Learning to enjoy the spice of life
Beige is a color completely devoid of interest and flair; it is the epitome of boredom. So, one can imagine my dismay when everything I cooked for a dinner party I hosted last week turned out beige. Everything even tasted beige – uniform and uninspired.I had gotten stuck on a theme of garlic, olive oil and parmesan. Luckily, my guests were very polite, and didn’t mention how absolutely boring the food was. Naturally, I overcompensated for the beige food with a lot of red wine, and overall the evening was enjoyable. As I cleaned the kitchen, my gaze fell on the spice rack that my mother gave me for a housewarming gift. The neat, mysterious little bottles of colorful, exotic seeds, leaves and powders sat largely unopened, and it occurred to me that there was the solution to my boring beige meals. In ancient times spices were coveted and precious. People went to war over spices, paid taxes and even ransoms with spices. Columbus was searching for a western route to the Spice Islands when he discovered America. If it weren’t for the profitability of the spice trade, good old Chris might not have bothered to come westward in a boat, America wouldn’t have been discovered, and we would probably still all live an some overcrowded European city, with no indoor plumbing, scratching out a living baking bread or butchering animals. In all seriousness, it occurred to me that spices were so coveted for a reason, and if I want to throw only deliciously spicy dinner parties in the future, I had better learn what the ancients knew long ago – how to cook with those inconspicuous little jars of treasure, which so many of us take for granted. In the quest to understand the contents of my spice rack, I put together a list of spices and some uses that will perhaps be useful for other people as ignorant of cooking as me. Most of these spices are available in any grocery store, but hard-to-find spices can be purchased online. A couple of Web sites to check out are: http://www.theepicentre.com and http://www.getspice.com.Here is what my research revealed:Allspice – Sweet, pungent and aromatic, like a combination of nutmeg, clove, ginger and cinnamon with peppery overtones. Great for jerked meat, rice dishes, and for sweets.Basil – Grassy, minty and slightly bitter, to be used in tomato sauces, pizza, pesto, and most other Italian dishes. Bay leaves – Slightly bitter and pungent, great in stews, and sauces. Caraway seed – Pleasant sweet and slightly biting flavor. Known for its flavor in rye bread, and also used in cakes and carrot dishes. Cardamom pods – Warm, suggestive of eucalyptus and camphor, with lemony undertones. Used in many Indian dishes, and delicious boiled with coffee, for a sweet, spicy, version of the drink.
Celery Seed – Grassy flavor with hints similar to anise and fennel. Great for use in salad dressings, soup and vegetables. Coriander – Minty, sweet and citrus-like flavor. Try it in lentils, beans, stews and chili. Cumin – Sharp and slightly bitter and very strong. A little goes a long way. Great in lamb and chicken dishes, and can be added to beans or rice to add a bite to otherwise plain dishes. Essential to Mexican dishes, such as Chile Con Carne, and enchilada sauce and Indian dishes, curry in particular. Dill weed – Subtle flavor with sweet, grassy, rye-like flavor. Try it on fish, cream cheese, cottage cheese and tomato juice beverages. (Read: Bloody Mary)Ginger – Lemon, citrus and slightly earthy flavors. Wonderful in chicken dishes, stir-fry with vegetables, and almost everything else. Boil chopped ginger with a pinch of fennel seed to make a soothing ginger tea. Lemon Grass – Lemony flavor with a hint of ginger. Try it in savory seafood or poultry dishes. Marjoram – Minty, sweet flavor with bitter undertones. Use it in meat dishes, stuffing, bread and chowders. Oregano – Bitter, earthy minty flavor. Use it in Italian dishes, and especially in tomato based sauces. Can be sold in little baggies to new and unsuspecting users of cannabis sativa. Paprika – Mild and slightly sweet in flavor. Use it as a dash of color to liven up otherwise beige foods.Rosemary – Bittersweet, fresh, pine flavor. Try it with chicken, pasta, potatoes, and other savory dishes. Saffron – Bitter-honey taste, compliments seafood and fish.Savory – Characterized by tangy, green and medicinal flavors. Use it in vegetables, beans, eggs, hamburgers and soup. Tamarind – A refreshing, sour taste, often the souring agent, particularly in Indian lentil dishes, curries and chutneys. Turmeric – Aromatic with a bitter undertone. Popular in Moroccan cuisine, used to spice meat, vegetables, and curries, it is known for providing its bright yellow color
White pepper – Penetrating and pungent, it is a milder version of black pepper. Try it on baked or grilled vegetables, drizzled with olive oil and a touch of balsamic vinegar. Here are a few easy, spicy, and very non-beige recipes to try the next time you want to impress your friends in the kitchen. Serve the main entrée with basmati rice, livened up with saffron, or turmeric if saffron is not available. For an easy dessert serve a light sorbet, or dark chocolate and fresh fruit with Turkish coffee: Cinnamon MartiniInfuse a bottle of vodka with cinnamon sticks, and let steep for at least a few days. Pour a shot of cinnamon vodka into a shaker filled with ice, with an optional splash of Hot Damn!, cinnamon schnapps or similar liquor, and shake vigorously. Serve in a chilled martini glass with a sugared rim. Lemon Grass Roasted Chicken1/2 C. of finely chopped lemon grass (3 or 4 fresh stalks) 5 tsp. of fish sauce (can be substituted with vegetable broth)2 Tbsp. chopped cilantro1 Tbsp. each of chopped green onions, garlic, soy sauce, sugar, salt and vegetable oil
1/2 Tbsp. red pepper2-4 lbs. chickenCombine all ingredients to make the marinade, and then pull a couple of tablespoons of the mixture to be used later. Marinate the chicken for as long as you want to wait. Overnight is ideal. Roast the chicken at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes, breast-side down, then turn over and roast for another 10 minutes, or until brown. Right before the chicken is done, baste the chicken with the rest of the marinade. Enjoy your delicious chicken with friends and wine. Salt and Pepper VegetablesMixture of fresh seasonal vegetables (asparagus, carrot, red and yellow peppers work really well)Olive oil, balsamic vinegarWhite pepper and salt to tastePlace sliced vegetables on a roasting pan, and cook at 350 degrees until they are crisp-tender. Drizzle with oil and vinegar and sprinkle with salt white pepper. Turkish coffeeAdd a heaping teaspoon of ground coffee or espresso for each cup of water, and bring to a boil in a saucepan.Lightly break 5-10 cardamom pods open, depending on how strong a flavor is desired, and boil with the coffee. Strain and serve.
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