Spice up the experience!

Spices can be an integral part of how food is prepared or an afterthought.  There are intense cultural connections to certain spices, and depending on how you grew up, you may be familiar with many or almost none at all.  Since I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to my Mom’s cooking (and should have) I never noticed her putting many spices in her dishes.  Mostly because salt was very bad (in her opinion) and because she didn’t cook anything remotely spicy.  She had a spice rack…that she didn’t use most the jars of to my knowledge.   So my first 8 years cooking on my own has been largely without spices. Now, I’m a different story altogether.  My spice rack is constantly in use and I’m adding to it regularly. My favorite spice? Cumin and/or ginger.  LOVE IT!  Favorite herb? Fresh cilantro.  All things that never were in my mother’s culinary vocabulary.

Who says healthy food has to be bland?  I could go on for ages on the healthful and therapeutic properties of spices but a lot of other people have already so check this out if you’re interested. http://www.examiner.com/alternative-medicine-in-chicago/health-benefits-of-common-spices or http://www.naturalnews.com/024584.html and maybe this http://www.foxreno.com/health/27626864/detail.html.   I think for the majority of American’s, we’ve dulled our taste buds with a diet of hidden sugar, fat and salt. Frozen dinners, pasta from a box and virtually all processed snacks are all cheaper to buy and more mainstream.  How many aisles at the grocery are dedicated to food in boxes?  Who doesn’t have a  Pasta-roni box, or something like it  in their cabinet?  Look at the sodium and fat content and the serving size.  Usually, the box says 4 servings except two people can easily split the whole box in one meal.  It takes more time to start with fresh ingredients true, but at what cost to our heath?

The downside to spices?  If you haven’t got many (or any) it can be pricey to start a collection.  To get the biggest bang out of your spice-buying budget, definitely buy whole, raw spices.   Again, the local Indian or Asian Market is (in my experience) great for these kitchen essentials.  Whole spices that haven’t been toasted or altered will keep their flavor much longer and you can pep them up as you need them, or in smaller quantities at a time.  Don’t get me started on how much brand-X will charge for a pitifully small jar of whole basil leaves or cinnamon where at my Indian Market I can get a bag full for the same price or less!  What I do is buy a jar of the exotic (must be because they charge so much) spice in the brand-x jar and this is just so I’ve got a jar that fits my spice rack that has the spice name on it. Although I once bought a whole bunch of cheap 1$ jars of something and dumped out all the spices, made a pretty label (with my scrap-booking card stock) and glued it over…  I then buy all the spices I use a lot in bulk at the Indian market in town and refill my jars as I go.

I took Alton Brown’s advice and bought myself a second coffee-grinder to use only for spices.  I highly recommend it! It saves on having to worry about your coffee tasting like spices or your spices tasting like coffee unless you like that sort of surprise.   For most whole spices and seeds (not dried herbs) all you need to get them ready is a non-stick pan, large enough for the quantity of spices you’re toasting to be in a fairly even layer and a stove.  Pour in the mix, or single spice (if you’re making a multi-use batch) and turn the heat on high with the spices evenly spread.  Frequently stir them and leave them toasting on high for 5-7 minutes, or until the spices become aromatic.  When you’re smelling them, they’re about done and need constant stirring.  (note to self: not all spices will be aromatic enough to smell until they’re aromatically burning) A little browning is OK but not all spices will brown or change color very much.  Immediately transfer the spices out of the pan and onto a plate or bowl for them to cool.  The pan will continue to cook them if they’re not removed because they will hold a lot of heat.   Once cooled, put them in the grinder.

Tip: don’t get a very large volume grinder when you get one!  It is harder to grind a small amount of spices relative to the size of the  grinding bowl.  In other words, the more full the grinder, the better the spices are ground.   Depending on how fine a powder you’d like, you may have to grind them 2-3 times in whatever cycle you’re using.   Always store spices in an air-tight, light-proof container.  For the store-bought containers that are clear plastic, make sure they’re in a cabinet or pantry, away from direct light.

Another thing related to spices I use that makes it easier are my measuring spoons.  Instead of the traditional round tablespoon/teaspoon measuring set, I found a set that is long and narrow – made for easy entry and exit from a spice jar.  Saves spilled and wasted spices having to tap the spice out of the jar into the measuring spoon.  Also, if you’re into spices already or want to be, get organized!  No more buying duplicates because you can’t find it lost in a crowded drawer, no more digging and hunting either!  There are many options to suit your space needs so look around for what works for you!  I found a shelf-system that allows for many sized jars.  The only negative I have to say about mine is that the shelves probably won’t support all glass jars.  I have a mix of glass and plastic and wanted to go all glass but found that the shelf looked like it was going to have a hard time with the weight.

Spices are a great way to put some variety in your experiences.  Virtually no calories or fat in most of them but all of them are packed with flavor and texture to enhance a meal without adding a lot of salt.  Aside from the start-up costs, I can’t think of a single downside to adding spice into your diet.  Have fun with it!

If you don’t use many spices, here is a project.  Find a recipe that sounds good to you but uses a spice or two that you’ve never used before and make it. Tell me how it went!  If you already use spices and herbs, which is your favorite? What is the most unusual spice or herb you have in your collection?

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