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On the grill: Easy spice rubs

Jul 2nd, 2013 | Category: Cooking

by Jessamyn Tuttle

The great thing about grilling is that it can be so simple – a lamb chop or a bunch of asparagus rubbed with salt, pepper and a little olive oil can be fabulous and needs no embellishment, and no particular recipe. But maybe you want to switch things up, add flavors that evoke different cuisines, while still keeping the preparation straightforward. Welcome to the wonderful world of spice rubs.

Grilled 7 spice chicken. PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

There are zillions of premade spice mixes out there, of course, and you could easily buy a dozen different ones. But if you make them yourself there are so many possibilities. With just a small adjustment you can make your ingredients taste Mexican, Indian, or Italian (or Ethiopian or Moroccan or Chinese…). You can mix your spice blend with garlic, herbs and wine, slather it on your meat or vegetables and let it all marinate for a day, or simply sprinkle on a little dry spice powder right before cooking. It’s hard to go wrong, and you can adjust the balance of spices to match your own taste.

Doing it this way is economical, too. We buy whole and ground spices in bulk from our local co-op, then mix up small amounts of whatever rub we’re using on a given night (unless it’s something complicated that we use a lot of, like berbere or garam masala, then we mix up a whole jar to keep in the pantry). Even if you don’t want to buy this many different spices at once, you could start with just cumin, paprika and salt – flavors that go amazingly with all kinds of meat, fish and vegetables, and suit the char and smoke of grilled food perfectly.

Here are a few of our favorite spice rubs. Try them out, adjust, or make up your own!


Grilled Eggplant with Indian Spices

This mix of spices is adapted from a recipe by Julie Sahni. The mango powder is well worth seeking out at an Indian grocery, but if you can’t find it substitute a squeeze of lemon juice. Any kind of eggplant will work here, as long as it’s fresh and firm, but we especially like long Japanese eggplant cut into wedges.


1 pound fresh young eggplants

2 tsp ground coriander

1 tsp ground cumin

1/4-1/2 tsp red pepper flakes or powder

1/2 tsp amchoor (mango powder)

1/2 tsp garam masala

1 tsp kosher salt

2 Tbsp vegetable or olive oil


Cut the eggplant into thick slices or wedges. Mix all the spices together and combine with the eggplant and the oil. A large bowl or a zip-top bag work well for thorough mixing. Set aside until ready to grill.

Heat your coals or gas flame to medium high and grill the eggplant until is soft and charred (if the temperature’s just right it will puff up). Blackened is OK, too. Eat hot or cold.

Southwest Grilled Flank Steak

This spice rub is also wonderful on fresh corn on the cob: simply shuck, rub with a bit of oil and the spice blend, and grill.


1 flank steak

1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp chile powder
2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 1/2 tsp brown sugar
1/2 tsp cayenne


Mix all ingredients together. Rub onto flank steak and grill over high heat until as done as you like it (we like it very rare). Slice thinly across the grain and serve.

Moroccan 7-Spice Chicken

I first had chicken rubbed with Moroccan seven-spice powder (also called Baharat) at a cooking class with Nahla Gholam of Mediterranean Specialties in Bellingham. It’s pungent, a little spicy and a little sweet, and works well on roasted or grilled chicken as well as in kebabs or a pot of lentils. I buy the powder already mixed, but you can easily mix up a version at home. Here’s one possible version:


1 chicken, cut into parts

2 Tbsp ground black peppercorns
2 Tbsp sweet paprika

2 Tbsp ground cumin seeds
1 Tbsp coriander seeds

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp ground cardamom seed
1 teaspoon whole cloves

1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg


Combine all the spices in a bowl and mix well. Rub a tablespoon or two of the mixture all over the chicken pieces along with a drizzle of olive oil.

Preheat your grill to medium (you want direct heat, but not too much) and put the chicken pieces on, skin side down. Cook, turning frequently, until cooked through. Lower the heat if the chicken starts to burn or if you’re getting flare-ups. Remove to a platter and cover with foil until ready to serve.

Jessamyn Tuttle lives in Skagit County and enjoys food, writing and photography. See her blog “Food on the Brain” at

Published in the July 2013 issue of Grow Northwest

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