Moroccan spice blend ras el hanout adds mystery to everything from meat dishes to ice cream
By Lennie Bennett, Times Staff Writer
In Print: Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Spices are to food what makeup is to a face. They can bring out the best, and make the ordinary more interesting.
Ras el hanout, were it makeup instead of spice, would be the stuff hauled out for a Red Carpet Moment. It's a North African blend, usually associated specifically with Morocco, that translates from Arabic as "top of the shelf," meaning the best a merchant has to offer. It typically contains cardamom, mace, cinnamon, allspice, pepper and cumin, but that's about as general as you can get with this seasoning.
Ras el hanout (the most common way to say it is ross el hah-NEW) is considered the most complex blend in the world by many food authorities, even more so than India's fabled curries. There is no codified or standard recipe for it, and Moroccan spice sellers take great pride in their secret versions.
The number of ingredients can be as low as 10, but they are pale versions of the blend that can reach as high as 100 components (though I think you would have to go to Morocco for one like that). You can sometimes find ras el hanout locally, but those I have seen seem to comprise the basic spices I listed earlier.
A good ras el hanout has varying notes of bitter, smoky, floral and hot that, in the magical alchemy of cooking, lend to food a flavor that is unique and difficult to identify. It was once touted as an aphrodisiac, because it often contained Spanish fly beetle, but that's now illegal.
I like ones that have at least 20 ingredients, and there are many mail-order sources for ras el hanout you can access on the Internet. My favorite comes from the Canadian spice company, Épices de Cru (epicesdecru.com). Besides its flavor, it arrives as whole spices, unlike most others, so you can see all the cool bits and pieces of it. You will need a coffee grinder to pulverize it before using. Grind it all and store the powder in the freezer after grinding. It's pricey at $17 for roughly the equivalent of a standard 1.5-ounce jar of ground spices, but it lasts for a long time.
Ras el hanout is a staple of tagines, those unctuous stews of meat and/or vegetables, and the accompanying beef tagine recipe is adapted from one by Jamie Oliver. You don't need the cone-topped vessel, also called a tagine. A heavy casserole does just fine.
Ras el hanout is also good sprinkled lightly on a citrus salad. And, in experimenting, I found it makes a fabulous main flavoring in ice cream, which I pair with complementary Moroccan flavors in a sweet rather than savory combination: almond (in a cake) and dried apricots (in a dessert sauce).
Lennie Bennett is the Times' art critic. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293