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Heidi's Sizzlin' Spices

Herbs and spices can have a place in even the most simple cooks kitchen..My style is heavy handed with herbs and spices. I love to use combinations of spices to make my own curries, chiles and moles. But there is something to be said for being subtle. It is an art to use a spice with a gentle hand to bring out the natural flavors of foods instead of smothering or changing them. Just a touch of sage in a pot of beans imparts the flavor of the Southwest breeze, or a hint of rosemary with some roasted potatoes gives them a light woodsy flavor that goes well with grilled mushrooms. Sometimes just adding a sprig of tarragon to steep is just what is needed to make any meal one to remember. So with this thought I am going to share some of the tips I have for buying, storing and using the best herbs and spices you can buy, find or grow!

The first step and one I try to do every year is clean out the pantry. Take every herb and spice out. Set them on the counter and review what you have. Did you inherit that allspice from Great Aunt Inez? If so make a choice and either use it as a vintage display of old spice boxes or chuck it in the trash. This spice is only good for a museum or display now not for eating. . When you have all the spices out review them and make three piles, one with your sweet spices like ginger, cloves, mace and cinnamon. The other for your savory and sizzling spices like sage, basil, oregano and then I make a third pile for curry and chili seasonings, the stronger spices.

So, what are you left with? Do you have what you need to begin your journey of learning to use herbs and spices in your own designer cuisine? Do you want to develop your own signature dishes to pass on to future generations or do you want to mimic the same dishes of your past, the warm flavors that bring back childhood memories. There are always a few standard seasonings in every ethnic culture.
I grew up in a neighborhood where the smell of Southern Italian food permeated all my memories. My favorite fragrance in the house is when the olive oil is hot in my skillet and the garlic, dried oregano, basil and crushed red pepper hit the pan. That is my standard for comfort food.
My kids look for the smell of curry because I have been a curry whore for most of their natural lives. For my husband its fried onions, caraway and cabbage that makes him go fetal. So think of your family heritage, what you like to cook on a regular basis or are there some new styles of cooking you want to try?
I implore you to consider salt as important as any other herb or spice. I am sorry but those containers of regular table salt are horrible. Try some kosher salt instead. It is a start into the world of salts. It is amazing once you try clean salt how bad the stuff in the containers tastes and you will find yourself bringing your own stash with your when you go off to eat! Then you can start trying other kinds of salt, ethnic markets, gourmet food stores and health food stores all have a wide variety of salts that can change a dish like nothing else. Make your list now, based upon the goals you have for cooking.

The most economical way to amass a nice selection of spices of course, is to grow your own, in theory that is great, I can grow any type of hardy herb in my yard but tender annual herbs are a total bust. Most spices are imported and we cannot grow them here anyway. Not to mention trying to harvest and preserve them on our own. Fennel should be made illegal to grow in my area as it is an invasive pest and once you plant it in your yard it is impossible to get rid of. I keep mine at my son's house, as he loves the hedge it has made for him! Pots of herbs are easy you can grow basil year around it a bright window. There are hardy perennials like rosemary, thyme, kinds and colors of sage, depends on where you live as to what you can grow. Herbs are mainly weeds, ones that we like! So, in most places they are easy to grow, spread quickly and taste wonderful. Seeds and baby herb plants are inexpensive and even less expensive is to go and snag a piece of a friends herb plant and start your own! Some words of caution for growing your own herbs. Because we eat the leaves of most herbs, spend a few dollars and have your soil tested for heavy metals before planting as this is a real concern with eating any leafy products from your garden. The second thing is to make sure you do not spray them with chemicals. Third, call the cooperative extension and ask them what herbs turn into pests in your area before planting. I found out the hard way not to plant seed fennel in my area, it is a massive pest with very deep roots and hard as heck to get out once you start it!

After growing your own, second best would be to try to buy whole spices sold in bulk from an Ethnic or local market where they move. There is no flavor like the one you toast and grind yourself. Grinding can be done best by using either a mortar and pestle or a cheap electric coffee grinder. I have found in Middle Eastern markets wonderful Turkish coffee grinders that work wonders on grinding spices you use often. If you buy some and keep them on your counter, they are a reminder to use them. Whatever you use keep the sweet and savory spices in separate ones so you do not end up with curry flavored desserts! If you just want to bruise things go with the mortar and pestle because you can control the coarseness better by hand.

The containers to keep the spices in are another issue. I have been collecting dark glass and ceramic containers, from thrift shops, yard sales and friends for years. I personally am not a fan of plastic but if I have to I do use it and have noticed it has gotten much better over the years. Whatever you choose keep in mind the idea is to keep the enemies of fresh flavors away. Avoid light, heat and moisture when you store herbs and spices. Now that you have everything purchased and in lovely containers where can you store them so you do not forget you have them? It would be nice if it were in a rack by the stove but that is THE WORST place. I came up with what I think is a great idea. Moisture follows dry and warm follows cold (two easy to conceive scientific principles). I choose two large drawers to store spices in and put an open container of salt in each to absorb water. You can devise a rack inside drawers if you are handy, to hold the containers or just shove them into baskets and put them in the drawer. The problem I have had in the past is out of sight out of mind. With the baskets in the drawer, I can grab the whole thing and set it on the counter when I start to cook. This works for me. The other thing I did was to plant my herb garden on the walkway up to the front door so I could not ignore them on my way in.

It is inevitable that you will have to buy some things dried and ground. I cannot imagine not having some ground red chili, or pre mixed five spice or there are some great pre mixed Curries. The best and freshest deals are in your regional ethnic markets and look for good turnover. Your larger grocery stores or markets in ethnic neighborhoods will have a row of regional foods and in that row there is usually a great spice section. For instance stick cinnamon runs $3.00 for a small jar in the spice section of the grocery. Go over a few isles to the Mexican foodstuffs and you will find a a bigger bag of pungent cinnamon sticks for half the price! Or the East Indian or Middle Eastern sections have whole spices or ground fresh bulk spices. If you are not sure ask about the names. If you do not know Canella is cinnamon but you see cinnamon sticks in the bag . Just ask to be sure. People are always nice to me when I say "What can I do with this?"

If you have an abundance of fresh herbs. the best way to store them is either leave them on the bush and take them as you need them. Or you can take the stems and tie them together hang in a warm, dark, dry place. When they are dry just crush them or store them as is in airtight dark containers. Another thing you can do is shove them into the food processor without drying them and chop them up and freeze them. But they do not last long like this. Fresh ginger may be frozen in usable pieces and thawed whenever you need it. As a rule when storing the spices you can figure if they are stored well whole spices can last up to 5 years! But herbs and ground spices always go flat in a year and are better if used in a few months.

Using the herbs and spices you have on hand is like anything else, mainly a knack but can be learned. Cooking is an art they say and baking is a science. I think that for the most part and in my humble opinion that is true. Experimenting with herbs and spices is a blast! Not to mention how much you can learn from researching recipes and where they came from. So every dish is not perfect. It is fun to keep trying until it is! Once you get a dish down to the perfect taste you have it forever I think. Start with a light hand. Now that is particularly hard for me because cooking for me is intense and passionate and I always turn the burner and flavor up! But sometimes the best lessons take time and even I have learned to go easy in the beginning and build flavors as I learn a new dish. During this learning phase you may just find an absolutely new dish that your friends and family keep asking for! So start light then build, it is much easier to add a bit more than try to correct overkill.
Remember some herbs and spices are better simmered like bay, whole allspice, mustard seeds for example should be added for long slow cooked foods at least an hour before they are finnished, basil stems also are better I find if you add them early. Most herbs and spices are better off adding in during the end of cooking. But this is all a judgment call and you will learn from the recipes you try.
When you substitute dry and fresh herbs remember the dry is far more concentrated so go easy. When you grind a spice fresh for a recipe keep the leftovers only if you will use them in a week or they just go flat. Try using non traditional spices in differing dishes. Such as experimenting with Greek or Indian food and start using cinnamon or cardamom in savory dishes.

Here is just a sampling of what I like to keep on the counter for use at hand.

Fresh cracked pepper mixed with kosher salt.
Always, always and I make it every other day.

Sesame Spice
1 part toasted sesame seeds
1 part kosher salt
1 part ground red chile
This is wonderful to sprinkle on anything that has cheddar cheese in it!

Chile Salt
Just like it sounds. Keep one part good New Mexican red chile mixed with one part kosher salt.

Herbs de Provence
One of my favorite herbal combos is the famous Herbs de Provence.
Equal parts (and you can vary, I am not a purist on this one) thyme, sage, rosemary, basil, lavender, savory, bruised fennel seed, marjoram, tarragon, oregano, and bay leaf.

1 part each ground pasilla, chile negro, New Mexican chile
¼ part fresh cumin powder
¼ part Mexican Oregano
¼ part ground dried chipotle

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See Also
Heidi's Vegan Marshmallows

Heidi's Seaweed Primer

Heidi's Tempting Tempeh

The Half @st Vegetarian