Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Make Your Own Take-out with Organic Herbs & Spices

Turkish Spice Market

Yesterday I was inspired to answer the question: what herbs and spices do you need on hand to transform ordinary fresh, natural, organic ingredients into take-out you make at home?

Now I feel like Marco Polo. What started as a lark has become a journey of 1,000 miles.

I began on the premise that every regional cuisine has a predominant flavor.

Chinese - ginger and garlic. Mexican - chili and cumin. Indian - curry. Italian - oregano or basil. Cajun - salt and cayenne. By the time I got to France, I realized that seasoning is more art than science and everybody's taste is subjective.

Take Cajun. Cayenne is the first thing that comes to mind. But Cajun seasoning is not just hot, it's a blend of herbs and spices that balances the base note of salt with the piquancy of cayenne. It has a roundness of flavor that feels like a party in your mouth. Too much cayenne simply destroys your taste buds.

Seasoning is supposed to enhance food, not camouflage it (though salt has been used for just that purpose since time immemorial.)

I can give you a recipe for Cajun seasoning, but this is just a place to start - how much salt or cayenne totally depends on what you like. (Or in the case of regional cuisine, Cajun is like your Momma or Daddy made it.)

I can give you a list of the most useful herbs and spices to have on hand; finesse comes from experimentation - much trial, many errors.

And what do herbs and spices, especially packaged blends, have to do with local, organic, sustainable food anyway?

Fresh for one thing; you can grow many of the most useful herbs in pots on your balcony, patio or backyard.  Freshly harvested rosemary, thyme, bay leaves; freshly ground cinnamon, cardamom, dill, chili peppers - all bring a bonanza of flavor to food. The others you'll want to source in small quantities that you can use within six months or so; they lose potency after that. Words to the wise: dried is more potent than fresh, so use half as much.

Organic is another: spices in the field can be tainted by any number of contaminants: insects, molds, yeasts, even pathogens, like salmonella or E. coli, the virulent bacteria linked to scores of outbreaks of food-born illness. To combat these, most conventional food manufacturers in the United States sterilize spices with toxic chemicals. The most common is ethylene oxide, a gas that can leave residues on spices that may be harmful to human health and cause cancer in workers who have prolonged exposure to it. The
chemical has been banned in many European countries and Japan.

Fair trade is the final factor: a number of organic spice companies go the extra mile to produce a high-quality product in an environmentally friendly manner; they pay growers more than they'd receive for conventionally grown crops.

All that said, here goes:

Salt: Kosher salt, sea salt. Use Kosher salt to cook in a dish. Use sea salt to "finish" it. A very light sprinkling of sea salt on freshly steamed vegetables, divine.

Peppercorns: black, green, white, red peppercorns to grind as you go.

Chinese: Ginger, chili, garlic powder, Chinese Five Spice Powder. Splash with soy sauce. Dash with toasted sesame oil.

Mexican: Chili, cumin, garlic powder, onion powder, dried oregano. Chili - more chili powder. Tacos - more cumin. Ancho chili is milder. Chipotle chili explodes your head. Cilantro is a great garnish.

Cajun: salt, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, cayenne pepper, dried thyme, dried oregano, ground black pepper. And of course, no gumbo is complete without a dash of file' (fee-lay), ground sassafras root. Garnish with parsley.

Italian: garlic, oregano, basil, crushed red pepper flakes, parsley.

Indian: curry, chili powder, garlic powder, cardamom, clove, black pepper, tumeric, coriander, saffron.

Middle Eastern: chili powder, garlic powder, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, black pepper, tumeric, mint.

French - Fines Herbes: chives, chervil, parsley, tarragon.

French - Bouquet Garni: marjoram, tarragon, thyme, parsley, bay leaf.

French - Herbes de Provence: thyme, basil, savory, fennel, rosemary.

As I said, seasoning food is more art than science. And everyone's favorite flavors are subjective. So this is just for starters.

What have I omitted? What's your favorite blend? And where do you source organic herbs and spices in Austin?

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