Tuesday, July 27, 2010

spice it up

“variety is the spice of life”
to me, if variety is the spice of life, than spices create the variety in food. take a simple collection of standard stuff: chicken, peppers, onions, carrots and throw them into a wok for a stir fry. Pretty bland on their own, it’s the spices, herbs and other flavor carriers (such as chili peppers, lemongrass, etc.) that shape the dish into something other than a mere collection of ingredients. What I love is that the same ingredients can be fashioned into many different things, depending on the spices/herbs that are used. That’s sort of amazing, isn’t it? the flavor profiles of different cuisines are fascinating and so much of the differences are defined by two main things: the cooking method and the spices used.

if you watch enough cooking shows than you have probably picked up on the preference of chefs to use fresh herbs and whole spices. When it comes to whole spices, i wholly agree. spices that are ground when you’re ready to use them retain the subtle complexities of their flavor, while the already ground version does seem to lose some it’s more sublime flavor over time. The jury is still out for me on whether fresh herbs are always superior to dried, though. we know that using fresh herbs in long-cooking foods, like sauces, soups and stews, is not preferable because fresh herbs tend to get bitter and/or lose their flavor in dishes like that. if you ever added fresh basil to a moderate or long-cooking sauce than you know what i mean—the flavor of basil becomes tinny and bitter and basically ruins your dish, game over. now, if you’re making a fresh marinara, the addition of basil can be perfection. call me a rebel, but still i don’t think the belief that ‘fresh is better’ is even that cut and dry. i think, especially for new or inexperienced cooks, that fresh herbs can be tough. rosemary, despite the sweet name (have you ever known a mean rosemary?) can easily overpower a dish and render it nearly inedible. this is a case where a dried herb is actually a good thing. not to mention that, unless you have an herb garden, fresh herbs can be a pain—they don’t store all that well (although for some good suggestions for storage, see this page on the Chowhound site) and because you are often locked into buying a set amount it’s very easy to buy too much.

the one concession i am willing to make is in the case where dishes are not cooked at all, and then you need to tread carefully with some of the dried stuff. even so, if you’re dish contains a decent amount of acid, as in the case of a salad that will be dressed with an oil/vinegar or oil/citrus juice, dry herbs can still be used with success…again this is my opinion from my cooking experiences. as a matter of fact, my favorite salad dressing uses mrs. dash…this admissions would probably make my cooking idol, alton brown, roll his eyes and give me a shameful stare. however, mrs

so I share with you my simple, all-purpose salad dressing, from one spice dissenter to another.

rebel salad dressing

• 1 part oil (use something with a neutral flavor, fruity olive oil doesn’t work here)
• 1.5 parts of seasoned rice vinegar(you read it right—you are going to use more vinegar than oil)
• mrs. dash (the regular stuff with the yellow label)
• kosher Salt
• fresh Pepper

so, if you use ½ c of oil, you would use ¾ of a cup of vinegar and about 1 ½ tablespoons of mrs. dash. You can adjust the amounts until you find that perfect balance..and you will find it. salt and pepper the salad only after you taste it tossed with the dressing. the mrs. dash can be powerful and you may not need pepper at all.

Some notes:

1. preparing simple stuff, like this dressing, doesn’t mean it’s easy. Getting the right balance takes a few tries, don’t be afraid to adjust things as you go. the people you are cooking for are generally your willing guinea pigs ;)

2. use Marukan seasoned rice vinegar if you can get it. I’ve tried many brands and this one is, by leaps and bounds, the best i have ever used.

3. if you have a little time before you eat the salad and you are using hearty greens (romaine, arugula, etc.) add the vinegar and mrs. dash a few minutes ahead of the oil to allow the lettuce to absorb some of the really yummy vinegar.

4. when you get down to the end of the mrs. dash it is powdery. this powder is what i refer to as ‘super dash’ because the flavors are really concentrated. go easy when you get to the end of the jar, use less and taste as you go, or else you may end up with a salad that is too spicy to eat—no joke.

a few of my favorite things
like most people who cook with regularity i have my favorite things. i submit to you some of these as a resource for you. it doesn’t mean that my favorite things will be yours, but i hope you find it helpful.

• overall, some of the best spices I have used come from penzey’s*. penzey's herbs and spices are pretty economical; you can buy most spices in a range of sizes to fit your budget and need. I get the penzey’s catalog (it comes out about 6-times a year) and am always excited when I do. in addition, penzey’s has brick-and-mortar locations sprinkled around the country. check out their website for more information and to get a catalog. i will be visiting the penzey’s in Norwalk, CT. this weekend (yippee!) and plan to return with a booty (like a pirate’s booty, not a butt booty). if you do visit a store or place an order, here are a some things that I recommend highly:

1. the extracts very good, try the double-strength vanilla extract, it is pretty heavenly.

2. the cumin seed rocks, as does the maharajah curry powder

3. i like their spice blends (some more than others) - for a good bbq rub tr the northwoods seasoning. also you might like the english prime rib seasoning, i find a dash or two is great in beef stew and shepherd's pie.

4. the dried cilantro is great, particularly if you like to make salsa in the wintertime.

oh, and one other thing, penzey’s offers the ability to purchase many of their spices in bags instead of jars (although you can get the jars, too); which is cool on a lot of fronts.

the most economical, and high-quality vanilla beans that I have tried come from the organic vanilla bean company*. Their website also has good information on the different types of vanilla, vanilla flavor profiles, how to use vanilla bean, etc.

• if you happen to be near a trader joe’s*, see if you can get their Vanilla paste—it’s great in homemade ice cream and butter cream frostings for sure. But the uses are limitless. If you don’t already, subscribe to their ‘fearless flyer’ (which you can get in an online format) it is an entertaining and informative publication. I’m not sure why this list is so vanilla-focused, but hey, vanilla deserves our attention and reverence!

growing your own

i am not a gardener, my thumbs are far from being green and I have a serious phobia that relates to certain critters that like to hang out in gardens; however, i have had success growing herbs. It makes me feel a little less inept! basil, cilantro, chives, parsley, oregano, tarragon and thyme have all done well, even under my oppressive thumbs. i grow them in a window flower box on my front porch so they are accessible and ready when I need them. If you haven’t tried it, give it a whirl. If you are like me you will feel somewhat self-righteous when you can say, “oh yes, that’s fresh basil from my herb garden.” does that make me a bad person? nah.

*I am not the recipient of any free goods from these establishments…I wish I were, but I’m not. I recommend them because I like them, not for any profit

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