarah, Maison Cupcake
    October 26, 2016 at 9:58 pm

    Panch poran is a big favourite of mine, I use it on my roast cauliflower!

    • Jen
      October 27, 2016 at 8:30 am

      Ooh that’s a good idea, I haven’t tried that yet, thanks Sarah.

  • Jack Navarro
    December 17, 2016 at 11:09 am

    These spices are unfamiliar to me though I like the photos. All of these are interesting!