Packing up the contents of his kitchen for a recent house move, former MasterChef winner Dhruv Baker found that his spice collection needed a cull.
“It was ridiculous. Like any person’s spice cupboard, there were about four jars of cumin, because you go to the supermarket and think, ‘Do I have any cumin? I’ll just buy some more’. And probably five jars of coriander for the same reason,” the chef confesses.
Like the rest of us, Baker was also guilty of harbouring “ancient spices” at the back of his shelves.
“It’s usually mums who are the worst - I’ve seen stuff from the Eighties,” he adds. “They don’t taste of anything. You may as well add dust to your cooking.”
Spices matter a lot to Baker, who was born in Mexico and has also lived in India, Spain and Tanzania.
He was described as having ‘the palate of an angel’ when he picked up the MasterChef trophy in 2010, and has now published a book called Spice: Layers Of Flavour.
“The word spicy seems to have morphed into meaning something hot. It’s doing food an injustice - to me, it means so much more,” says the chef, who lives in Surrey with Glaswegian wife Aileen and their two sons, aged six and three.
Among the spices Baker recommends we all have in our kitchen are star anise, whole coriander, fennel seed, chilli powder and turmeric.
“Hopefully the book will go some way to showing that spices are much more versatile, and to look on them as ingredients in their own right,” he adds.
The 38-year-old was “bored to death” working in media sales before he entered MasterChef, which gave him “the most amazing opportunity, for which I’m eternally grateful,” he says.
Since winning, he’s made TV appearances, set up a catering company and is working on taking over a pub in southwest London, doing “good, honest food that people want to eat”.
“For the next six months, I fully expect to be in the kitchen seven days a week and running both the catering side of things and the pub,” he says.
It was MasterChef judge Gregg Wallace who Baker has to thank for his ‘palate of an angel’ moniker.
“Good old Gregg,” he says with a smile. “That was completely overwhelming and very flattering; I should probably have had it put on a business card.”
Baker has also become good friends with MasterChef’s John Torode, and the pair occasionally cook for each other.
Does he still feel the pressure to impress the Australian judge?
“Every time he comes round and I’m cooking, I get nervous. I shouldn’t, but I do. I guess it’s a good thing, it shows you care.”
Fancy giving Baker’s Spice recipes a go? Here are three to get you started...
:: BUTTERNUT SQUASH WITH RED ONION, FETA & CORIANDER
(Serves six as a starter or four for lunch)
1tsp coriander seeds
1 butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 4cm cubes
3tbsp vegetable oil
2 sprigs fresh thyme
3 cloves garlic, unpeeled
1 red onion, finely sliced
150g feta, cubed
Juice of 1 lemon
50ml olive oil
Small bunch fresh coriander, roughly chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas mark 4.
In a small pan, dry roast the coriander seeds, over a low heat, until they release their aromas. Allow to cool and then grind to a powder using a pestle and mortar or spice grinder.
Put the cubed butternut squash in a roasting tray with the vegetable oil and salt and pepper and toss to coat. Add the thyme sprigs and garlic cloves and cook in the oven for 20-25 minutes. After 10 minutes, stir through the ground coriander seeds - don’t add them right at the start as they can burn and become bitter. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly. Remove and discard the thyme sprigs and set half the garlic aside.
Mix together the red onion and cooked butternut squash, then carefully stir in the feta cubes, taking care not to break up the cheese too much.
To make the dressing, squeeze half of the now softened garlic from the skins into a bowl and add the lemon juice and olive oil; whisk together. Pour the dressing over the butternut squash and scatter with the chopped coriander.
:: TERIYAKI-GLAZED SIRLOIN
500g sirloin, in one piece
2tbsp vegetable oil
1tsp sea salt
2 spring onions, very thinly sliced
4tsp sesame seeds
For the teriyaki glaze:
500ml beef stock
1 star anise
1tsp Sichuan peppercorns
4tbsp dark brown sugar
5tbsp dark soy sauce
Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas mark 6.
Pour the stock into a pan and add the star anise and Sichuan peppercorns. Bring to the boil and leave to simmer for 20-30 minutes, until the liquid has reduced considerably. You should end up with about 50-100ml concentrated beef stock. Strain and discard the spices.
Mix the stock with the remaining glaze ingredients and bring to the boil. Allow to simmer for 10 minutes and then remove from the heat.
Place a griddle or frying pan over a high heat until it is smoking hot. Meanwhile rub the sirloin with the vegetable oil and season with sea salt. When the pan is really hot, place the beef, fat side down, in the pan and leave for two to three minutes. Turn and sear for two minutes on all other sides.
Place the beef in a roasting tin and cook in the oven for 12-15 minutes, then remove and allow to rest. After 15 minutes, add the resting juices to the teriyaki glaze.
Slice the beef into thin slices, arrange on a plate and pour over the teriyaki glaze. Scatter over the sliced spring onions and sesame seeds and serve.