Back in the UK over Christmas while in Waitrose (a joy to browse – and not just food shop in), I was overwhelmed by the spice aisle; numerous brands and blends that I had barely heard of let alone trialed. One in particular caught my eye – Barts Spices in vintage-looking tins. I am sucker for design. Barts, a Bristol firm with 50 years spice importing and blending heritage, has created a very tempting easy-to-use range for those of us who can’t quite fathom the health food shops’ raw ingredients nor have time to bash up our own blends in a mortar in our rush to make supper. The company doesn’t mush up its spices; it seems to make blends that contain nice chunks of the original ingredient. And I find a little goes a long way, so while perhaps a tad expensive, I justify buying a few to bring back in my suitcase. With Ras el Hanout, perhaps though it’s a case of carrying coals to Newcastle as I return with a blend that originates in my part of the world here in the mid Mediterranean.
Casting my eye of exotic names like Piri Piri, Harissa and Punjabi Tandoori Masala, evoking places I can only dream of visiting (though eons ago I did visit the Punjab!), one in particular rang a bell: the North African blend called ‘Ras el Hanout’. The Arabic, meaning ‘head of the shop’ – ie, the best spices the shop/market offers all in one blend – are verbatim, or near enough, the Maltese words. Ras el Hanout is a newcomer to my cupboards but not to my culinary spice route. I’ve used combos of the myriad flavours that go into this blend of North African spices, just not under this label all at once.
What exactly goes into this blend? Apparently, there is no definitive mix, as each market stallholder would have offered up different dozen or so ‘best’ spices. Sometimes, the spices are toasted first (I always toast cumin and coriander seeds) before being used as a rub or flavouring for stews etc.
As a quick but warming and nourishing mid-week supper, I made red lentil soup. Grabbing the pulses from the cupboard, I knocked out the Ras el Hanout tin, which reminded me I’d bought it. It’s mere accident that the spice ended up in the soup, not design, but it really lifts what could be a slightly bland soup, giving it a delightful warming, aromatic lingering taste. Lentils, like most pulses, are quite plain and floury but are excellent at absorbing other flavours. If you don’t fancy Ras el Hanout, a teaspoon or two of whatever you’ve to hand – chili powder, cinnamon, cumin, coriander or even mixed spice, will do. I plan to be more adventurous with spices this year; after all, Malta was on the spice route, and despite my love of Barts tins, I can easily patronise a little shop in Valletta that has spices by the ounce still, loose. I’ll ask the seller what his ‘Ras el Hanut’ is.
All images © Liz Ayling 2014
- 2oogm red lentils
- 2 medium carrots
- 2 celery sticks
- 1 medium red onion
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 3 bay leaves (fresh or dried)
- 3 tsps Ras el Hanout
- 1 litre water or stock (chicken or vegetable)
- 4 rashers of streaky bacon cubed up or small packet of smoked pancetta lardons
- handful of fresh coriander or parsley to garnish
- Peel carrots and onion and chop finely. Wash and peel celery sticks and chop finely.
- Heat the olive oil in a heavy-based saucepan. Add the chopped vegetables and sweat them gently over a low heat until softened. Keep the lid on, but check they don’t burn. Stir occasionally.
- Tip in the red lentils and add the Ras el Hanout or other spices if preferred. Stir round once or twice and cook with the veg for a minute before adding 750ml water or stock. Stir and then bring to the boil, before reducing the heat. Allow the lentils to simmer for around 20 minutes on a low heat until soft but not a total mush. Add more water if need be.
- Meanwhile, cook bacon until crisped up – dry frying in a cast iron pan works best.
- When the lentils and vegetables are soft, remove the bay leaves and then blend the soup in batches in a liquidiser until smooth. Retain a ladle of chunky soup if you prefer and dilute with water if you find it too thick. Return soup to the saucepan, reheat gently. Serve with crispy bacon lardons on top, and some chopped coriander if desired.