When I lived in Arizona I taught school with a girl who had grown up in the Southwest and had very definite opinions about Mexican food. I came from Pennsylvania by way of Georgia, and my only classifications for Mexican food were “good” and bad”—sometimes “so good” or “so bad”—but when I cooked at home, I didn’t even attempt Mexican food. I was just an appreciator. But I learned to pay attention to it when I headed west, and Christy turned her nose up at the kinds of Mexican food you were more likely to find in New Mexico versus Arizona. What was the difference? “Too much cumin,” she’d sniff. “When you pay attention? That’s the thing that tastes dirty when you’re eating Mexican food.”
One time, I did taste it—in an unfortunate enchilada somewhere between Grants and Thoreau. It was a whole lot of cumin. It tasted like the back of a dusty wagon wheel, circa 1842. So when I started attempting to cook with it, I was unduly careful. I remembered my mom’s spice rack. Some of her spice jars were obviously much used, and some of them—like the cumin—were untouched. If Mummy didn’t use it, it must not be that crucial.
It is crucial, though, and I go through a lot of it now. My black beans would be nothing without it, my enchilada sauce (a winter staple) depends on it, and you might as well forget about even attempting Indian food without it. I even make my own cumin seasoning salt, which does amazing things to a plain piece of chicken, to say nothing of what it does for a bowl of hot popcorn.
My father-in-law, who is a natural foods and holistic health encyclopedia on two legs, sent us a coffee grinder and flax seeds years ago. Good intentions were made, but ground flax never did wind up as a dietary staple here. Instead, cumin gets toasted in a dry hot skillet until the whole downstairs is fragrant with it, then cooled, and then whirred in the coffee grinder. Even though it’s the long way of doing things, it’s worth it. That sandy dust in my mother’s spice jar has nothing in common with the bright, orangey-brown of toasted, fresh-ground cumin. I only do enough for a couple of weeks, because it loses its punch quickly. And then, since the grinder’s out….
Combine 1.5 Tbsp kosher salt with 2 tsp roasted and cooled cumin seeds. Blitz in a coffee grinder or crush with a mortar and pestle until uniform. Remove to a glass jar, add 1/2 tsp smoked paprika (sweet or hot), shake to blend, and store in a dark place for up to three weeks.