Turn Your Kitchen Into a DIY Spice Lab

A little of this, a sprinkle of that—the right blend of herbs and spices can transform an otherwise bland dish into something magical. And when it comes to creating these flavorful combinations, Lior Lev Sercarz is practically a wizard. The author, chef, and owner of the New York City spice shop La Boîte has made a name for himself with original seasoning blends that have been embraced by top chefs and home cooks alike.

Though Sercarz works with some of the biggest names in the food world, his favorite collaborators are his sons Luca, 4, and Lennon, 2. The boys always jump at the chance to visit their dad’s shop, and often lend a hand themselves. “They love grinding and seeing the transformation,” Sercarz says. “They have a sense of ownership. They introduce themselves as the spice brothers and are proud of the fact that they cook.” He says that although the boys can be picky about what they eat, “spices have been a major way to get them interested in food.”

Sometimes they like it, sometimes they don’t. But I keep putting it out there and hoping.

Sercarz also regularly visits Lennon and Luca’s school to introduce herbs and spices to his sons’ classmates. “I ask teachers to buy planters and dirt, then help the kids plant seeds and herbs,” he says. “After they grow, I come back and we trim them, taste them, dry them, and bake with what they grew.” Here are his tips for getting spicy with your kids in the kitchen.

Lennon and Luca in the kitchen

Let your kids taste for themselves. Being hands-on is the key to becoming a good cook. “I have Luca and Lennon smell a bunch of things when they’re in the kitchen or going through the grocery store,” Sercarz says. “At home, I’ll grab a jar of something and have them dip their finger in and say what they like or don’t like.”

Follow the spice trail. “I share little bits about where a spice came from, what language the people who grew it speak, and what foods they might eat, so they get a sense of the people and cultures behind the flavors,” Sercarz says.  After a few short years of exposure, the boys have picked up a lot. “If we go out to an Italian, Spanish, or French restaurant, they recognize the spices I mention as I read them the menu, and they get to be involved in the meal decisions.”

Encourage them to try new flavors on familiar dishes. “We use different spices when we bake Challah every Friday,” he says. “They’ll add cinnamon or vanilla into the dough for sweetness, paprika or turmeric to change the color, and they’ll sprinkle sesame seeds or nigella seeds on top. Challah is such a familiar thing for them that they trust they’ll like the result, so it’s safe to experiment.” You can try something similar at home with your kids’ favorite foods, like pasta or yogurt.

Let your kids experiment with their own blends. Sercarz recommends starting with a few different kinds of salt to discover texture and color, and then work up to spices. “I’ll put things on the table for them to mix and match, then try on their food. Sometimes they like it, sometimes they don’t, and they go through periods where something they liked last week is terrible today. But I keep putting it out there and hoping.”

Ready to mix up your own magic? Sercarz recommends these three recipes to get you started on the spice road together.

Sweet and Warming—for pancakes, waffles, hot chocolate, and cookies:

1 tablespoon cinnamon
2 teaspoons ginger
¼ teaspoon clove

Savory and Zingy—for chicken, fish, and pasta

1 tablespoon paprika
½ teaspoon ground coriander
¼ teaspoon ground cumin

Everything Seasoning—for eggs, pizza, and vegetables

1 tablespoon sesame seeds
1 tablespoon oregano
1½ teaspoons granulated onion
1½ teaspoons granulated garlic

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