While cooking, it’s easy to take spices for granted. Most of us think nothing of using a pinch of this and a dash of that to make food taste better. But once upon a time, spices were as precious as gold. Spice trading throughout Asia, northeast Africa and Europe drove the global economy for centuries. The Dutch East India trade company, established in 1602, was the first international conglomeration, complete with stock options and governmental powers. Spices like cinnamon, cassia, cardamom, ginger, pepper and turmeric were sought far and wide. This month, we set out on our own voyage of spice discovery around the Lake Minnetonka area; join our adventure and taste some of the marvels we found.
IOWA PORK CHOPS
This genial eatery serves highly seasoned, mighty tasty dishes, and the menu’s description of their pork chops—“worth fighting over”—is pretty close to the truth. The dish features two center-cut chops marinated in maple and fennel. Fennel, used as a spice, is technically a plant in the carrot category. A compound called anethole gives fennel its distinctive, anise-like taste. The seeds are highly aromatic and a particularly successful enhancement for pork. The chops are grilled to medium and served with roasted apples and a luscious smoked Gouda potato gratin. This is a lot of food: you might not have to fight over the chops after all. $23.
XXX BOLA RED CHILI
Lone Spur Grill and Bar
Capsaicin, a compound in chili peppers, is an irritant, and that’s what makes them spicy. If that sounds bad, it’s not; in fact, the stuff is very good for you as both an analgesic and an anti-inflammatory. This is a grand excuse to eat chili and lots of it—one local favorite is the XXX Bola red chili at Lone Spur. The chili is Texas-style, which means there are no beans in it, just glorious big hunks of beef and lots of sauce. There are no refunds for the wimpy palates that can’t take this heat, but it’s not as fiery as it sounds. Rather, it is deliciously smoky, chunky and deeply beefy. The brisket comes from Minnesota and is smoked along with the chilies on-site. Add a dollop of sour cream for coolant; enjoy a side of sweet cornbread as cake. $5.49 cup; $10.49 bowl.
Bukhara Indian Bistro
Bukhara, a city in Uzbekistan, was once an important stop on the Silk Road and spice routes. Take a seat in Bukhara Indian Bistro’s beguiling dining room and imagine the epic journeys of colorful caravans hauling valuable cargo. The menu here offers a riot of spices in everything from appetizers to desserts. Start with vegetable samosas, warm and crisp stuffed pastries that originated along the trade roads. The soft potato and pea filling is fragrant with cumin and coriander; the outside is flaky and fried golden-brown. Served with hot green cilantro chutney and a mellower sweet tamarind dip. $2.99.
APPLE COBBLER WITH CINNAMON ICE CREAM
Cinnamon is the inner bark from any of several species of the cinnamon tree, and it’s been highly prized since antiquity. Coalition’s menu features eclectic American-fusion fare, meaning mainstay classics with a twist. The apple cobbler is a perfect example—it is melting with caramel, apple and walnuts, but the crowning glory is an unusual cinnamon ice cream. It adds the perfect counterpoint of cool cream and bite of heat to this beloved dish. $7.
Gold Nugget Tavern and Grill
Shichimi togarashi is an everyday Japanese spice blend—the name means “seven-flavor chili pepper”—that you’ll find on many a table at a Japanese restaurant. It’s a pretty mix of colors: black and white sesame seeds, ginger, chili pepper, orange zest and nori, the seaweed we know from sushi. A few dashes of togarashi can intensify any dish: it’s an excellent boost for salmon. The sesame enhances the natural butteriness of the fish, and the orange peel kicks in a brilliant dash of citrus. An exotic berry called sasho adds an elusive lemony, peppery note, while the zing from the chili is gentle. $17.95.
PETITE FILET MIGNON WITH BLACK PEPPERCORN CRUST
Prosaic, ubiquitous black pepper was once the king of the spice trade, and still among the most traded spices worldwide. Once called “black gold,” peppercorns are the dried fruit from a flowering vine native to southern India. As opposed to the capsaicin found in chili peppers, the spiciness in black pepper comes from the chemical compound called piperine. A peppercorn crust is a brilliant accoutrement for fine steaks, and our beloved steakhouse Gianni’s makes an exemplary one. A 6-ounce small petite filet mignon is just the right amount of tender and rich to carry the pungent crust. Black peppercorn crust, $2; certified Angus beef $38; grass-fed beef $40.
JERK CHICKEN FONDUE
Redstone American Grill
Redstone’s jerk chicken fondue relies on another imported spice mix. Jamaican jerk features scotch bonnet peppers and allspice, which is called “pimento” in Jamaica. Other jerk ingredients might include cloves, cinnamon, scallions, nutmeg, thyme, garlic, brown sugar, ginger and salt. Redstone marinates boneless, skinless chicken breast in the spice blend before grilling; the result is both tender and piquant. Served with sturdy sourdough croutons, sliced apples and red grapes, with a luxurious pot of molten smoked Gouda cheese for dunking. $14.
GRAY DUCK CHAI LATTE
Chai simply means “tea” in several Eastern languages, but here we’ve come to think of it as black tea with milk and spices. Typical blends contain cardamom, cinnamon, clove, black and long pepper, nutmeg, allspice, star anise and ginger. Cardamom might be the most prominent flavor in this magical mélange. The little teardrop-shaped pods have an aromatic, resinous taste. 318 Café carries chai made by Gray Duck, a local producer; the nine-spice drink is made in small batches, and the tea is organic, fair-trade Assam. Add sweetener, if you wish—we think a spoonful of honey harmonizes nicely with the heavenly spices. $4–$4.50.