While enjoying drinks and apps this past week with some friends, the topic of meal delivery companies came up. It was agreed that it’s a great idea and that if chosen correctly, the meals are actually good!
Another great thing about them is that all necessary herbs and spices for each meal come pre-measured and ready to go. We talked about deciding what to make for dinner each night and the horror of coming across a recipe that requires several if not many herbs, most of which you probably don’t have in stock or if you do, the stock is old and outdated because you use so little of it and so infrequently. To, excuse the pun, add salt to the wound, spices are expensive!
With so many herbs and spices to choose from, I thought a handy-dandy; clip-and-save guide was called for. There are way more spices than the four Simon and Garfunklel sang about and Christopher Columbus would be amazed that today’s grocery stores often have an entire aisle devoted to the things he travelled the world in search of. I loved researching the topic and hope you enjoy reading and learning from it. Bon appetite!
A pea-sized fruit that grows in Mexico, Jamaica, Central and South America, allspice has a delicate flavor that resembles a blend of cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg. It’s best used in pickles, meats, boiled fish, gravies, puddings, relishes, fruit preserves, and general baking.
A beautiful star-like spice, anise is a flowering plant native to the eastern Mediterranean region and Southwest Asia. Most known for its licorice flavor, anise also has similarities with fennel. It is commonly used in alcohols and liqueurs such as anisette and ouzo, and is popular in holiday baked goods, candies, and breath fresheners.
The dried leaves and stems of an herb grown in the U.S. and North Mediterranean, basil has an aromatic, leafy flavor with hints of pepper, cloves, anise, and mint. Use it in pesto, tomato dishes, soups, and on squash, lamb chops, and poultry. Dried basil is more pungent than fresh, but fresh leaves turn black quickly so use them right away.
The dried leaves of an evergreen from eastern Mediterranean countries, bay leaves are sweet, herbaceous, and floral. I use them each year in my Christmas Potpourri gifts and they are also good for pickling; in stews, sauces, and soups; and also on meats and fish.
The seed of a Dutch plant, caraway’s flavor combines anise and dill. It is great for baking breads; in sauerkraut, noodles, and cheese spreads; and it adds zest to French fries and asparagus.
Anybody who knows me knows I hate cilantro but it’s a popular (and in my opinion, waaaay over-used,) herb so I will include it here. Just know that if you ever make a dish to share with me, make it sin cilantro! Cilantro is also known as coriander and Chinese parsley in other parts of the world and is traditionally added to Tex-Mex and Asian dishes. This pungent, grassy-flavored herb is now thrown in nearly everything. It’s said the Julia Child considered cilantro “the devil’s herb,” and I couldn’t agree more.
Cinnamon is obtained from the inner bark of cinnamon trees and used in both sweet and savory foods. The term “cinnamon” also refers to its mid-brown color. Cassia is the strong, spicy flavor associated with cinnamon rolls and other such baked goods and it handles baking conditions well. Ceylon cinnamon has a lighter brown color; a finer, less dense and more crumbly texture; and is considered to be subtler and more aromatic.
Cinnamon is most popular in dessert recipes and as a drink adornment. Available both ground and in stick form, the popular spice also has many healing properties and is great as a room deodorizer. Today Mexico is the top cinnamon importer.
The aromatic flower buds native to Indonesia, cloves are regularly used in Asian, African, and Middle Eastern cuisine. I also use cloves in my Christmas Potpourri gifts and they lend flavor to hot drinks, meats, and marinades. They can also be used to enhance apples and pears and are known to have antioxidant qualities.
Cumin comes in both ground and whole seed form and adds an earthy flavor to food. It is excellent in stews, soup, chili, gravy, and achiote blends. The seed comes from a flowering plant in the Eastern Mediterranean and is part of the parsley family. Cumin seeds are often mistaken for caraway seeds as the two share an oblong shape and coloring. Also used as a medicinal plant that has been around for centuries, mention of it can be found in both the Old and New Testaments.
It bears clarifying that there is no spice or herb called “curry.” Curry is actually a popular Indian cooking method and the term is generally limited to dishes prepared in a sauce with leaves from a curry tree.
Curry powder, on the other hand, is a spice mixture developed by the British and usually contains turmeric, coriander, cumin, and mustard. You can identify this type of curry dish by its trademark yellow color. By contrast, curry powders and curry pastes produced and consumed in India are extremely diverse; some red, some yellow, some brown; some with five spices and some with as many as 20.
Boasting a clean, aromatic taste, dill is the seed of the dill plant grown in India. It is often the predominant seasoning in picking recipes and adds a nice flavor to salmon, sauerkraut, potato salad, green apple pie, and cucumber salads. Dried is not very flavorful so use fresh whenever possible.
The root of this flowering plant is part of the turmeric family and originated in the Southern Asia rainforest. It is a hot, fragrant spice and is that pinkish-salmony colored item you see served next to sushi. Ginger is a common ingredient in Indian and most Asian recipes and fresh ginger root is a nice additive to seafood, meat, and vegetarian meals. Powdered ginger is what’s used in gingerbread, cookies, crackers, ginger ale and ginger beer. Ginger is also a popular digestive aid and fresh pieces of ginger root can be wrapped in plastic and stored in the freezer for up to three months.
Grown mostly in France and Chile, marjoram is from the mint family and has a sweet-minty taste. It’s used in drinks, jellies, lamb, and to flavor soups, stews, fish, and sauces.
Known to induce sleep and possessing anti-inflammatory qualities, nutmeg is the seed of an evergreen tree indigenous to the Indonesian Spice Islands. Usually used in a powdered form, it enhances many dishes, including soup, gravy, beef stew, minced meat, rice pudding, and chutney. It’s sweet and savory flavor is a favorite in the U.S. for pumpkin pie as well as sprinkled on top of drinks like egg nog and rum punch.
Another plant of the mint family and a species of marjoram, oregano’s dried leaves are great in herb dressings and dips. It’s also a long-time kitchen favorite in tomato and chili dishes, pizza and Greek and Italian specialties. Oregano is a great anti-fungal and anti-oxidant, with one teaspoon having as much anti-oxidant makings as one apple. Dried has a stronger flavor than fresh and it can be used in place of marjoram.
A mild, sweet red pepper from Spain, Central Europe, and the U.S., paprika is both aromatic and prized for its brilliant red color. Use it to garnish pale dishes, salad dressings, hard-boiled eggs, and for seasoning chicken.
Recognized as the traditional but unused table garnish, parsley is the world’s most popular herb. It is widely used in European, Middle Eastern, and American dishes such as mashed or boiled potatoes, risotto, tabouli, pesto, goulash, and as a rub for chicken and meat dishes. Flat leaf parsley is used for cooking while the curly version is what you see used for garnish. Sprinkle on at the end of cooking to give your dish a delicious and vibrant taste. A relative of celery, parsley is also highly nutritious and has wonderful healing properties and is a great source of folic acid and vitamins K, C, and A.
Salt’s proverbial buddy and the world’s most traded spice, black pepper comes from a woody vine and is native to India although Vietnam is currently the world’s largest pepper producer and exporter.
White pepper consists of the seed of the pepper plant alone and has a slightly different flavor than black pepper. It is often used in cream sauces, Chinese and Thai cuisine, salads, and mashed potatoes.
Pepper should be stored in airtight and dark containers and areas, as it loses its flavor and aroma through evaporation and when exposed to light. Most experts recommend using whole peppercorn in peppermills rather than shakers and suggest grinding whole peppercorns immediately before use.
If you come upon salt and pepper shakers without a “P” and an “S” on them, the one with fewer holes at the top is usually salt, as you should use less of it in food.
Peppermint is actually a hybrid cross of watermint and spearmint and is an ingenious plant in Europe and the Middle East. The plant produces no seeds but can grow virtually anywhere. It’s usually used raw and the leaves are often used in tea, chewing gum, and toothpaste.
When a recipe calls for “mint,” spearmint and peppermint can be used interchangeably. Peppermint has a sharper flavor, while spearmint tends to be more delicate and sweet. Use peppermint in savory dishes like salads and vegetables, but spearmint in richer dishes like gravies and sauces. Either are fantastic rubs for lamb. It is one of my favorites, great for belly aches, can reduce fevers, and is known to renew energy.
The ingredient in one of my favorite salad dressings, poppy seeds come from a flower grown in Holland. They have a nut-like flavor and are great for topping breads, rolls, and cookies and are also delicious in buttered noodles.
I have a giant rosemary bush in my backyard and my dog often comes in smelling like the fragrant, pine needle-like herb. Grown in France, Spain, and Portugal, rosemary has a piney bittersweet taste and is great in lamb dishes, soups and stews; and sprinkled on beef. It is also a beautiful landscape item. Dried Rosemary is as good as fresh but if you use fresh, be sure to crush the needles to release their scent and flavor.
Often considered the world’s priciest spice, saffron is native to Southwest Asia but today almost all saffron is grown in a belt from Spain to India and Iran accounts for nearly 90 percent of world production. The spice is highly-regulated with quality control measures and real Spanish-grown products are protected against other countries undermining its genuine brand and rightly so, as the hay-like and sweet flavor of true saffron is key to perfect and authentic paella. Saffron sells for around $5,000 a pound so when you buy it, you do so in very small quanties of delicate red threads. Saffron starts as a purple flower and adds a rich golden-yellow hue to dishes. Expensive to buy, it can be substituted with safflower and turmeric but never truly replaced in dishes like paella and French bouillabaisse.
The leaf of a shrub grown in Greece, Yugoslavia, and Albania, sage has a mild minty flavor. Use it for meat and poultry stuffing; and in sausages, meat loaf, hamburgers, and stews.
Used in mayonnaise-based dressings and sauces, this peppery herb is also good in sautés of chicken, fish, and seafood. It can have a bittersweet flavor with hints of licorice and vanilla and should be used sparingly since its flavors can quickly overwhelm a palette.
Also the leaves of a shrub, this one from France and Spain, thyme boasts a strong and distinctive flavor that is both pungent and lemony. It’s best reserved for poultry seasoning, croquettes, fricassees, and fish dishes. Its flavor stands up to long cooking and thyme is also a natural cough expectorant.
A root of the ginger family, turmeric has a mild, gingery pepper flavor that is both warm and bitter. Grown in India, Haiti, Jamaica, and Peru, it is the main spice in curry dishes. It is commonly used in Asian food and often blended with mustard to flavor meats, dressings, and salads. It’s also frequently sourced to flavor or color curry powders, butters, and cheeses. The root of turmeric is also used widely to make medicine and is thought to be a good anti-inflammatory.
PASS THE SALT
Although salt is a mineral not a spice, I’m including it here because it is used in so many dishes and some consider it a chef’s most important tool second only to a knife.
Salt is essential for human life and saltiness is one of the basic human tastes, along with sweet, bitter, sour, and delicious. Although widely-used, excessive salt consumption can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Keep in mind that one teaspoon of salt has 2,300 mg of sodium and that the FDA suggests a maximum of 2,400 mg of salt per day.
The three most widely-used salts are table, kosher, and sea salt and, although their chemical make-up is the same, each one’s texture and density differ.
Table Salt. Table salt is mined from underground salt deposits and consists of fine, evenly shaped crystals and it is denser than other salts. It’s the most widely-used salt and is best for exactly what its name implies – sitting on the table for personal meal enhancement – but it is also good in pasta dishes and soups. Table salt comes both iodized and without added iodine. Iodized table salt is known to prevent thyroid goiters and has significantly reduced disorders of iodine deficiency in countries where it is used.
Kosher Salt. Kosher salt is less refined than table salt and boasts big, coarse flakes. It does not contain iodine and is often considered the most versatile salt. Some but not all kosher salt meets certain and strict requirements, meaning it is produced under conditions approved by Orthodox Jewish law. It’s a good choice to rub on meats to seal in their juices and is recommended for scouring stubborn food particles off of cast iron. If you want to only use one type of salt, I recommend kosher, as its course texture impressively enhances flavors.
Sea Salt. Sea salt flakes are collected from evaporated seawater and are typically unevenly shaped. The more expensive of the three salts, it is best used for finishing purposes and you want to use it with caution.
One other salt worth mentioning is Pickling Salt, which is ultrafine, dissolves quickly, and is great when making brine.
How and where you store your spices is as important as how you use them. We buy ginger and nutmeg during the holidays and rarely use them again. But, the experts at McCormick & Co. say the shelf life of properly stored spices and herbs is around four years for whole spices, two-to-three years for ground spices, and three years for leafy herbs. Smell your spices for freshness. No scent or a bland smell means it’s time to toss them.
One more tip: one tablespoon of fresh herbs is equivalent to one teaspoon of dried.
Happy and flavorful cooking!