Whenever possible, buy whole spices, says Raghavan Iyer, author of "660 Curries." Spices get their flavor from the oils inside. Once the spices are ground, the oils lose potency, which means freshly ground peppercorns pack more flavor than pepper purchased already ground.
Whole spices are also a better value. Stored in airtight, glass containers away from heat, says Iyer, whole spices will stay fresh for at least a year. Ground spices last for only a few months.
Buy spices from the bulk section of a natural food store so that you can buy only what you need for a short period. That helps ensure your supply is always fresh. Prices for bulk also tend to be lower than for packaged.
For grinding whole spices, a mortar and pestle are nice, but an inexpensive electric coffee grinder is faster and more convenient.
Iyer's recipe for curried chickpeas in coconut sauce gets a fiery burst of flavor from a freshly ground blend of pan-roasted chilies and coriander seeds.
The curry, which can be served as a side or main course, is traditionally prepared in India as an offering to the goddess of learning during the Hindu celebration of lights called Diwali.
CHICKPEAS IN COCONUT SAUCE
Start to finish: 25 minutes
5 teaspoons sesame oil or canola oil
2 tablespoons yellow split peas, picked over for stones
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
2 to 4 dried Thai or cayenne chilies, stems removed
2 cups water
1 teaspoon tamarind paste or concentrate
1 teaspoon black or yellow mustard seeds
3 cups canned or cooked chickpeas, drained
2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt or sea salt
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 cup shredded dried unsweetened coconut, reconstituted
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro
In a medium saucepan over medium-high, heat the oil. Add the split peas, coriander seeds and chilies. Cook, stirring constantly, until the split peas and coriander seeds are reddish brown and the chilies have blackened slightly, about 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat. Using a slotted spoon, skim off the spices and transfer them to a plate to cool for about 5 minutes. Do not discard the oil.
Once the spices are cool, put them in a spice grinder and grind until the texture resembles that of finely ground black pepper. In a medium bowl, combine the water and tamarind paste. Whisk to dissolve the tamarind.
Return the saucepan to medium-high heat. When the oil is warmed, add the mustard seeds. Cover the pan and cook until the seeds have stopped popping (similar to popcorn), about 30 seconds. Stir in the chickpeas, salt and turmeric. Stir to coat the chickpeas evenly with the spices. Pour in the tamarind water and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to medium and cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the chickpeas absorb the flavors, 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in the ground spices, coconut and cilantro.
Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 170 calories; 63 calories from fat; 7 g fat (3 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 20 g carbohydrate; 6 g protein; 5 g fiber; 907 mg sodium.
Recipe adapted from Raghavan Iyer's "660 Curries,"
Workman Publishing, 2008