Using Herbs and Spices: More on Flavor Families

This multiple-entry post on herbs and spices was sparked by Julee Rosso’s recipe for Beef Stew with Eggplant (Great Good Food, p. 487).  Its unusual combination of spices ignited an entire exploration into using herbs and spices more often and more creatively.

On the subject of creativity, an earlier post talked about “flavor families”and how paying attention to them paves the way to more creative use of herbs and spices.  Rosso’s stew recipe provides a good example, with its flavor family of coriander, paprika, cinnamon, allspice and cayenne pepper. It took a little courage to step out on a limb and try that unusual combo (if you’re having trouble with that step, see the first post), but once past that barrier the door swung wide open to some cooking fun.  Turns out that this flavor family was fantastic.  Now, how else could it be used?

That’s the great thing about flavor families.  Find one you like and you’ve got an easy springboard to creative fun:  In the case of Julee’s coriander combo, after tasting it in a beef stew, it was a no-brainer to imagine how nicely it would complement a vegetarian stew with eggplant, green peppers and garbanzo beans, and then what a nice bite it would add to a peach chutney.  I tried both variations with excellent results.  The vegetarian stew follows.

Give it a try, check out the coriander combo, then have some fun trying it with other things—and be sure to share your ideas.

Eggplant and Garbanzo Stew with Spicy Coriander Flavors

Serves 4-6

  • 2-3 cups cooked brown rice

Be sure to have some leftover brown rice or put it on to cook before starting the rest of recipe.

  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil, divided
  • 1 large onion, diced to about ½”
  • 1 large or 2 medium green peppers, diced to about ½”
  • 1 lb. eggplant cut into roughly 3/4” cubes*

In a large sauté pan, heat 1 Tbsp. oil over medium heat until hot but not smoking.  Add onions and green peppers and sauté about 4-5 minutes.  Push to sides of pan, add second Tbsp. oil, heat a minute or two, then add eggplant and sauté, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, about 7-8 minutes.

  • 6-8 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp. ground coriander
  • 1 tsp. paprika
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • ½ tsp. ground allspice
  • 3 dashes to ½ tsp. cayenne pepper, to taste  [[LINK]]
  • 2 bay leaves

Reduce heat to medium, stir spices into vegetables and cook another 2-3 minutes.

  • 2 lbs. tomatoes (about 5-6 med.) tomatoes, cut roughly in ¾” pieces (or 1 lrg. can diced tomatoes)
  • 15-oz. can garbanzo beans, with juices
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Stir tomatoes, beans, salt and pepper into onion mixture and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer gently for about 20 minutes or so, stirring every few minutes.  Once tomatoes have softened and eggplant is soft and tender, add:

  • ½ cup chopped fresh cilantro (optional)
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh mint (optional)

Cook just 1-2 minutes more, then serve over cooked brown rice—basmati is especially nice.


1.  On the Side:  This one dish meal doesn’t need any side dishes if you’re short on time, but if you have a few extra minutes, a simple salad with winter pears and toasted cashews is a nice compliment.

2.  About the Eggplant:

  • 1 lb. is roughly equivalent to 2 slender Japanese eggplants or 1 medium standard eggplant.
  • Use very fresh, small to medium eggplants, since they are the youngest and tenderest.  Larger or older eggplant can be used, but can be bitter.  If that is all you can find at the store, follow this procedure for salting, which works to draw out the bitterness:  Begin the recipe by cutting eggplant as directed and sprinkling generously with salt.  Place in a nonreactive colander to drain while preparing the onions and peppers.  Before cooking,

Is it OK to use the garlic and ginger that comes in jars?

Those little jars of prepared garlic and ginger are so completely convenient!  No fussing

I like The Ginger People and Emperers Kitchen brands because they dont have any artificial preservatives.

The Ginger People and Emperor's Kitchen brands have good flavor but no artificial preservatives. Although some kind of preservatives are needed to keep them from molding, these brands just use citric acid, sugar or vinegar. In the background are chives in bloom.

with paper-thin garlic peels, no paring gnarly knobs of ginger or endangering fingers on the ginger grater and no garlic-smelling hands for the rest of the night.  But is it OK to use these conveniences?

I get this question a lot, usually phrased a little sheepishly, as if the questioner is already using the bottled stuff; she just wants to know how guilty she should feel.  After all, what kind of cook doesn’t peel , mince and grate her own ginger and garlic?

One of the fun things about my cooking classes is that we actually experiment with fancier ingredients and preparation methods, do side-by-side taste comparisons, and see whether they are worth the extra time and money.  This month we pitted prepared garlic and ginger against fresh, in an easy version of Saag Paneer.  (Join a second session of this class; make this intriguing dish then take it home for dinner)

The results?  The dish with fresh ginger and garlic really did taste better.  “Brighter” you might say.  You could really pick up on the tangy-ness of the ginger and earthiness of the garlic.  So yes, peeling, chopping and grating your own does make a difference.  But does that answer the question of whether it’s OK to use prepared stuff?  Not exactly.

Even though I know flavor might be sacrificed, I use prepared ginger and garlic all the time because sometimes, flavor isn’t the only factor to consider.  How much of a flavor difference is there?  Will it make a difference in the dish I’m making?  What if I’m so pressed for time that a flavor/convenience tradeoff is acceptable?  And finally, do I care?

In our Saag Paneer class, for example, one participant acknowledged that fresh tasted better—but not enough to offset the convenience of the prepared version!  She was perfectly happy with the taste of her dish, which is the real bottom line and the answer to our question.  As long as you are OK with a tradeoff in taste, then pre-chopped ginger and garlic are completely OK.

Sure, a five-star chef wouldn’t use prepared ginger and garlic, but she has a sous chef to do her grating and chopping!  For everyday cooks, the prepared products can be a real godsend, making good-enough dishes possible on a busy schedule.

Personally, I favor a selective use of prepared garlic and ginger.  Rather than completely embracing or shunning them, I follow this rough rule:  The longer garlic and ginger are cooked in a dish, the less they are the dominant flavor, and the less time I have, the more I am inclined to use the prepared versions.  Conversely, in recipes where garlic or ginger is used uncooked or only lightly cooked, or where it is the main flavor, I am inclined to use fresh unless I absolutely don’t have time.

Here are some specifics to flesh out that general rule:

Mary’s Six Guidelines for Fresh vs. Prepared

1.  Cooking Time When garlic or ginger is used in an uncooked form, as in a pesto or salad dressing, I use fresh, no question.  Ditto for dishes where the garlic or ginger is only lightly cooked, as in Spinach with Raisins and Pine Nuts (check it out at the Vegetable a Month Club.)  In these cases, flavor is critical.  What’s more, when used fresh, very little is required, minimizing prep time.

On the other hand,if garlic is called for in a long-simmering stew, I usually opt for prepared, since the flavor difference becomes almost imperceptible with longer cooking times.  For in-between dishes, like stir-fries and skillets, I let time dictate my choice.

2.  Flavor Dominators When garlic or ginger is the predominant flavor in a dish, I am sure to use fresh, as in the classic Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic or Ginger Sauteed Halibut.   If the flavorings are just a side note, however, I feel fine substituting the prepared versions, as when I make nut burgers, which combine a myriad of flavors.

3.  Backup Plan What if the flavor of fresh is needed, but there just isn’t time to chop and grate?  Two solutions:  Use a little more and/or cook it a little less, to keep the flavors bright.

4. A Continuum Perspective Any time a convenience food question comes up, I view it from a “Continuum Perspective.”   In other words, I imagine the possible range of foods positioned along a continuum.  On one end are highly processed and refined packaged foods without much in the way of nutritional value to recommend them.   At the other end are nutritional darlings like fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, good fats, and so on.

Of course it would be ideal to eat completely from the whole, natural, fresh and from-scratch end of the continuum, but I pat myself on the back if I at least keep progressing along towards the ideal.  So if at times I must rely on some canned beans—or pre-chopped ginger and garlic–to get a decent meal on the table, I don’t hesitate for a second.  I’m still further along the continuum than if I tried to cook completely from scratch, got overwhelmed and ended up making a packaged and processed something out of desperation.

5.  At Least Try Fresh Once Remember what your mother said when you turned up your nose at dinner?  “How will you know unless you try?”  I used to think that bottled lemon juice was a good enough substitute for fresh—because I had never bothered to squeeze my own.  Finally I put out the effort and tried fresh.  I was fully humbled and corrected.  So at least try the fresh stuff a couple times so you have a point of reference–and know if you’re missing out on something.

6. Read the Ingredient Label Everything said so far is based on the assumption that your pre-chopped ginger or garlic (or other convenience food) is just that:  “ginger” and “garlic.”  Surprisingly, this is often not the case.  Reading the ingredient label is the only way to know if a seemingly simple food contains additives, colorings, preservatives, excessive amounts of salt and so on.  If it does, using it isn’t just a matter of taste, but also a matter of personal health.

The Bottom Line:  They may be completely convenient, but real cooks can use pre-chopped ginger and garlic–without feeling guilty!

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