Monday, May 20, 2013

Herbs and Spice and Everything Nice

The 2 Prickly Pears know that everyone uses spices when they cook.  We all have the standards in our cupboards, like salt, pepper, dried oregano, a little dried basil, maybe some cinnamon and allspice.  How do we go about getting the best flavor out of our spices?  And how do we combine them to make the food we cook come alive?  That is the topic of today's post.  So let's get started.

To begin with, let's talk about those dried herbs and spices in your cupboard.  Just how old are they?  If you don't know the answer to that, then we're betting they are too old to add any good flavor to your cooking.  There isn't anything wrong with using dried herbs and spices.  While fresh is always best, it can be difficult to get them year-round.  Consider going to the bulk section of your grocery store.  Often you can find dried herbs and spices there and you can get them in the amount you need with less risk of them growing old on your shelves.

When you can get fresh herbs, please do.  If you grow your own, then you might think of using the ice cube tray method of freezing them for future use.  The ice cube tray method??  Just chop your herbs up, place them in ice cube trays, fill with olive oil, and freeze.  Once frozen, you can pop them out of the tray and store in a zip lock bag.  Take one or two out as you need them for that fresh herb taste.  Easy!!

We've thrown around the words herbs and spice here and maybe we should define our terms before we go on.   People often use the words herbs and spice interchangeably.  That's okay, really.  But just so we are clear, herbs are aromatic leaves of plants, while spices are seasonings from bark, buds, fruits, flowers, roots, seeds or stems of aromatic plants and trees.  For example, mint leaves come from the mint plant and can be used fresh in beverages and desserts.  Cinnamon is from the bark of very specific trees.  And un-ground allspice is an actual berry from a tree. Fennel seed is found in the bulb of the fennel plant, as mentioned in a previous post. 

Many spices used today are from antiquity.  They have been around for a very long time.  Our earlier example of cinnamon is a testament to this.  It was used by the ancient Egyptians as part of their embalming mixtures, also as anointing oil.   Today we combine cinnamon with ginger and clove as a part of pumpkin pie or with sugar and nutmeg in apple pie, or with cardamom and ginger in chai.

Coriander seed, most commonly used to make a curry, was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun (King Tut), and taken to America towards the 17th century.

Many spices and herbs are used not just for culinary purposes, but also for medicinal purposes.  Here's a site for more information on that:  Medicinal uses of common culinary herbs.

Now let's talk about how to use and combine spices and herbs in cooking in ways that may be surprising.  We'll start with Nutmeg.  Nutmeg can be used in everything from dessert, to savory soups and stews, to hot cocoas and toddy's.  Use this lovely spice sparingly as it is has a powerful flavor profile.  Nutmeg has what would be considered a "warm" flavor.  It goes well in cream sauces and with cheese dishes.  To get the fullness of nutmeg, grind it fresh, but remember, a little goes a long way.  Always add nutmeg at the end of cooking time.  If cooked too long, it will turn bitter.

We love love love Sweet Basil!  Sweet Basil is a basic ingredient in Italian and Mediterranean cooking. Sweet basil goes well with olive oil, oregano, garlic, onions, tomatoes,  chicken, pasta, eggs, and green leaf salads.  Try a Caprese Salad which is simply fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced fresh tomatoes, fresh basil and olive oil.....DELISH!!  It's a great summer time salad.  Always add basil at the end of cooking time.  If cooked too long, it will turn bitter.

Do you understand Paprika?  We remember it being used to garnish deviled eggs, but not much else.  We're embarrassed to say that the jar of paprika in the cupboard was there far too long, maybe our entire childhood.  But paprika is an interesting and unique spice.  Paprika is ground pepper.  In fact, the name itself means pepper.  The peppers used are dried and ground to a powder, and range from sweet red peppers to cayenne or a combination of each.  It can be used as a coloring for rice dishes; it can be used in sausage, soups, stews, and most popularly in goulash.  The varieties are everything from sweet to spicy when used for cooking.  The cooking process brings out the flavor.  If using paprika as a garnish, no flavor is imparted.  Paprika is produced predominately in Spain, the Netherlands, and Hungary.  Consider making stuffed cabbage leaves and adding a large dash of paprika to your stuffing.  It really makes the dish pop!

Please, let's not forget garlic!  Where would we be without garlic in our culinary endeavors?  We'd be in trouble, for sure.  Did you know that China produces the greatest amount of garlic in the world, with an annual yeild of 13,664,069 tons?  Yikes!!

Garlic is a one of those savories that is a must in cooking.  Use fresh whenever you can, but if needed, use granulated garlic.  Stay away from garlic salt because you want to control your salt in cooking and there are many fillers including sodium in garlic salt.  But when you have fresh available consider roasting a garlic bulb with cracked pepper and olive oil.  All you have to do is cut of the top of the bulb, put it in a ramakin, sprinkling it with cracked pepper and a good dose of olive oil.  Wrap in aluminum foil and bake at 325 degrees for 45 minutes.  Squeeze the garlic clove out and use as a spread on bread or crackers.  You will find that the garlic turns sweet and buttery in texture.   

Garlic is a wonderful antibiotic.  We don't know if it's true, but neither of the 2 Prickly Pears have ever been bitten by a vampire and we eat a lot of garlic.  Draw your own concllusion.  For great flavor add garlic to sauces, soup, pot roast, spaghetti, you name it!  OH!  Don't forget!  Never refrigerate your fresh garlic.  It will last longer on your counter top.  Plus you can add life to your garlic if you leave the stems on.  You can find this at your local farmers' market.

We could go on and on about all the many spices and herbs available to you for enhancing all your cooking.  Instead we have a few links that will give you the breakdown of how spices and herbs are used, along with their benefits:

Here's a quick reference for you to use:

cumin, cayenne, chili, parsley, pepper, sage, savory, thyme
basil, bay, chili, cilantro, curry, cumin, garlic, marjoram, mustard, oregano, parsley, pepper, rosemary, sage, savory, tarragon, thyme
anise, basil, caraway, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, dill, garlic, lemon peel, orange peel, oregano, poppy seeds, rosemary, saffron, sage, thyme
basil, caraway, celery seed, chervil, chili, chives, coriander, cumin, dill, garlic, horseradish, lemon peel, marjoram, mint, mustard, nutmeg, paprika, parsley, pepper, sage, tarragon, thyme
allspice, basil, bay, cinnamon, curry, dill, fennel, garlic, ginger lemongrass, mustard, paprika, rosemary, saffron, sage, savory, tarragon, thyme
chili, curry, dill, marjoram, parsley, savory, thyme
basil, chervil, chili, chives, curry, dill, fennel, ginger, lemon peel, marjoram, oregano, paprika, parsley, pepper, sage, tarragon, thyme
anise, basil, bay, cayenne, celery seed, chives, curry, dill fennel, garlic, ginger, lemon peel, mustard, oregano, parsley, rosemary, thyme, saffron, sage, savory, tarragon, marjoram
allspice, anise, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, ginger, mint
basil, bay, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, curry, dill, garlic, marjoram, mint, mustard, oregano, parsley, rosemary, savory, tarragon, thyme
basil, caraway, celery seed, chervil, chives, coriander, dill, marjoram, oregano, paprika, parsley, poppy seed, rosemary, tarragon, thyme
Salad Dressings
basil, celery seed, chives, dill, fennel, garlic, horseradish, marjoram, mustard, oregano, paprika, parsley, pepper, rosemary, saffron, tarragon, thyme
basil, caraway, chives, dill, garlic, lemon peel, lovage, marjoram, mint, oregano, parsley, rosemary, tarragon, thyme
basil, bay, chervil, chili, chives, cumin, dill, fennel, garlic, marjoram, parsley, pepper, rosemary, sage, savory, thyme
allspice, angelica, anise, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, fennel, ginger, lemon peel, mace, nutmeg, mint, orange peel, rosemary
basil, bay , celery seed, cinnamon, chili, curry, dill, fennel, garlic, ginger, gumbo file, lemongrass, marjoram, oregano, parsley, rosemary, savory, tarragon, thyme

There are so many spices to know about and to use in your everyday cooking.  

The 2 Prickly Pears encourage you to be bold and try something new out!

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