Herb and Spice Resources—A Beginning List

Over the week of this posting, a couple of resources have come to my attention that might be helpful for an herb and spice adventure. In particular, these sites have recipes that are indexed by spice, making it easy to find new uses for those herbs and spices on your experimentation list.

For Information and Recipes: www.janespice.com

Born in Australia to a Lebanese family and now relocated to San Fransisco, Ursula Ayrout has created a site to help rescue your meals from the land of bland. “Don’t just make food. Make taste,” as Ursula (a/k/a Jane Spice) says. Her website is new and doesn’t have a full line-up of recipes yet, but there are still quite a number of interesting options, especially those for cumin. Plus, she’s busy adding more recipes and a FAQ section, so keep checking back.

For Information, Recipes and To Buy On-Line: www.thespicehouse.com

The Spice House has been in business for over 50 years, with stores in the Chicago and Milwaukee areas and now a complete online selection. I have no doubt that, with a 50-year history, they are “merchants of the highest quality, hand-selected and hand-prepared spices and herbs.” I’ve ordered several herbs just to see.

However, in addition to quality, I’m looking for no flavor enhancers, colorings, etc. in spice blends and this appears to be largely the case with Spice House products. There are a few blends that contain MSG, but every description includes a complete list of ingredients so you can check for yourself.

Here is what the owners say about MSG: “As the country’s concern for MSG became apparent we made a concerted effort to remove MSG from almost all of our blends. However, MSG is a flavor enhancer that does make things taste better. What we found is our old-time customers complained about the taste difference when we took out the MSG. These are also people who knew they did not have MSG allergies. Only an extremely small percentage of our blends still have MSG for these particular people. We try to be very upfront with our customers about ingredients in our blends. Even though the government requires us to identify only salt, sugar, MSG, garlic, onion and “spices”, we give you every spice ingredient in a blend at the bottom of the seasonings description in our catalogue.

Using Fresh Herbs:  Food Reflections Newsletter, April, 2003

Informative article by the experts at the University of Nebraska’s Cooperative Extension Service.  Filled with useful tips on using fresh herbs, I especially liked the instructions for freezing them, which is particularly apt advice right now.  If any herbs have survived the weather to date, freeze. them soon  In the dead of winter, they compare pretty nicely to fresh.

Others. . . .

Do you have any other good spice resources to share? The next rainy day we have, I’m going to take an outing to the newly opened Boulder Spice Shop and will report back. Could be a nice winter-type outing. . . .


Using Herbs and Spices: Continue the Adventure

Previous posts talked about taking the plunge and using herbs and spices outside our comfort zones.  Lot’s of tips and tricks were given to make it more comfortable and less agonizing to take that plunge.

It may take a little time and effort to get going, but you’ll be hooked once you start using herbs and spices more regularly and adventurously. And talk about a cheap thrill. In tough economic times, what could be nicer than to enjoy the comforting salve of a meal brightened exquisitely with the simple addition of an herb, either purchased for pennies or grown for free in our gardens or kitchens?

The best way to keep your adventure going:  Keep an eye out for other recipes featuring whatever new herbs or spices you target. This will be easier than you think: I remember how, with each new car we got over the years, we suddenly “noticed” that everybody seemed to be driving the same kind of car! By our third car, we finally realized this phenomenon was an optical illusion. Vehicles like ours had always been out there; we just began to “see” them once we became an owner. Happily, the same will happen once your attention is focused on a particular herb or spice. Suddenly, you’ll begin running across all sorts of recipes that use it.

But don’t stop with your initial one or two new herbs. Continue working up the confidence to extend even further, trying ever more daring combinations and new and more interesting herbs and spices.

As you begin experimenting, watch for patterns that emerge: how do recipes combine herbs, spices and flavorings? What types of meats, vegetables, grains or beans are used as backdrops? Does an herb or spice taste best in small amounts or large?

Speaking of patterns, one things you’ll begin to notice are “Herb Families.” These are helpful because if you like one member of a family, you may well like (and you’ve probably already had) some of the others. Here are a couple examples, by no means scientific, just to get you started:

  • Italian: Basil, oregano, marjoram, thyme
  • Indian: Coriander, cumin seeds, mustard, chili peppers, turmeric
  • Simon and Garfunkel: Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme (like the song, if you can remember back that far)
  • Sweet: cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cardamom
  • Savory: Rosemary, thyme, sage, bay leaves
  • A little more unique—the “fines herbes:” parsley, chervil, tarragon and chives
  • Mexican: Chili peppers, oregano, cumin

As an example of a pattern, you’ll see dishes with chili powder are often complemented nicely with a sprinkling of fresh cilantro and lime juice. Basil, mint and cilantro are very often combined in Thai food–an unlikely but nevertheless superb flavor trio.

Once you begin noticing these patterns, you’re set to take an exciting step: Getting creative and seasoning dishes on your own, without a recipe to follow. That’s how the fun continues without end!  Check out how I transferred the flavor family from Julee Rosso’s Beef and Eggplant Stew to a vegetarian version.

Getting Adventurous Using Herbs and Spices—Part 2

Ready to start using herbs and spices more adventurously, or just at all? The first post in this series talked about how this isn’t hard or difficult. Mostly, it just takes a little courage and gumption. Start by finding a spark of herb and spice inspiration. Once you’ve settled on a couple herbs or spices, find a recipe or two and you’re off and running. The second post shared Six Tricks and Tips for a Successful Spice Adventure. Now, here are:

Seven More Rules of the Road for a Successful Spice Adventure

1. Maximize Flavor Over time (i.e., six months to a year), herbs and spices lose their vim and vigor. So if you’ve been wanting to try a curry dish, don’t use the powder bought last year in a fit of inspiration. Find a recipe first, then go buy a fresh batch of flavorful, fresh curry powder. That way you get a taste that’s the truest and best.

2. Buy Wise Buy herbs and spices from the bulk bins at a health foods store with a good turnover. Not only are they cheaper ounce per ounce, you can buy just what you need. To begin with, buy a very small amount, enough for a few recipes. Once you’ve made friends with an herb or spice, buy larger amounts, but not more than about a quarter cup at a time, so you won’t be tempted to use them past their prime.

3. Smell Before You Buy Most herbs and spices have a comforting and inviting smell. However, if you find a smell repulsive, maybe that particular flavoring is not for you. For sanitation purposes, sniff from a safe distance or, better yet, sprinkle a little in your hand and get a good whiff.

4. Don’t Give Up Too Soon If it’s not love at first sight when you try an herb or spice, be open and give it at least another couple tries. Likely as not, your taste buds are simply surprised, especially since the typical western diet is so sadly limited and bland. Be considerate and give the buds a little time to adjust. Try the herb or spice with different foods and over several weeks. With so much potential pleasure at stake, that much effort is definitely warranted.

5. Get Fresh Don’t forget about trying fresh herbs and spices. In my opinion, fresh are better and brighter tasting, and add a real special-ness to a dish. I’ve found this to be especially true for garlic, ginger, tarragon, cilantro, dill, parsley, mint, and rosemary.

6. The Exchange Rate With fresh herbs so widely available in grocery stores, many recipes now call for them to begin with. If a dried version is called for, simply substitute one tablespoon fresh for each teaspoon of dried. Generally speaking the reverse is not true. If a recipe calls for a fresh herb, using dried will likely result in a less than satisfying dish.

Coach on Call: My coach on call service is perfect for times when you’re in a bind abut substituting herbs and spices or just have other questions about using them.

7. Do Wait Until the Last Minute–Sometimes  Remember the earlier rule about letting herbs and spices cook a bit? It doesn’t apply to some of the more delicate fresh herbs like basil, chives, cilantro, dill leaves, parsley, marjoram and mint. They should only be added during the last minute of two of the cooking time.

Tomorrow:  Using Herbs and Spices–Continue the Adventure

Getting Adventurous Using Herbs and Spices

Ready to start using herbs and spices more adventurously, or just at all? Yesterday’s post talked about how this isn’t hard or difficult. More than anything, it just takes a little courage and gumption. In other words, you just gotta take the plunge. Start by finding a spark of herb and spice inspiration. Once you’ve settled on a couple herbs or spices, find a recipe or two and you’re off and running. Here are a few refinements on this basic formula:

Six Tricks and Tips for a Successful Spice Adventure

1. Avoid Taste Bud Overload When searching for recipes, look for ones where all (or at least most) of the other ingredients are familiar. In particular, experiment with just one new herb at a time. No need to overwhelm your taste buds with new information—plus you really want to be able to separate out the taste of the new herb or spice.

2. Give ‘Em Time—But Not Too Much Herbs and spices are generally added early enough in the cooking process so their flavors can permeate the entire dish and meld nicely with all the other ingredients. But you don’t want to cook them too long. After 20 minutes or so, they begin to lose flavor. So if you’re making, e.g., a long-simmering stew or soup, wait until the last 20 minutes to add the herbs and spices, or add a little more if added at the beginning.

3. Test and Taste The soup/stew approach is a good one to follow even for quicker-cooking dishes when using a new herb or spice. Wait until the dish is fairly well assembled and cooked (especially ones with meat). Then test a little of the herb or spice in a small portion of the dish before seasoning the entire thing.

4. Take It Slow When you’re ready to add a new herb or spice to an entire dish, add just a little bit, stir, taste, then gradually add more as needed. Seasoning a dish is all about finding the right balance between too little (leaving the dish bland) and too much (overpowering all the other flavors.) The cardinal rule: “You can always add more, but you can’t take away.” By the same token, however, don’t be so bashful that you cheat yourself of the full flavor of an herb or spice.

5. Danger Zones While it pays to go slow with all new herbs and spices a few deserve even more caution, cayenne pepper, for instance. Rosso’s stew recipe (mentioned in yesterday’s post) called for a half teaspoon . I would have died with that much heat! I measure cayenne in shakes rather than teaspoons. A few other spices that can be complete deal breakers: chili flakes, chili powder, curry powder, cloves and ginger.

6. Oops! If you do end up over seasoning a dish, all is not always lost: Too much salt? Add a peeled potato and simmer for 15-20 minutes to absorb the excess. Too much hot spice? Add a little butter, cheese or cream to the dish. Too much herb flavor? Add more of the other ingredients in the recipe.

Tomorrow’s Post:  Seven More Rules of the Road for a Successful Spice Adventure

Using Herbs and Spices–Outside the Comfort Zone

Taking the Plunge into a New, Spicy-Herbalish Adventure

I was throwing together a new stew recipe this morning. As I added the paprika and coriander I wondered why I used those two spices so rarely.

No doubt it has to do with we humans being creatures of habit. And when it comes to getting stuck in a rut, cooking is one of the easiest ones to get stuck in. Racing into the kitchen each night, who has time to flip through a cookbook for new inspiration? So we fall back on our same old standbys that use the same few herbs and spices.

As a kitchen coach, a request I hear a lot is, “Can you help me learn to use herbs and spices?” It seems there are a fair number of people use herbs and spices only rarely or are uncomfortable venturing beyond a few basics like basil, cinnamon and oregano.

That of course, is a misfortune that borders on tragic! Herbs and spices are one of the quickest, cheapest and most effective ways to take a meal from ordinary and ho hum to extraordinary and extremely enjoyable. What’s more, they are practically calorie-less! Could you ask for more?

So how do we get ourselves to take that sometimes uncomfortable step into a more interesting herb and spice zone? Begin by just being open to an spicy-herbalish experience. I get inspired most by fresh herbs, especially those in my garden and at the farmer’s market. This year, for instance, my garden boasts some lemon balm that I planted on a lark. I recently dared myself to try a nibble—and thank goodness. Now I am motivated to use its pungently rich lemon flavor in something.  (I’ll share a recipe later.)

I also get inspired by recipes that call for a new or rarely used flavorings—as with this morning’s stew recipe. I would normally default to my usual parsley and thyme combo. But Julee Rosso’s recipe for Beef Stew with Eggplant* had me combining coriander and paprika with cinnamon, allspice and cayenne pepper! Who wudda thunk that such a wild combination would make such an intriguingly delicious stew?

Other ways to instigate an herbalish, spicey experience:

  • Treat yourself to a small adventure in the bulk section of a health foods store or an actual spice store. Look at the colors and textures of the herbs and spices. For any that look interesting, open the canister and take a whiff of the fragrance (but stay back and avoid breathing into or near the contents!) See if a couple options don’t call out for experimentation.
  • Is there a friend or family member whose cooking you like? No doubt they would be honored and delighted to recommend a favorite or two. If they make a particular dish you love, be sure to ask what herbs and spices it features—and get the recipe while you’re at it.
  • Check out the herbs and spices of a cuisine you like. Greek, Moroccan, Italian and Indian, for instance, each use a unique set of spices and herbs.
  • Finally, pay attention at restaurants. For any meal you particularly like, don’t be bashful about querying the chef on the herbs and spices that make it so good.

Once you’ve settled on one or two options that deserve experimentation, what’s next? You’ve likely seen charts that list all the herbs and spices, along with the kinds of foods they go best with. There’s a good one in the 1997 edition of Joy of Cooking. Here is another good online version that includes some interesting history:  http://aidanbrooksspices.blogspot.com/  

While these charts can be a helpful way to get started, I find it more useful to actually find a recipe or two from a cookbook or other source that I trust. Actually making recipes with an herb or spice is how I learn what foods they work with and how they taste when combined and cooked in a dish.

Finding recipes that utilize a particular herb or spice is not hard with the Internet. You’ll get dozens if not hundreds of search results. The hard part lies in plucking the right recipe for your circumstances out of the plethora of possibilities.

Tomorrow’s post will share a number of tricks and tips to help winnow your search results. Until then, here is the takeaway thought for today: At some point you just gotta take the plunge. That’s what it means to get out of a comfort zone—you take a little risk, but gain a whole lot in the way of fun, interest and excitement.

And for goodness’ sake, what’s the worst that can happen? You make a dish that you absolutely hate. So you pitch it and order takeout. Not exactly the kind of downside that qualifies for “end of the world” status!

To further put things in perspective, consider that there’s maybe a five percent chance of this risk occurring. That means there’s a 95 percent chance that you’ll be rewarded with a meal that is delightfully and tantalizingly different! So even though it can be unnerving to step out on a limb and try something new and different, I think you’ll agree that it’s a completely reasonable—and worthwhile—risk to take.

Tomorrow:  Six Tricks and Tips for a Successful Spice Adventure

Want a little more encouragement and help to brighten your food life? I provide kitchen coaching via phone and email. Helping busy people put pizzazz back into their daily mealtime routines is one of the services I offer. Check it out.

*Beef Stew with Eggplant, recipe from Julee Rosso’s Great Good Food, p. 487.

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