Spices and Herbs

As we ring in the New Year, it’s time to clear the slate and get a new start once more.  The Jewish people have a good idea—they throw out everything in their pantry, refrigerator and even freezer and start over.  When I was growing up in St. Louis Park, our next door neighbor was a dear friend of my mother’s who brought to our house everything she felt was still good—canned goods, unopened packaged items, etc.  What a bonanza!

Maybe we don’t need to go to such extremes if we’re not Jewish, but I really like the concept—especially after all the rich foods of the holiday season.  It’s good to get rid of all the scraps and remnants of cookies and fruitcake and other holiday sweets.  So I plan to thoroughly clean out the refrigerator, freezer and cupboards of all “junk,” leftover, or stale foods.

And while I’m at it, it seems like a good time to toss the old spices and herbs.  Most spices and herbs that are dried and ground lose their pungency and peak flavor in about a year.  It’s true that the seeds are better keepers and can be used for a longer period of time, but it’s a good idea to test them every year with the sniff test and by seasoning something bland to see how potent they are.

Spices are parts of plants that usually grow in the tropics; herbs are always leaves of plants that grow in temperate zones; seeds, such as mustard, caraway and poppy are actually seeds, or sometimes the fruits of plants that grow either in tropical or temperate zones.  Dehydrated vegetable seasonings are the powdered or flaked forms of garlic, onion, green peppers and other vegetables.  For our purposes, however, spices will refer to all of the above.

I am fortunate to have in my collection a wonderful book by Avanelle Day and Lillie Stuckey called, appropriately, The Spice Cookbook.  I have always been fascinated by the spices and herbs available to buy and to grow; yet not always sure how to use them.  This book is a virtual encyclopedia of spices; their history and use.  It is very beautifully illustrated by Jo Spier—so makes wonderful reading, great visual interest and, coincidentally, a great cookbook.  It includes a spice chart showing how each herb and spice is best used, a short history of each important spice and many recipes which use each one.  Unfortunately, it is out of print—but I will share some tidbits with you.

There has been a lot of news in the food and health world about certain herbs and spices and their healing or preventative powers.  Of course this is a revival of old folk wisdom before the field of medicine was so technical and advanced.  There still is a place for spices in our health picture, however.  One that is currently getting a lot of attention is turmeric, a newcomer to the great antioxidant substances.  Here’s a sampling from The Spice Cookbook on turmeric:

                  Turmeric has been used for a very long time throughout Asia, not only as a culinary spice, but it has served as a dye, a medicine, a ceremonial color, and an amulet.  It is the root of this lilylike plant of the ginger family that is used…because of its brilliant golden color, it has been most closely identified with saffron throughout the centuries and in medieval times turmeric was called “Indian saffron.”  The taste of turmeric is related to mustard, since many prepared mustards have been blended with ground turmeric.  This furnishes a clue to the use of this venerable spice in modern foods.  It can be used in very much the same way that saffron is:  with chicken, fish and pork; also in rice concoctions; creamed eggs; in spiced butters for corn, snap beans, and steamed green cabbage.  If you are bored preparing potatoes in the old, familiar way, dress them with turmeric butter, a speck of cayenne, and some chopped chives. 

            How much turmeric is to be used depends on the type of dish you are making.  A good rule is to start with ¼ or ½ teaspoonful in a recipe to serve 4, then taste and add more as needed.

This recipe is a classic use of turmeric and I love it because of the beautiful color:

Turmeric Rice Pilaf

2 Tbsp. instant minced onion
2 Tbsp. water
2 Tbsp. butter
1 cup long-grain uncooked rice
2 cups boiling chicken stock or 2 cups boiling water and 2 chicken bouillon cubes
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. turmeric
1 bay leaf
1 Tbsp. butter

Soften onion in water and sauté in butter for 1 minute.  Add rice and stir until grains are well coated with butter.  Add chicken stock and next 3 ingredients.  Turn into a 1-quart greased casserole, cover tightly and bake in preheated oven at 375 deg for 50 minutes, adding additional stock if necessary.  Toss remaining butter into rice with a fork.  6 servings.

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