The pressures of weeknight cooking make it easy to fall into ruts, especially in the spice cabinet.
Most cooks reach for the same seasonings (Italian blend, anyone?) over and over. Yet herbs and spices offer some of the easiest, cheapest and fastest ways to overhaul your kitchen repertoire.
One way is to look for cuisines that use familiar spices in unfamiliar ways. Much of Africa and the Middle East, for example, prepare savory foods with what Americans consider sweet spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom.
Even easier is to turn to the many spice blends available from around the world (even if they are not always completely authentic).
For example, a skillet chicken dish to which you normally add Italian seasonings such as basil or oregano, can become a completely different dish by substituting curry powder for the herbs.
This recipe for doro wat, a staple of Ethiopian cooking, uses both techniques. Key flavors come from nutmeg and cardamom, spices Americans mostly associate with baked sweets.
It also relies on the traditional Ethiopian spice blend berbere, a bright red mixture of garlic, red pepper, cardamom, coriander and fenugreek commonly used in soups and stews. Its flavors are warm, but not hot.
As adapted here, doro wat is a great example of using seasonings to turn otherwise common ingredients — chicken breasts and diced onions — into something different.
This recipe is easy to change around. Any firm white fish (or even shrimp) could be used instead of chicken (cooking time will be shorter). And tomato sauce could be substituted for the wine.
Doro wat traditionally is served with flatbread, which is used instead of silverware to pick up and eat the morsels of chicken and soak up the sauce. Sour cream or plain yogurt also is a nice complement.
The seasonings called for in this recipe should be available at larger grocers, ethnic markets or online.
DORO WAT CHICKEN
Start to finish: 30 minutes
Ingredients: 1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch chunks
Juice of 1 lemon, kosher salt
2 tablespoons ghee or butter
2 medium yellow onions, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon ground fenugreek
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
2 tablespoons berbere
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1/4 cup red wine, 3/4 cup water
Directions: Freshly ground black pepper, place the chicken on a large plate and drizzle with lemon juice, then sprinkle with salt. Set aside.
In a medium Dutch oven over medium heat, melt the ghee. Add the onions, and spices. Saute until the onions are tender. Add the wine and water, mixing well, and bring to a simmer. Add the chicken, turning to coat, return to a simmer. Cover, reduce heat to low, simmer 15 minutes or until chicken is cooked.
Uncover and simmer another 2 to 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.