07 November 2005

You want a pinch of what? Herbs, spices & flavourings part one

It always amazes me how many people claim to dislike spicy foods. As usual, I have theories...maybe their parents only used s&p... perhaps they mixed up their teaspoon measure with their tablespoon and bad things happened...they were blindsided by a deadly capsicum in a dark alley......a really cruel/stupid roomate switched bottle labels and got them to down a bottle of something that shouldn't have been downed without a paramedic present.

But what I think it really is is simply a fear of the unknown…

Working with spices isn’t difficult, but it’s important to remember that spicy food doesn’t mean eye-wateringly, sinus-clearingly hot—spicy food is flavourful food.

If you’re rather shy about using herbs, spices and other flavourings, I’ve revisited my original primer from the ezine, tweaked it and broken it into two pieces. This part has a general overview; the next part focuses on working with them. It'll be posted in a few days.

I suppose Julie Andrews sung it best…”Let’s start at the very beginning/A very good place to start”

Simple but mostly useful definitions:
Spices: The dried, non-herbaceous parts of aromatic plants such as the rhizome, root, bark, flower, fruit or seed (highly unromantic, I know)

Herbs: The green parts (leaves and sometimes stalks) of aromatic plants.

Flavourings: My catch-all category of flavouring liquids such as honeys, vinegars and ketchups.

Pickiness is a virtue:
Luckily for most of us, we can find fresh and dried herbs, spices and specialized ingredients used in exotic-to-us cuisines in the average urban grocer’s. Just remember, whenever possible, avoid pre-ground and pre-powdered spices because they’ll lose their potency quickly; many spices such as peppercorns, saffron, nutmeg are available in whole form, so you can grind or toast exactly how much you need when you need it.

Since not all of us are blessed with green thumbs (mine are more attuned to shoes), growing our own herbs is out of the question. I have no problem declaring my dependency upon the kindness of those who can keep green things alive. When I’m shopping, I choose flakes are over powders and fresh herbs should look and smell healthy.

When choosing flavourings, natural ingredients are key since the real stuff tastes better than laboratory-developed synthetic (fake vanilla tastes like mothballed plastic wrap to my tastebuds), and are worth the higher price. Look for best-by dates and avoid stores with low turn-over (dusty caps are a giveaway).

And of course, if your local shop can’t or won’t carry what you want, you can order pretty much anything on-line.

Keeping your treasures:
Store dried herbs and spices in opaque containers or airtight glass bottles (or another material that won’t impart flavours to the contents) in someplace dark and away from humidity. Most dried herbs and spices generally go stale after three to six months, so buy them in quantities you'll use before their flavours go off.

Rinse and pat fresh herbs dry, then wrap them in paper towelling before placing them in a zippy storage bag; herbs kept like this in a refrigerator will stay fresh for about two weeks. If you want them to keep longer, chop them finely and keep them in a freezer-safe container in your freezer.

Unless the label advises otherwise, store flavourings in a dark cupboard; keep an eye on expiry dates.

Learning about how to use herbs and spices is something I think anyone can do. I’ve tried to outline some general tips and tricks about picking and storing them. The next part will review how to use them.

As always,

(photocredit: Gernot Katzer / Mint Leaves )


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