Today's Special: Spice up your life with this Moroccan squash and chickpea soup

©Miami Herald

It’s rare to find a dish that isn’t a little better with a spice or spice blend added to the preparation. Stock your pantry with a spice selection and pretty much anything you cook will taste better, whether we’re talking grilled chicken or crispy roasted potatoes.

Ras el hanout, a complex, aromatic spice blend that’s associated with Moroccan cuisine, is one I like to have on my spice rack. While most recipes for it include cumin, coriander, cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, various peppers, and turmeric, no two versions of this spice blend are the same. The mixture of spices varies from region to region in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, with some containing as many as 50 spices.

The literal translation of ras el hanout is “head of the shop” or “top shelf,” indicating that this mix of spices is the best offering in a spice shop. Every spice shop in Morocco has its signature blend.

Ras el hanout is most often used to season tagines, meats, vegetables and stews, but it’s also great as a rub or marinade for grilled meats and fish or roasted vegetables.

You can purchase ras el hanout online or at Whole Foods, but you can make your own with ground spices you may already have in your kitchen.

Ras el hanout’s flavor is unmistakable. It’s pungent, woody and sweet because of the nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves. Add a teaspoon to rice at the start of cooking; add a good pinch to yogurt along with salt to make a dip for flatbreads; add to heavy cream before whipping to use as a garnish for soups; and even sprinkle it over popcorn for a unique treat.

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SPICE BLEND (RAS EL HANOUT)

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cardamon

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground allspice

1 teaspoon ground coriander seeds

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

2 teaspoons mace

1 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1 teaspoon Kosher salt

In a small bowl whisk together all ingredients until well combined. Spice blend keeps in an airtight container at cool room temperature for about one month.

Yield: 1/4 cup

MOROCCAN SQUASH SOUP WITH CRISPY SPICED CHICKPEAS

Adapted from “Live Life Deliciously — for Busy Weekdays & Leisurely Weekends” by Tara Bench (“Tara Teaspoon”),Shadow Mountain Publishing ($32.99).

The flavor profile and the acidity of Bonterra’s new 2019 Rosé ($16.00)), a Grenache-based blend, handles the soup’s creaminess and spice extremely well and cleans the palate to boot. The nuttiness of the soup matches exquisitely with the fruity aromas of the wine

Bench writes, “The honey-roasted, spice-coated, crispy chickpeas really make this recipe unique. Sure, the velvety, perfectly seasoned, sweet-and-savory soup is special, too, but back to those chickpeas! This recipe yields a lot! It’s so easy to put together, I like to make enough to freeze some for later. My next cozy meal is only a thaw away, which gives me time to make some extra chickpeas.”

3 1/2 teaspoons spice blend (ras el hanout)

2 (15-ounce) cans chickpeas, drained, divided

2 tablespoons honey

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

2 medium onions, chopped (4 cups)

8 cups peeled and chopped butternut squash (2 1/2 pounds)

3 (15-ounce) cans low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth

Chopped flat-leaf parsley, for garnish

Toasted sesame seeds, for garnish

Heat oven to 400°F. Set aside 1/2 cup of the chickpeas for the soup. Pat remaining chickpeas dry with a paper towel. In a medium bowl, toss dried chickpeas with 1/2 teaspoon of the spice mixture, the honey, and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Spread the chickpeas on a parchment-lined, rimmed baking sheet and roast until crisp, stirring once halfway through, about 25 minutes total.

Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium-high heat in a 6-quart pot. Add onions and sauté until translucent, 4 to 5 minutes. Add squash, reserved 1/2 cup chickpeas, and remaining spice mixture. Cook another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add broth and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and cook until squash is tender, about 20 minutes.

Transfer soup to a blender in two batches and blend until very smooth. Return to the pot to keep warm unless serving immediately.

Serve soup topped with the honey-spiced chickpeas, some parsley and sesame seeds.

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

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(Carole Kotkin is manager of the Ocean Reef Club cooking school and co-host of Food & Wine Talk on southfloridagourmet.com.)

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