Fun with Spices

If you’ve spent even 15 minutes cooking in your kitchen and at least one meal, I’m sure you’ve sprinkled at least salt & pepper on your meal to make it more savory.  There are tons of fun spices out there that you could experiment cooking with.  Like basil, for example.  Very popular in Italian dishes, my favorite being bruschetta, basil is  a great source of vitamins A, C,  calcium, and iron and is beneficial to your cardiovascular system.  If you bought basil fresh you can keep it on your counter in a jar of cool water with a plastic bag loosely on top.

Cardamom is a spice you’ve probably never used, believe me I know, I had to look this one up.  Usually used in sauces and chai and specifically curries, cardamom can certainly allow you to expand your horizons.  You can buy this spice whole pods, seeds, or powdered.  There is green and black cardamom- green is used in curry and Indian sweets and the black cardamom is smoky and used in meats.  If you’ve ever had Szechuan or Vietnamese dishes I’m sure you can now put your finger on that taste.  Although you may try to incorporate cardamom in cooking, a lot more information out there is in regards to using this spice as a medicinal effort.  The green cardamom is used in Ayurvedic medicine as an aid for digestion and flatulence and the black kind is used in Chinese medicine for stomach conditions.  If you happen to have bad breath, chewing on a few of cardamom seeds will do the trick.

Cumin may be another spice that is collecting dust in your spice rack.  Let cumin make its way to your test kitchen in chili for Tex- Mex recipes including chile con carne, casseroled pork, and enchiladas with chili sauce.  Speaking of chili sauce, chili powder has ground cumin in it and this is what makes Mexican meals pop .  If you don’t feel like experimenting just roast some cumin seeds with your potatoes or add toasted cumin to your mashed potatoes.  Cumin is also a great spice with roasted meat as well.

Fennel has won the blue ribbon top award in my house.  You might know this spice for its licorice smell and its notoriety in Italian sausage.  In my house, I throw fennel seeds in spaghetti sauce and meatloaf (my husband always notices when I forget to add fennel).  Fresh fennel can be used as a bed for roasting fish and as a garnish in soups or salads.  You can use fresh fennel fronds as a rub for roast pork by chopping the fronds and adding lemon zest and crushed garlic.  I’ve even made fennel rolls to go with a fancy dinner, so this goes to show that fennel can be very versatile.

Mint literally grows rampant right out my front door and I wouldn’t do any justice to that spice if I didn’t incorporate those little buggers in my meals.  We are big lamb fans and I am always looking for mint recipes to compliment our rack or leg.  I’ve attempted to make mint apple jelly before, unfortunately I haven’t won my battle with the whole pectin concept, but I will keep trying.  I have settled for a mint sauce that is comparable though: stir 1 cup of chopped fresh mint leaves into 1/2 cup of boiling red wine vinegar, then add sugar til the taste is right.  If you have a surplus like I do, you could always freeze the leaves in a little bit of water in an ice tray and throw them in iced tea or a homemade mojito, perhaps?

Have you ever bought too much of an herb or just don’t get around to using it all?  Freezing herbs is a great way to keep your spices and to also reserve flavor. Lay leaves from the stems flat on a baking sheet in the freezer for about an hour then pack away in freezer bags for future use.  A note: certain spices darken after being frozen, like thyme and rosemary.   If you want to freeze herbs but keep the same bright color, like basil to use later for pesto, for example, blanch the leaves first.  To do this, boil in water for a couple of seconds and then throw in water and ice til cold.  Then drain on paper towels before packing them in freezer bags for the freezer.

You can air dry spices as well by bundling in 3/4 inch bundles and hang up-side down with any string or twine you have.  It only takes 7-10 days to have nicely dried herbs.  Don’t have the time to air-dry?  The microwave can be a fast alternative to drying spices.  Put spices in between two paper towels and microwave for a minute.  Then keep microwaving at 30-second intervals til the leaves look like they are going to crumble.  This process will only take 2-4 minutes.  Keep your dried spices in an airtight container and they will be ready for when you get an itch to experiment.

Extra herbs can be used to decorate your table when you are waiting to use them.  Put herbs like oregano, mint, sage, or thyme in a nicely decorated vase and voila- instant bouquet.  To keep the freshness even longer at night put the vase in the refrigerator with a plastic bag on top.

Christmas is coming up and infused vinegars can make a great home-made gift.  Rinse herbs such as basil, oregano, rosemary, sage, tarragon, or thyme, put in bottles and fill with vinegar.  The formula is 3 cups of vinegar with 4 sprigs of herbs.  You can use any herb by itself or mix any two, or three, or four together.  It takes about 3 weeks in a dark cool place for the mixture to mesh the flavor together but the vinegar will last for 4 months.  If your herb decomposes during the process pour the vinegar through a fine strainer and it should look gift-ready again.

So, go have fun with spices and experiment with the ones you hardly touch.  Spices can be a great way to add flavor, to decorate, or to give as gifts.  Which one are you cooking with tonight?


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. petersammarco
    Apr 01, 2010 @ 08:34:55



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