Wednesday, November 7, 2007

How to Cook at Home, Part II: The Spice of Life

Welcome to Part II of the three part How to Cook at Home series of blog entries. If you missed Part I: Pantry Raid, check it out here. Just as a reminder, I created this series of blogs to share with everyone some of the items that are helpful to have around if you'd like to cook for yourself more often. We already went through some pantry staples, now it's time to address the light bulbs of the culinary world: herbs and spices. These little guys are generally used in small doses, but when used properly can be powerful enough to elevate the blandest of meals and brighten up the dullest of flavors. I'll break down what's in my spice rack, (seen above) in addition to mentioning a few extras that I find extremely helpful, so here we go:

This is a great herb that goes well with all sorts of proteins and vegetables. It's one of the more subtle and elegant herbs, and can stand up to fish, chicken, and even sausage. I like buying it dry (in leaves) and grinding it up in a mortar and pestle.

This is above and beyond my favorite spice of all time. Growing up, almost everything we ate was Spanish in origin and always included paprika, whether it was soup, animal, vegetable or mineral. It's actually ground up smoked and dried red peppers, and comes sweet (which just means not spicy) or hot. Add it to lukewarm oil and sauté veggies in it, sprinkle it on bread, or use it to spice meats.

Curry: This is a great way to add fast flavor, even if it's just to a quick stir-fry or canned lentil soup. Used properly, curry can add great depth of flavor because it's actually a mix of at least 12 other spices, including coriander, cinnamon, clove, cardamom and cumin, so it lends itself to a variety of dishes both sweet and savory.

Bay Leaf: This is most often used for homemade soups, stews and stocks, but definitely has it's place in quick cook dishes as well. I often add a leaf or two to canned black bean soup with a bit of cumin and coriander, pour it over white rice and top it with a fried egg for a quick dinner.

Garlic & Onion Powder: I mostly use these two ingredients for spice rubs and marinades, which can really be life savers on a lazy day. Mix these with three or four other spices, rub on some chicken wings and dinner is done.

Rosemary: This super versatile herb works with everything from the gamiest of meats to roasted potatoes. It's really woodsy and is just as good left on the stem and dropped in soups or roast chicken as it is chopped up and sprinkled over veggies.

Thyme: This is also great on the stem or ground, and pairs really well with citrus flavors. It's nice and subtle and plays well with other herbs and spices.

Chili Powder: Good for more than just adding the signature flavor to chili stews, chili powder is another spice made up mostly of ground chilies, but often times includes cumin, black pepper or coriander. It adds smoky depth to everything it encounters, and is not hot.

Cayenne Pepper: Known for it's piquant flavor and the spice it adds to Tabasco, cayenne can go into everything from stews, cheeses and even hot chocolate.

Cumin: This one is so distinctive that once you taste it you'll never mistake it for anything else. It's smoky, earthy and spicy without adding any heat. I like buying the full seeds and crushing them myself in the mortar and pestle. I love it in black beans, lentils, on lamb and even in dressings and marinades.

Coriander: Most people are familiar with cilantro, the leaf that sprouts from the coriander seed, and you may be surprised to know that they taste nothing alike. They do however, often pair with the same type of foods, so try adding it to salsa's, dressings and marinades. Just like cumin, buy the seeds and grind them yourself right before you need them.

That's everything that fits into my spice rack, but I've cleared aside plenty of shelf space for red pepper flake, white peppercorns, grey sea salt, Chinese five spice and saffron (very expensive, but sooooo luxurious). These are just suggestions based on what works for me, but by all means, keep a list of flavors you really like and stock up. The more you fill your kitchen with your favorite flavors, the more likely you are to use them instead of ordering take out.



lauren said...

aha, you've inspired another kitchen-noob question from me! i've wanted a mortar and pestle for years, both because i use spices constantly and because it's such a sexy-looking set of kitchen implements (second only to the kitchenaid mixer for counter appeal), but i always freeze up before i purchase: i don't know whether to go metal, ceramic, or marble (i worry about stainage, breakage, and flavor-taintage, which is a word i just invented). which sort do you have? why did you choose it?

Laura said...

Good question! I currently have a ceramic one, mostly because it was free (leftover prop from a photo shoot--woohoo!). But, I am currently in the market for a larger one, and am considering buying this ceramic one:

The important thing to keep in mind is that it be sturdy, heat safe, and that it not absorb smells, so I'd go with a nice ceramic, stone or marble, which are always the largest and withstand heat and moisture. Don't get metal or glass because if you need to add hot liquid to your mixture, the mortar will heat up and you won't be able to hold it down, and the glass ones crack REALLY easy.

Short answer: Ceramic and marble are a good bet.