In a dark corner of the larder, tucked behind the saffron, are several tiny jars of spices. Squat glass jars with black Bakelite lids, filled with whole cumin and coriander seeds and fat green cardamom pods, little nut-brown mustard seeds and flat pieces of cinnamon bark. A few of them are ready ground: orange-yellow turmeric that stains your fingers, a musky mix of cloves, cinnamon, cumin and nutmeg. I would hate not to have these precious seeds and pods and powders, yet I use them less than I might.
Sometimes, on a winter's afternoon, I take a cardamom pod out of its jar, split the pale-green husk with my fingernail and grind its black seeds just for fun, as others might unscrew the lid on a bottle of perfume. It's easier, of course, to buy spices ready ground, but they keep less well and you miss the spice's true magic - especially that of cardamom and coriander, whose souls seem so quickly lost. I would also miss the joy of grinding the black, brown and beige seeds, of breathing in their perfumes: earthy, nutty, smoky, sweet, floral, fetid.
I use cumin, coriander and cardamom to scent yogurt to use as a marinade; a mild, gently spiced bath for prawns, quail or chicken, or perhaps - if it contains cumin and cinnamon - for pieces of lamb for the grill. I make a paste with ground spices and lemon juice or vinegar, stir it into thick yogurt then slide in the fish or pieces of meat to steep overnight. The yogurt tempers the spices' fire and keeps the food moist so it roasts or grills juicily and stops the spice burning.
Adding yogurt to a marinade adds an enticing tang, like lemon or lime juice but softer and less assertive, and more suited to lamb. The mild lactic notes of good yogurt mean it is more than just a carrier for the spices. I prefer sheeps' or goats' milk yogurt to cows', but any natural live yogurt will do. The thicker Greek varieties seem best for anything that has to be grilled; the thinner versions best to make a bath deep enough for large pieces of meat and for where you may want to cook the meat with a little of its marinade. I do that with chicken joints, roasting them till a golden-brown crust forms.
Invariably you will find that the acidity of the yogurt isn't enough, and you will need just a few drops of lemon juice or wine vinegar to give a fresh snap and bring out the aromatic warmth of the pepper.
It is worth remembering these mildly tart marinades when you have four or six to feed. The meat will benefit from several hours' contact with the spiced liquid, so get it ready early in the day, or the night before. The last-minute work is then negligible, making you look like the most well organised cook on earth. And if you have the courage to let the grill or oven add a black edge to the food, you will end up with a perfect thing: meat that is sharp, hot, spicy and slightly charred - a truly sensational mouthful.
Grilled prawns with chillies and yogurt
It's not often I run a prawn recipe. They are still hideously expensive and, more importantly, decent raw prawns are still hard to find. Frozen ones will do. Having said that, cooked this way they are worth every penny. The spicing is quite hot, but I like the mouth-popping heat and the sting of lime. Serves 4 as a starter.
20 large raw prawns (frozen will do)
200g thick, natural yogurt
for the spice paste:
5 tbsps water
walnut-sized knob of ginger
4 small, hot chillies
2 fat cloves of garlic
2 tsps cumin seed
1 tsp garamasala
2 level tsps ground turmeric
3 tsps lemon juice
to serve: limes and a few bushy sprigs of coriander
Pull the heads from the prawns and peel off the shells. Run the blade of a knife along their back and pull out the long grey intestine just below the skin. Wash the prawns thoroughly.
Pour the water into the jug of an electric blender. Peel the ginger, chop it roughly and add it to the water. Slice the chillies in half lengthways, scrape out their seeds and discard them, then drop the chilli flesh into the blender. Peel the garlic, slice the cloves thickly, then add them along with the cumin seed, garamasala, turmeric and lemon juice. Whiz in the blender till you have a thickish slush then add a good teaspoon of coarsely ground black pepper.
Tip the yogurt into a bowl, stir in the spice paste then add the prawns. Cover with clingfilm and leave to marinate overnight (or three hours at the very least).
Get an overhead grill hot. Put the prawns and any marinade adhering to them on a baking tray or grill pan and grill for 3 or 4 minutes till golden. Squeeze over the lime juice, scatter with chopped coriander, and eat straightaway.
Roast chicken with cardamom and yogurt
I like this recipe, not just for the aromatic spicing, but for its convenience. This is one of those recipes you end up blessing for the fact that it is better prepared in advance. The last-minute activity involves nothing more than putting the dish in the oven and chopping a few mint leaves. Serves 4.
4 large, free-range chicken supremes, skin on
250ml natural yogurt
for the spice paste:
2 tsps water
2 tsps sea salt
thumb-sized piece of ginger
3 garlic cloves
1 tsp black peppercorns
the seeds of 6 green cardamom pods
1 tsp cumin seed
2 heaped tsps coriander seed
a cinnamon stick
1 tsp cayenne pepper
2 tbsps white-wine vinegar
a handful of mint leaves
Put the whole peppercorns and the cardamom, cumin and coriander seeds in a mortar or spice mill and grind them to a fine powder. Put the water into a blender, then add the salt, the peeled and chopped ginger, peeled garlic, the ground cayenne, vinegar and the ground spices. Blend to a smoothish paste.
Put the yogurt in a bowl large enough to take the chicken breasts and stir in the spice paste. Slide in the chicken and push it under the marinade. Break the cinnamon stick in two and tuck it among the chicken. Cover the bowl with clingfilm and leave to marinate for at least 2 hours or, even better, overnight.
Set the oven at 220 C/gas mark 9. Transfer the chicken and marinade to a shallow ovenproof dish. Bake for 30 minutes till the chicken is cooked through and the yogurt has formed a patchy, gold and dark-brown crust. Scatter the mint leaves over.