My Valentine to You --- hope you have a super spicy day XoXoX, Cyn
With great humility and a healthy hit of confidence I report to you that I seem to be viewed as an above average Whipper Upper in the kitchen. It started early, with a family that encouraged my presence in and around the kitchen, and ate my ‘special’ sauces and praised me for their deliciousness. (Mix ketchup, A-1 steak sauce and oregano. It really is pretty delicious, as any 4 year old dipper will tell you.) Their support and willingness to try anything I produced gave me the confidence to cook. I caught the bug, and am happiest in a kitchen full of hungry people.
So what’s my secret? Seasoning. Yup, that’s it. SO simple, yet so rarely executed well. And when I say seasoning, I just don’t mean the basic salt and pepper, I mean all the herbs and spices that can enhance a dish. Al and I were once invited (key word here: once) to a couples’ house for dinner - we had a lot in common with these two on paper: loved good music, drank good wine, golfers, fellow northeasterners, etc...and they purportedly loved good food. “Hey,” we thought, “they could really be good friends!” We arrived with wine and flowers, and proceeded to choke down the blandest hospital food you could imagine before arriving at a truly divine chocolate dessert, but even that could have benefited from a shot of salt. The hosts’ comments to us while finishing up cooking details was that he felt salt/pepper/herbs/spices only conflicted with the taste of what you were eating. Needless to say, that friendship didn’t last much past that dinner, but the lack of spice wasn’t the only reason. Just the biggest.
Now that may sound like an elitist food bitchy thing to say, or even think, but really? No salt? No pepper? No pepperoncino? What the hell kind of life are you eating? Not a tasty one, as I can attest to! This brings me to the secret of my success in the kitchen - seasoning. That’s it, that’s all there is to it, I can season well. I know what spices will convert a piece of broccoli into a delicacy dripping with garlicky juices, I know a little bit of cayenne wakes up almost anything and should be in everything, I know that curry salt will make my eggs sing an aria where regular old salt is the national anthem. What’s the secret to knowing who plays nicely with who in the kitchen playground? There is some segregation, and this should be respected in the kitchen, until you have the basics under your belt. Don’t be going all southeast asian with the cinnamon until you’ve got a handle on what’s happening in the playground at home. Try a little cinnamon stick in the brewing coffee grounds in the morning, add a little to your butter and toast, dust a pork chop with it before cooking and add apples. Understand how it’s going to go from sweet to savory, and then get all southeast asian on it. Make a chinese five spice and create a little pho. Most spices are pretty liberal, and can go both ways. Sweet or savory. All depends on the applications.
So where to start? Let’s start with the last list I wrote about, the ten you should have in your pantry. I’ll give you the spice, who it plays nicely with in the spice playground, a food or two you should be trying with said spice, and a blend that’s its widely used in, and where that blend originates. Where it originates should give you a clue as to how and where that spice should be used as well - think of the dishes that are from that area and you’ll probably have a perfect way to add that blend to your repertoire. For example, herbes de Provence, a blend of spices that is/was typical to the cooking of southern France, as that was what on hand outside one’s kitchen window, as most blends are. It can include thyme, savory, rosemary, marjoram, and as the French chef from Provence told me last summer in his kitchen, never lavender, that’s for Americans. (See, food bitches everywhere, not just America.) Use it on grilled meats, fish, eggs, over cheese...with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon it makes a delightful light dressing. The four major herbs I mentioned grow well on sunny windowsills too, and fresh herbes de Provence in an omelette made with creme fraiche, ooo la la! THAT will give you a reputation as someone who knows what they’re doing in the kitchen. Add a little baguette and some tomatoes, perhaps a little chervil if it’s to hand, a glass of rosé,
but I digress...
SALT - numero uno for so many reasons. If you only have one in your pantry, make it a finishing salt -an unrefined sea salt, like Maldon, Celtic, the Himalayan stuff showing up everywhere. It hasn’t been dissolved, all the minerals removed, and re-crystalized like kosher or other ‘girl with the umbrella‘ salts we all grew up with. You can find it flakes or crushed to the crystal form, aka table salt.
Kosher salt is a workhorse salt, for the rougher jobs in the kitchen like brining, or salting pasta water, preserving things, it’s not supposed to be seasoning your finished project. It’s the cheap salt you use when you need a lot of salt to get a job done. It’s known as kosher salt because it was used to ‘kosher’ meat, drawing the blood out.
IF I accomplish one thing with this blog post, I hope it’s to get you to stop using kosher salt to season your food. Would you use ice melting salt to season your food? (And yes, I know most of it’s magnesium or calcium chloride you smarty pantses, not sodium chloride, but it makes my point).
Plays well with: everyone, and is especially good in blends, think truffle salt, curry salt, smoked (!) salt. To make a fancy blended salt, throw salt and your flavor of choice in your spice grinder (coffee grinder you bought esp to whoosh spices, they’re cheap and plentiful, this is not snotty). Try a little curry powder, 1/8-1/4 tsp in a tbsp of salt to start. Season your eggs with it. Now this assumes you have a good curry powder on hand, like it to begin with, and perhaps even made your own?
Ever since that ill-fated under-seasoned meal, I carry a little stash of salt on me at all times. Live and learn people, live and learn.
PEPPER - stimulates your appetite and probably best used to finish a dish (meaning it’s added at the end or the completion of cooking). It’s hot and warming, and there are white, pink, green, Szechuan, several kinds of black, Tasmanian - lots of different types. My grandmother had access to one, McCormicks black pepper, and some of the dishes of hers that I make aren’t the same unless that pepper is in play.
Plays well with: basil, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, garlic, ginger, nutmeg, parsley, SALT, thyme and turmeric
Dish that highlights: fresh strawberries with balsamic and black pepper
Blend to try: Montreal Steak Seasoning, also McCormick, and the only hints they give you as to what’s inside is salt, spices (including black and red pepper), garlic, paprika extracts and the kicker, natural flavor. Which can be anything. <raising a fist in the air and shaking it> Curse you FDA for not mandating better labeling! I just want to know what I’m eating!
NUTMEG - my honey, my boo. I love nutmeg. I put it on alot of things. I order in bulk and always whole. I have a grater devoted to my nutmeg. I even have a nutmeg necklace and am a Nutmeg State native, although that’s not a flattering moniker when you know the story. Nutmeg adds a certain depth of flavor and works in mysterious ways. Nutmeg is also a flirty spice, since it goes both ways, sweet or spicy with ease.
Plays well with: allspice, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, garlic, ginger, mace, pepper, thyme, vanilla. Is a core ingredient in the french spice blend, quatré epices (with clove, ginger and white pepper)
DIsh that highlights: creamed spinach, mac n’ cheese. Pretty much any time you have dairy in a dish, add a little nutmeg. It’s also what makes eggnog eggnoggy.
Plays well with: BASIL, bay, caraway, cayenne, chives, cilantro, coriander, cumin, fennel, ginger, lemongrass, mustard, oregano, paprika, parsley, pepper, rosemary, saffron, sage, salt, tarragon, thyme
Dish that highlights: for cooked, I'd go with a simple marinara raw: grilled bread rubbed with a raw clove PESTO!
MARJORAM (OREGANO) - In my opinion, marjoram tastes like softened oregano, and it doesn't scream pizza. It's a fine herb for adding a tiny bit of a fresh green flavor to dishes, and works especially well with tomatoes, same as oregano. In fact, they're both in the origanum genus of plants, which is in the mint family. (Getting my inner plant geek on.) Marjoram for cooking is often referred to as sweet marjoram as well, hinting as its less forceful nature.
Plays well with: basil, bay, chives, garlic, mint, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, savory, thyme
Dish that highlights: roast chicken with marjoram and lemon. It's one of the fines herbs in the spice mix fines herbes, along with parsley, tarragon, chives and chervil. Which is fantastic fresh over scrambled eggs, btw.
BAY - Sweet bay, bay laurel, it's a large green leaf and more people have choked to death on them than probably any other herb in history. Why? They weren't removed from the pot before serving. I religiously count them going in, and count them coming out. Why bother? There's something about bay - a little brightness that makes any soup/stew better, and is a must for polenta. My absolute favorite way to enjoy bay is to dip the leaves in tempura batter and fry them. When they come out, strip off the batter with your teeth, chuck the leaf in the compost. The hit of flavor is amazing.
The only leaves I use are dried from Turkey. California bay leaves, which can be found fresh in markets and is sold as plants, is a different type of bay, and to me, is like adding a little Vicks VapoRub to your dish. Not my ideal flavoring. It's also one of the only cases of an herb being stronger when it's fresh that when dried. That's not natural, so just avoid the California bay for eating. You can buy Turkish bay leaves incredibly cheaply in bulk, stored in the freezer they will keep for years. Unless you develop an unhealthy addiction to frying the leaves in tempura, then no storage problem. You were warned.
Plays well with: allspice, garlic, juniper, marjoram, parsley, pepper, rosemary, sage, savory, thyme, vanilla
Dish that highlights: add a couple leaves to any soup or stew, magic with marjoram and garlic in tomato sauce
CAYENNE - my Daddy's Daddy was born wayyyyy down South, in the same town as Elvis (my brother is a dead ringer and could make millions if he could just sing (love you J)), so it's no surprise that there's a little cayenne peppa running through my veins. It's a warming spice, adds a little zing, or a lot of zing, depending on how much you use, and when it's added to the pot. Personally, I love a little zing, so cayenne goes fast around here. I find it also cleanses your palate a bit, setting you up for the next bite. Heat is addictive, and once you catch the fever, it's hard to go back to bland food. PS…you'll want to know the longer you cook it, the hotter it gets, so add at the end of cooking and just a bit if you're a novice. And it intensifies the flavor of basil, so add a smudge with any basil in any dish. It's always in my pesto.
Plays well with: basil, cilantro, coriander, cumin, garlic
Dish that highlights: crack bacon - brown sugar and cayenne baked bacon
CINNAMON - When little kids are asked what spices they know, cinnamon is always at the top of the list. Why? Cinnabon, of course. Which is kinda sad, but at least they learn a spice. It's probably one of the first spices I ever had too, on a piece of toast with sugar and butter. It flavors baked goods to delicious acclaim, and makes apples taste like they're bad for you they taste so good. Just writing this makes me think of a bread pudding with apples and cinnamon, which is really just my cinnamon toast gilded and glorified. Real cinnamon is the bark of a tree, and there are many different (literally 100's) of types of cinnamon, but only 4 are used in commercial production of the spice. Cassia and Ceylon. I won't go into the geeky plant differences, what you need to know is cassia is stronger and has a more in-your-face-I'm-cinnamon flavor, and Ceylon is more mild and somewhat sweeter.
Plays well with: allspice, cardamom, cloves, coriander, cumin, fennel, garlic, ginger, mace, nutmeg, saffron, star anise, turmeric, vanilla
Cinnamon is the star in many blends, such as chinese five spice, garam masala and ras el hanout.
Dish that highlights: anything with apples, but try apple crisp. Add a little to your hot chocolate with a squosh of cayenne and you'll be living la vida loca.
CUMIN - Another warm spice, it blooms when added to a little warm oil in a pan - the oils in the spice reactivate and you'll know it's cooking, it's very fragrant. It comes both whole and ground, and of course I recommend the whole to be ground by you as needed. Whole can also be added directly to your soup/stew/chili, and it gives a lovely lighter flavor than using ground. It's the chili in chili, by the way, no chili without cumin in my humble but firm opinion. Cumin is synonymous with curry in many cultures, although it's just one part of a spice blend that is curry.
Plays well with: allspice, anise, bay, cardamom, cayenne, cinnamon, clover, coriander, fennel, fenugreek, garlic, ginger, mace, mint, nutmeg, oregano, paprika, pepper, saffron, thyme and turmeric
Dish that highlights: lovely in a chicken salad, egg salad, with red lentils or in a butter served with shellfish.
SPICE BLENDS - this is a whole other blog. There is only so much patience you'll have in reading, and if you've gotten this far in this blog post, hurrah! There are a ton of commercial blends available, some of them very good. Take a look at the ingredients and consider if you like the individual spices. Chances are you'll like the blend if you like the components. Don't be scared by an ingredient or two that you don't know. I will give you my all-time cheater spice mayo recipe if you promise not to tell----I make it with a spice blend and serve it with fried anything, but especially catfish. Paul Prudhomme's Redfish Magic mixed with Duke's mayonnaise (Hellman's is okay for my northern contingent), a little lemon and cayenne to taste. You now have the secret to unlocking the universe and can never say I don't love you.
How to make the spices work together? Say you want to use marjoram in something. Take a look at what spices go well with it and start there. Maybe you add basil and garlic. Smush this up with some butter and olive oil and decorate bread for broiling, a chicken for grilling, or even go crazy and use it on some stir fried zucchini (please add crushed red pepper if you do!). I realize these herbs are just the tip of the iceberg, but it's a good place to start if you're among the Spice Deprived. You know I'm dying to say it so here it goes - get some SPICE in your life!