Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Herbs and Spice Make Everything Nice

'Kick it up a notch!' Emeril demands. 'Turn up the volume,' Ina counters. The music lover in me will take a sampling from the pot and declare "We need to crank this up louder." More salt. More thyme. More sage. More chili powder. We tweak, we taste, we tweak some more; until we find just the right balance of flavor that we're envisioning for our culinary masterpiece. Most typically, the tweaking comes from salt, pepper, and two groups of flavor boosters: the herbs and the spices (sounds like gang warfare, doesn't it?). Wait a minute, you say! I thought herbs and spices were one group ... they're both on my "spice" rack!

Herbs and spices are not the same thing. Repeat after me: herbs are herbs, spices are spices, herbs are not spices, spices are not herbs. Repeat again. Got it? Got it but don't get it? Okay, start by staring at those jars on your spice rack. Those whose contents are green in color are herbs. Herbs, by definition, are the leaves only from plants. Herbs include, but are not exclusive to, basil, oregano, parsley, sage, thyme, rosemary, mint, chives, tarragon, bay leaves and marjoram. Herbs are used in flavoring food as well as beverages. Herbs are also used in holistic medical treatments. Certain herbs are also appreciated by many for their mental uplifting capabilities ... think catnip in your kitty's mice and of the human's variation of such, you get the idea.

Another visual inspection of your spice rack will reveal jars containing substances in all sorts of autumnal hues. Those are your spices. Spices are not leaves, we have just established that herbs are leaves. Spices are obtained from just about any other part of the plant: bark, seeds, roots, stems, fruits, etc. There is a whole world of spices out there, some of the more commonly used ones include cinnamon, paprika, nutmeg, cloves, chili powder, cayenne pepper, coriander, ginger and saffron. Spices have also been used for centuries in perfumes, medicinal treatments, religious and funeral ceremonies. Spices were long ago considered rich commodities that were extremely sought after, to the point where expeditions which lead to the discovery of the new world were prompted by the need to expand the spice trade routes.

Now I want you to look at your spice rack some more. Ponder the idea of why such a storage unit is called a "spice" rack, and then ponder just how long yours has held some of those jars of herbs. The point I am trying to convey should come to you: fresher is better! It's time to clean house, consider this part of your fall cleanup this year: remove and discard those dried herbs. Their shelf life is so short, their color fades and with it the flavor, they are not worth the money spent or the space taken on your rack. When herbs have just been dried, their flavor is more concentrated that their fresh origins, and so one teaspoon of dried herbs is equivalent to one tablespoon of fresh. However, the potency is very short-lived. You have no inkling how long that jar of parsley was sitting on the supermarket shelf before it came home with you. Your best and most rewarding option is to grow your own herbs. Herbs aren't fussy, they are nearly foolproof to grow. All you need is a sunny windowsill, preferably in the kitchen but beggars can't be choosy, and a set of pots. If you commence this project in the spring, garden centers have seedlings (tiny baby plants sold in cell packs) which you can transplant into your pots. Once the herb plants are established, you'll always have access to fresh herbs right at your fingertips. Supermarkets also sell fresh herbs in their produce department. I would recommend planting those three to five which you use most often and buy the rest as you need them for recipes. You will see and taste such a difference once you abandon the dried herbs and go fresh.

Spices are a little more difficult to come by when it comes to growing and harvesting, given that it takes a little more effort to harvest some of them as opposed to simply plucking leaves. For instance, next time you feel like making a saffron cream sauce do you really feel up to removing the stamens from a backyard-full of crocus flowers? Hey, if you plant a few nutmeg trees, you'll get two-for-one on the spices: both the nutmeg seed itself comes from the center of the nutmeg tree's fruit, and the membrane surrounding that seed is dried and ground into another spice called mace. A more realistic option might be to purchase the spices rather than try to produce your own. Most spices sold commercially are in the ground form, facilitating the ease of grabbing off the shelf, measuring and thereby quickly executing your cooking project. One can, however, find some spices in their whole form. Obviously those need to be processed by you, traditionally with the use of a mortar and pestle if you feel that your forearm needs a good workout or, the modern-preferred method, through use of an extra coffee bean grinder which you would purchase and use only for pulverizing whole spices.

There are many available jars of 'blends' available. One is the Herbs de Provence, which is a blend of basil, rosemary, sage, thyme, marjoram, summer savory and lavender. I don't use this often enough to justify planting lavender in my kitchen and it is not something you will find in the produce section at the market. This is the one exception of purchased jarred herbs I will buy. Italian seasoning is another mostly-herbal blend. Some spice blends include garam masala, a delicious and aromatic addition to Indian cooking, which blends up to twelve different spices. Jerk seasoning is a Caribbean blend used to season some heat into grilled meats. Curry powder is another Indian blend of up to twenty different spices.

Oh, so now your spice rack looks a little meager, does it? Full of gaps now that you've eradicated the dried herbs? It will look much better when you go ahead and fill in the gaps with some more spices. There are so many ethnicities of cuisine out there, each one reaping the enhancement benefits of its own combination of herbs and spices. Think about which ones you enjoy cooking and feasting upon the most. If you crave Mexican food, there are several different chili powders you should keep on hand, including chipotle and ancho. You will also want cumin as part of the southwestern repertoire. If Indian food is your specialty, be sure that you have coriander, garam masala, cardamom, curry powder and turmeric. As far as herbs go, you will want cilantro for both. If you love the Mediterranean flavors of Italy, France, Spain and Morocco, you should grow some basil, oregano and parsley and pick up jars of saffron and crushed red pepper flakes (and a vast supply of garlic cloves is a must as well!). Bakers should be sure to keep cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and ground ginger.

Both herbs and spices are used together to enhance meats, seafood, poultry, vegetables, starches, desserts and beverages. Roasting some red and yellow onions which have been cut into wedges and seasoned simply with salt and pepper and drizzled with olive oil are a pretty good side to a chicken entree or a steak. Now add some fresh rosemary, thyme and parsley, along with a drizzle of good balsamic vinegar to the original dish and you have something much nicer. A serving bowl of pasta in a delicate cream sauce looks delicious. Sprinkle some freshly chopped parsley over it and the visual appeal is heightened. Baked chicken drums with salt and pepper? Boring!! Make it more appetizing by mixing up a few spices with a little olive oil and some orange juice and you have something more exciting happening in your oven. You can even make an omelet have more dimension by beating some chopped fresh herbs into the eggs.

It's all about making the food sing and making at least one dish of every meal be the star at the table. If you pick the meat entree to liven up, have fun with it, tweak to your palate's content and plate a knock-your-socks-off platter that you'll be so proud of. Then you can take things a little simpler with the rest of the meal if time or motivation is limited. By keeping the right variety of spices and herbs on hand to get your creative juices flowing, you'll season up a great meal every time that will keep diners coming back for more.

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