The Navigator

WHERE TO FIND THE RAREST SPICES IN NEW YORK CITY? MURRAY HILL’S KALUSTYAN’S 

Chef Cesare Casella chooses 12 spices that will put a kick in your cooking

By EILEEN DASPIN

Foodies may think of my husband, Cesare Casella, as the guy with the sprig of rosemary in his pocket, but Cesare also knows his way around the spice rack. If you’ve ever eaten his food, you’ll know about that rich undertone you can’t quite identify. It’s called “spezie forti” and is a blend of cinnamon, turmeric, ginger and other spices. Spezie forti is actually as traditional as you get in Italy. Cesare tells me the mixture dates to the Renaissance, but there’s not one recipe, of course. You constantly fiddle with the balance, adding this, taking away that.

That’s where Kalustyan’s comes in. If you don’t know it, Kalustyan’s is a grocery store on Lexington Avenue and 28th Street—a labyrinth of subcontinental goodies, from spices to nuts to halvah to tajines. Chefs love it. Since Cesare recently opened a salami lab, he’s always dashing over there for new flavors. I tagged along a recent afternoon as he filled his basket.

UrbanCoast.nyc: What’s on your shopping list today?

Cesare: I’m making lardo next week. That’s cured pork fat. I’ll age it about 12 months. It’s delicious sliced skinny. Then you put it on warm toast and it melts. It’s like butter, only better. I’m getting cinnamon sticks for that. I’ll try these: the Ceylon H-2 type. And the Indonesian ones, Korintje Cassia. I also want fennel for my finocchiona. That’s a salumi we make in Tuscany. It’s filled with fennel seeds.

UrbanCoast: There are so many spices here. How do you know which one you want?

Cesare: That’s what I love. But it is a problem. I get lost in the aisles, I get so involved. It’s like going to the library for me. You have to come here when you have time and spend time reading the labels to see what’s inside. Do you want more ginger? More allspice? More juniper berry? You have to experiment.

UrbanCoast: What do you like here besides the spices?

Cesare: They have amazing lentils. Look at these French-style green ones, they’re smaller than the ones that grow in Castelluccio in Umbria. I’m getting some, and this black barley.  

UrbanCoast: Look at this candied cilantro. I’ve never seen that before.

Cesare: Everyone is doing sweet and savory now. I bet those are used in muffins or something like that. Not so good for my salami, though.

UrbanCoast: If you could only buy one item, what would it be?

Cesare: I bought these tellicherry peppercorns recently. Parameswaran Wynad Black Pepper. $65 a pound. They were intense. Let’s ask Aziz (Aziz Osmani, the owner) what he thinks.

Cesare to Aziz: What’s your best seller?  

Aziz: Well, it’s different for every type of cuisine. But one is the Ras el Hanout. It’s a North African blend. Ras means head or top. El hanout means market, so it’s literally the best in the market. It’s a warm, rich spice. Good with grains. Good with chickpea soup.  

Cesare to Aziz: I like. Any other suggestions?

Aziz: Michael Anthony (the chef for Gramercy Tavern) comes here for the Mujadarra sandwich. It’s made with lentils and cracked wheat.  Lots of people do. You should try it. It’s based on an Egyptian dish.

UrbanCoast: Cesare, we’ve been here an hour. What’s the tab?

Cesare: Only $119.36. Not too bad. Really, it could have been a lot more.

_____

Looking for more things to do around the East River? UrbanCoast.nyc

SHOPPING LIST

Ground Allspice
smells good

Allspice Berries
for the lardo

Black Peppercorn (Vietnamese)
it’s smoky

Tellicherry Black Peppercorn (Indian)
a little hot, a little sweet

Black Peppercorn (Malaysian)
label says floral. Not sure what that means, but I’ll try it

Lampong Black Peppercorn (Indonesian)
the American favorite

Parameswaran Black Peppercorn
mamma approves

Ceylon Cinnamon H-2 Sticks
good in savory and sweet dishes

Indonesian Cinnamon Round Sticks
same, I use in meat sauces

Hungarian Paprika (HOT)
bello rosso

Spanish Smoked Paprika (HOT)
I like spicy

Ras el Hanout
“top of the shop” blend

Pearled Barley
I’m going to try this for breakfast

Eston Small Lentils
French-style, but I’ll get them because they look Italian

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