Some spice advice

Wealth and power, of course, are why humankind fights wars, and usually one begets the other. But in the history of erect, two-legged saps doing unspeakable things to each other in the pursuit of increasing their stores of both, one other thread runs through it.

Sir Walter Raleigh referred to it in 1605. Besides “the same glitter of gold and precious stones” that compelled all those “who pushed back the limits of the unknown world,” there was also “the same odour of far-fetched spices.”

Not only have warriors and explorers spilled seas of blood in the name of whatever god or government they’ve chosen to serve, they’ve done the same for salt and pepper.

Salt is essential to life, but is also a pleasure when used judiciously in food. Pepper isn’t a biological necessity, but think what food would be without it. Even those recipes that say nothing more than “season to taste” are talking about salt and black pepper.

But there’s so much more.

This topic was raised by reader Mark Mowle, who made the “bull stew” oxtail recipe featured in a recent column, and raved about the dish, but followed up with this:

“Having made your stew, I now have a wad of parsley the size of my head, half a container of fresh thyme and a 3/4-full container of fresh savory sitting in my fridge. What type of quick, work-week-type meals can I use this stuff in? Is there a simple way to dry the herbs in the oven and then make my own spice powder? Are there easy ways to keep the fresh herbs from going bad too quickly?”

Aside from exactly what herbs and spices suit your individual taste, the rest is relatively easy.

You’ll find some minor disagreements over the definitions of “herb” and “spice.” For its own purposes, the American Spice and Trade Association lumps them all together as “any dried plant product used primary for seasoning purposes.” But salt is neither. It’s a mineral.

Generally speaking, herbs are fragrant leaves, and spices come from other parts of plants. Cinnamon is a type of tree bark, so it’s a spice. Parsley, prized mostly for its leaves, is an herb — although the stems are delicious raw and make a fine, mildly pungent addition to soups and stews.

There’s hardly a dish I can think of, from simple scrambled eggs to slow-cooked short ribs or beans, that doesn’t benefit from a little freshly chopped parsley sprinkled on just before serving. A fairly reliable rule of thumb is that stronger-flavored herbs and spices are better in heartier dishes, but they’re by no means limited to that. Few herbs are better with old-school chicken Kiev (it’s just baked chicken breast with a molten, butter-flavored core) than the licorice notes of a little chopped fresh tarragon.

• Dry fresh herbs by rinsing and blotting thoroughly, then hang them in bunches, upside down, in an airy room for two or three days. Or lay them out on a piece of foil and let sit in an oven at the lowest setting for several hours (you can use a microwave in short zaps, but I don’t care for the results). Then crumble and seal in jars with tight lids.

• Some folks freeze water-covered fresh herbs in ice cube trays, then store the cubes in freezer bags to be added as desired to soups, stews and sauces. I’ve found they do just fine chopped and stored loose in freezer containers.

• To substitute dried herbs for fresh, use 1/3 the amount called for.

• When adding herbs to a dish, always rub them between your fingers first to release their aromatic oils. Better flavor.

• When available, buy whole spices and grind them when ready to use (a cheap electric coffee grinder works fine). If stored in well-sealed jars, whole spices will keep almost indefinitely.

• Always buy herbs and spices from stores that sell in bulk. You can usually get just the amount you need, they’ll be far fresher and purer than those packaged for retail, and for lots less money. For the best deals in both freshness and price, check out Asian and Latino markets.

• Always store herbs and spices away from heat and light. Some say the fridge is best, but I’ve had problems with moisture getting in. Never found a recipe yet that calls for a “clot” of paprika or cumin.

And one more note to reader and new oxtail convert Mark: Those whole cloves you bought for the dish are great in other full-bodied dishes, ground and sprinkled on buttered rice or noodles, steeped in hot spiced cider or mulled wine, or studded in the rind of slow-baking ham, for a few examples. Just be sure to remove whole cloves before eating — they’re like swallowing carpet tacks.

Ric Bohy is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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