Sameh Wadi of Saffron: On the Spice Trail
“I believe in Minnesota,” says Chef Sameh Wadi of Saffron. The topic is his newly launched line of house-blended spice mixes, called Spice Trail. The question is this: whether the land of lefse and cheese-stuffed hamburgers is ready for a premium-priced line of complex spice blends predicated on a love of deep, intoxicatingly rich flavor.
Saffron, Wadi points out, sells about 20 lamb brains a week. “I would have never thought it in a million years,” he exclaims, “going into a restaurant here and selling 20 a week. We actually run out of lamb brains.” He recreates a recent moment in the kitchen: “‘Oh no! I only have 5 pounds of lamb brains left!’”
That said, the decision to launch Spice Trail was a jaw-droppingly rapid fire move as product launches go.
“When we first opened [in 2007], I was looking for places I could find spice blends that were pre-made, and we found nothing — it was all diluted crap,” says Wadi. “The Ras El Hanout, for example, had like 6 different spices, and that doesn’t compare to the real deal, you know.”
Sameh, who collaborates with his brother and business partner Saed (left), describes how the two started making their own blends. The blends, a work in progress, began to inform and define everything on Saffron’s menu.
“And then, people kept asking: ‘How do you make this? How do you make that?’” recalls Wadi. “And we’d send people to my cousin’s store, Holy Land, and say, ‘Try to get this, and that…’ but it occurred to us, maybe we can market our own blends. And last month [September], we decided: Let’s do it. What’s the next step?”
Saed jumps in at this point. “It was actually this month [October]. The beginning of this month. We were talking in the office, and I told Sameh: ‘People are asking about our spices. They really want to buy our spices! But I always tell them no! But why? Why do I say no? Let’s just make it available!’”
The spices that are available — via the restaurant and the web — include four blends: Ras El Hanout, an Exotic Blend, Garam Masala, and Tagine. The price for each ranges from $8-12 for 2 oz. jars.
We tasted all four, head-to-head, dabbing bits of spice straight off a white plate in Saffron’s kitchen. The Ras El Hanout had an almost chai tea floral heat, with a rose / lavender finish; the Exotic blend had a tart note with sumac, cumin, and chili to it (and no citric acid, Wadi notes, referencing a common spice blend cheat), the Garam Masala was nutty, deep, and rolling; and the Tagine was earthy up front with a big hot body and a deep, mellow finish. None of the spice blends use salt, which contributes to the richness and complexity of their flavor.
Chef Wadi’s description of his spices is encyclopedic; it’s passionate; it’s poetic. Here’s his description of the Ras El Hanout:
“For me it’s the entire palate. There’s sweetness, earthiness, a little sour, a little floral as well as a little spice. And this all hits at different points, and some of it hits at the same time.
The first thing you get is the muskiness. Then you get a little bit of richness… then some heat… and the aroma is intoxicating — you’ve got rose petals, cumin, ginger — it fills up your entire nose at this point. You get a little sweetness, and then heat, which lingers and sits because there are so many layers of heat. There’s ginger, and peppercorns, and chilis — that’s why I say the stuff on the shelf won’t give you that flavor, that roundness to it.”
Although the Wadis are Palestinian, the secret of this particular spice lies in Morocco.
“A friend of mine had a Moroccan grandmother, and she gave me that recipe,” Wadi recalls. “I couldn’t read all of what she was writing, so I took a liberal approach. It said cumin, then some spice I didn’t know what it was, orris root, Spanish fly (which is illegal in the United States), and such and such… so we sat there, we deciphered it, we did some research — the book Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco was a great resource.”
It turned out that unraveling the spice blend would be more than executing a magic formula passed on by a wise woman from Northern Africa.
“The black cumin was not really cumin, it was black onion or nigella seed — we have a different word for it in Arabic,” says Wadi. “So we sat and played around for three or four batches, and that got developed from day one. The first recipe we ended up doing was almost 38 different spices. It would get too expensive to make a pound batch, so we kept playing around with it until last year we got a solid recipe we’d measure out by grams.”
The challenge of transforming the intangible wonder of soulfully improvised folk food into a reliable commodity defines the success of Saffron; it also is the central challenge of Spice Trail. Wadi related the venture of putting together his Exotic Blend, which is designed to flatter poultry.
“Here’s a little background about our mom,” Wadi says. “She’s an inspiration for us. The cuisine that she cooked is what I grew up eating. It’s comforting to me. People think about comfort food in the United States, and they think about mashed potatoes or chicken soup — we think about our mother’s cooking, her roasted chicken, whatever it might be.”
Here the chef adds an important qualifier.
“But she never measures anything,” he says. “The other day I was over there and she was making a cake, and she said: ‘I don’t have any more flour, I need two cups of flour… oh well, I’ll just put more orange juice in, it’ll be fine.’ She made the cake, I brought it here, I showed it to my pastry chef, and said: ‘Here you go, you’re measuring everything by the fucking gram, and my mom doesn’t have more flour and she just puts more orange juice in!’” Wadi recalls, laughing.
“And she says, ‘It’s a little bit sticky,’ and I say, ‘Well, yeah, it needs flour! It’s basic mathematics.’
“So it’s hard to get a recipe straight from my mom,” he says. “‘Oh, it’s a little bit of this. Oh, you know what? I also put this in it.’ And the recipe changes like 50 times.” But this [the Exotic Blend] was the flavor profile I remembered.”
Garam Masala doesn’t connect with the Wadis’ childhood, but it’s been a key player in Sameh’s professional life.
“I researched it,” he says, “and I found out it could be so many different ways. When I think of Indian food, how do I want that flavor profile to be? Do I want it to be one part of India? Or do I want to take a little bit of the best of each and make it my own?”
The process, therefore, of creating his Garam Masala blend was an experimental one.
“Some friends of mine are Indian, and they would say: ‘Oh, you’ve got to put anise seeds in it.’ And I said: ‘Do I?’ OK, I tried it with anise seeds, and it wasn’t to my liking. I just made a solid spice with broad appeal that I could use on lots of different things: fish, chicken, beef, meat. For some of our dishes, we started mixing Ras El Hanout and Garam Masala together. We marinate our duck in that.”
The Heavy Table used Spice Trail’s Garam Masala to flavor a normally reliable recipe for chicken tikka masala, and obtained very positive results (see below).
Some might say that trying to launch an independent spice blend line in a tough economic climate is a risk, but to the Wadis, it’s a sane reaction to trying times.
“If you’re reading what’s going on — the restaurant industry is getting murdered right now,” says Sameh. “What are these people doing who used to go out to eat? They’re cooking at home. But if they want that X, Y, Z flavor profile when they cook at home, why can’t we be that for them with these spices?”
Chef Wadi notes: Tagine is a type of dish found in the North African cuisines of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, which is named after the special pot in which it is cooked. They are slow-cooked stews braised at low temperatures, resulting in tender meat with aromatic vegetables and sauce.
If you don’t have a Tagine pot, this recipe could also be prepared in a covered baking dish.
Beef & Butternut Squash Tagine
From Chef Sameh Wadi of Saffron
3 lbs beef brisket, trimmed of all fat and cut into 1 inch chunks
4 tbsp Spice Trail’s Tagine Spice
1⁄8 c vegetable oil plus 3 tbsp
4 garlic cloves, sliced thin
2 large onions, chopped
8 carrots, peeled and sliced
2 large tomatoes, chopped
4 c butternut squash, peeled and cut into large chunks
1 c rich chicken stock
1 c cooked chickpeas
Salt to taste
1⁄4 c fresh cilantro, chopped
1⁄4 c fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
3 tbsp lemon juice
In a large bowl mix the beef with Spice Trail’s Tagine Spice, salt, and 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil, making sure to coat thoroughly with spices. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour at least.
Heat remaining oil in Tagine or large pot and place beef in one layer without overcrowding the pan, then sear on all sides or until browned well. Remove meat from Tagine and place garlic, onions, carrots, tomatoes, and squash in pan, then cook on low heat, add chicken stock, and return beef to Tagine, cover and place in oven at 300 degrees. Bake for 3 hours and then add the chickpeas, cilantro, parsley, and lemon juice. Cover and let stand for 20 minutes before serving.
The Heavy Table’s Spice Trail Chicken Tikka Masala
This recipe modifies an extremely reliable allrecipes.com Americanized chicken tikka masala recipe — our version brings down the salt and knocks out most of the original recipe’s spices, substituting Spice Trail’s garam masala.
The result is a dish that, when compared to the original, is gentler, deeper, more subtle, and almost ravishingly “sweet” in terms of impact and balance. Our team kept eating as they cooked, dipping bits of grilled chicken in the sauce as it simmered — once the spice, cream, and tomatoes were given a bit of time to warm up and marry, the flavor became seductive and literally irresistible.
Marinade and Chicken
2 c yogurt (we used homemade)
2 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp minced fresh ginger
1 tbsp salt
2 tbsp Spice Trail Garam Masala
2 tsp cayenne
2 lbs of boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into bite-size pieces (we used Callister Farm chicken from Seward Co-op — outrageously expensive, mindblowingly moist and flavoful)
2 tbsp butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 jalapenos, finely chopped
1 tbsp Spice Trail garam masala
1 tbsp salt (adjust to taste)
16 oz canned tomato sauce
2 c heavy cream
1⁄2 c chopped cilantro
1. In a large bowl, combine the yogurt, lemon juice, ginger, salt, garam masala, and cayenne. Stir in the chicken pieces, cover, and refrigerate for an hour.
2. Preheat a stovetop grill for high heat. Cast iron works well, if you can deal with the smoke.
3. Lightly oil the grill grate. Thread the chicken onto skewers, and discard marinade. Grill until juices run clear, about 5 minutes per side.
4. Melt butter in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Saute garlic and jalapeno for about a minute. Season with garam masala and salt, then add tomato sauce and cream. Simmer on low heat until sauce thickens, about 20 minutes. Add grilled chicken and simmer for 10 minutes. Transfer to a serving platter and garnish with fresh cilantro.
Serve with naan (you can warm it up on the grill) and rice.