Monday, January 4, 2010

Notes on spices and Delicious Crackers

Note on spices
It came up this weekend that someone mentioned that they didn't really know how to use spices in their cooking. Since spices define a meal and are the basis by witch we differentiate different styles of cooking, I figured it deserved some space. First off, you will not use your spices if they are not fresh, accessible, and clearly marked. I keep my spices in 1/4 pint jars (they were cheap and easy) on a fairly large spice rack that hangs on the wall right above my stove. Know how you cook - if you measure everything, go for a jar (like the 1/4 pint) which is easy to dig into with a spoon. If you'd rather shake, go out and buy some jars with lids that have holes for shaking. Never keep spices for longer than a year or too, and if they don't smell like much, they won't taste like much either. Have clear labels. Clear jars help because colors are an easy identification key. Keep in an order other than alphabetical - which isn't very sensible (and plus, there are far too many spices that start with the letter C*). Try ordering spices by cuisine or savory/sweet - there's some overlap, but this will keep things easier when you reach for the spices to make your Dhal.

Here are a few tricks of the trade:

- In General most people mess up by not adding enough spices. Especially in highly flavored cuisines like Mexican, Indian, Thai, Cajun, etc., it's really hard to overdo it (except with hot pepper). So go for a lot of spices. for a meal serving 4 people it's not unheard of to add around 2-3 tabelspoons of spices. Go for gold. if you overspice, add more of something to soak up the spice - like beans or rice. If you're scared of overdoing it, add spices gradually, and wait a while for flavors to meld before tasting. Try out a few recipes for high-spiced dishes just to get a sense of ratios and how much spices and herbs to add to different kinds of cooking. In general, dried, powdered spices are added early on in cooking so that the flavors can develop, flavor the oil, seep into the food, and really build character.

- Fresh, leafy herbs such as basil, cilantro, and parsley, should be added towards the end of cooking, because the flavors have a tendency to fade (a major exception to this rule in my kitchen is adding parsley to soups that are watery to develop the veggie stock flavor early on in cooking - some people may say this adds a bitter note to vegetable stock, but I have never found that to be true). Fresh and dried hardy herbs such as oregano, rosemary, thyme, and sage should be added early on or closer to the halfway point in cooking to allow some time to soften and the flavors to meld into the dish.

- Mexican Spices are powdered Cumin, oregano, hot chili, (including commercially mixed chili powders, which usually include cumin, oregano, cayenne or another hot pepper, and paprika for color). Add these spices when sauteeing onions. The flavors for these spices come out best when sauteed and cooked a long time. Onions should be fairly well covered with spices and look brownish-reddish (depending on how much hot pepper and/or paprika is added). At the end, immediately after turning off the heat, add cilantro if desired or called for. Jamaican cooking generally replaces most of the oregano with a lot of thyme. Add thyme closer to the halfway point than you would oregano.

-Indian Spices are a long, long list of things. Go for fresh ginger (an easy way to cut up this annoyingly hairy root is to freeze it and then grate the sucker on the small part of your hand grater). Usually you'll be using less than an inch of the root. The spices you will be reaching for include cumin, coriander, turmeric, cayenne pepper, (which are the ingredients in curry powder), to be added when sauteing onions, and mustard seed. For the slightly sweet dishes you might also reach for cardamom, or the pre-mixed garam massala, which I keep on my spice rack because I just can't figure out the ratio and all of the ingredients in this delicious spice mixture. Less commonly you might reach for Asafetida, fenugreek (which I have never gotten the hang of using) and some other lesser characters like curry leaf. You will be surprised by how much spice you will have to use. it's a lot. The rich flavors of Indian cooking are made up entirely of spices plus a splash of lime, some sides of chutneys and spicy pickles. When adding whole seed spices such as cumin seed or mustard seed, pop the seeds by sautéing them separately in a small pan in very hot oil until they start popping and jumping around. add this to your meal with the hot oil just before the dish is done. Whole seeds add a very different flavor and texture to your final dish than the powdered variety, and they're not really interchangeable.

- Thai I'm no expert by far - but I've found that lemongrass (cut into 1/2-in pieces and simmered for a long time, then removed prior to serving - treat as a bay leaf), a lot of lime, and basil added to the normal curry palate (see Indian spices above) with some extra ginger and coriander and less cumin is the basis of making a satisfying Thai dish. Thai spices, such as galangal are hard to find, so go for extra ginger and lime. A lot of cilantro and basil on top once the dish is done is also a must for most dishes.

- Cajun is a cuisine I haven't come into my own in yet, but I'd love to master it. it's delicious and a surprisingly rare treat to find a hostess serving - especially in this age when Asian cooking is chic. Either buy a commercial spice mix or mix one yourself and pretty much cake whatever it is you're cooking with it. A recipe can be found here. I would not shy away from adding allspice.

-Cayenne in recipes can never be trusted. Figure out just how spicy your cayenne is (it's never the same between years, brands, etc.) and feel free to add more or less than the recipe calls for, or to replace a part or all of what is called for with Paprika, which is less spicy (and frequently not spicy at all) but adds color.

On to the next of today's topics:

Delicious Easy Crackers

I made these crackers for new years since I had a stale baguette to contend with. They're basically croutons in the shape of a cracker - yum! Bakeries throw out bread every night. If you can get in as the workers are sweeping up (just as they're closing) you might be able to snag a few "day olds" which the bakery cannot sell the next day. If you land a few stale baguettes, here's what to do to make absolutely divine crackers. I did this without measurements, so feel free to adjust. I'm approximating from my visual memory

- 1 stale baguette, cut into slices as thin as you can manage straight across (no need to cut on a bias unless you want long crackers)
- 2 cups olive oil
- 2 Tablespoons dried oregano
- 1 Tablespoon dry sage
- 1 Teaspoon thyme
- 1 1/2 Tabelspoons powdered onion
- 1 large clove garlic, minced
- Black pepper (however much you like)
- Salt (go for salty - 3 generous 3-finger pinches (that's 3 fingers not including the thumb))

The method
Mix olive oils and spices in a large bowl. once thoroughly mixed, add in the baguette slices and mix (with your hands) until all of the bread is well-coated. spread these out evenly on a cookie sheet and put into a hot oven (I'd go for the 450 mark - or on toast in a large toaster oven) for 10 minutes or until the crackers start turning golden brown and are no longer stale in the center. Transfer onto another cookie sheet to get them out of the oil that no doubt will be sitting in the original cookie sheet.

I served the crackers With a sage-y white bean dip (cook cannellini beans, add a lot of sage, and mash with cream and olive oil as you would mashed potatoes), but really, they were delicious enough to eat alone.

*Just for fun - Spices that start with C (let me know if I missed any): Cayenne, cumin, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, chives, chipotle, and (if you're really an acclaimed Indian chef) Curry leaf.

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