Quick Recipes and Easy

Spicing Food: An Introduction To the Art

Nearly every cook has at least a few spices in his or her cupboard. Often they’re the flavorings that we grew up with, comfortable and familiar. We all have salt and pepper, but an person with Italian heritage might also have garlic, basil, oregano, and fennel. A cook with French roots might have tarragon and marjoram. Chinese cooks will usually have star anise, ginger and hot peppers. Very few Thai or Vietnamese chefs will be without lemon grass, coconut or fish sauce. The spices that taste excellent to you depend on how and where you were brought up.

Spices change the flavor of food and give it its distinct regional flavor. If we try spices from an unfamiliar cuisine, we may find them “too strong” or “too weird” to delight in. Some spices can even be unpleasant if we don’t have a tolerance for them, like hot chili peppers or Japanese horseradish mustard (wasabi).

Few cooks use a full range of spices and can season dishes appropriately for varied cuisines. This is a small guide to cooking with varied spices. Hopefully it will encourage you to try some new things in the kitchen. Different combinations of spices can make the same basic food ingredients taste very, very different. Using a variety of spicing strategies can really expand your cooking repertory and help you to keep a rotating menu lively and fascinating.

Sometimes cooks are worried of trying to new spices because they reckon it might be hard to cook with them. Far from it! Learning to use a range of spices makes cooking simpler, quicker and simpler. You can introduce new spices in small amounts and gradually add more as you become familiar with them and grow to like a spice’s taste. Of course you won’t like all the spices you try, but you may be surprised at how many of them taste excellent if you give them a chance.

A basic rule is that every cuisine has its now “constellation” of spices. One reason Italian food tastes “Italian,” and Indian food tastes “Indian” is that they are differently spiced, despite the fact that the main ingredients are the same. Let’s take a rice, chicken, and tomato dish as an example. (You can try this experiment in your own kitchen at home.)

Here are the ingredients you need:

1. About a pound of boneless chicken cut up in pieces (dark meat or light, whichever you prefer).
2. A medium size onion chopped finely.
3. 2 cups of the rice of your choice, cooked in advance (keep it warm on the stove).
4. 1 clove garlic, chopped finely.
5. 2 medium sized ripe tomatoes dice to 1/2 inch.
6. 3 T of olive oil
7. 3 T cup of clarified butter or ghee (to clarify butter melt it over a gentle heat and then skim the white off the top).
8. 1 tablespoon curry powder (curry powder comes in hot, medium and mild — choose the one you prefer)
9. 1 teaspoon dried oregano
10. 1 teaspoon dried marjoram
11. 1 teaspoon dried basil

12. Salt and pepper.
13. 1/2 cup dry white wine or water.

You can always substitute fresh spices for dried, but use slightly smaller amounts since the fresh spices are more pungent. You will need two small saucepans for the experiment. I suggest you make these dishes one at a time, rather than splitting your attention and trying to cook both at once.

Let’s try the Italian dish first.

Pour the olive oil into the bottom of your saucepan. Turn on the heat to medium. Let the oil warm slightly and place in 1/2 of the part of onions. Cook the onions until they are transparent (anywhere from 5-10 minutes). Then add the garlic and cook for 1-2 minutes. The garlic can turn golden, but don’t let it turn brown or black. When the garlic is golden, add 1/2 of the part of chopped tomatoes. Cook, stirring, until the tomatoes start to melt into the onions and garlic. Turn the heat up slightly (still careful not to burn the garlic) and add 1/2 of the part of raw chicken. Once the chicken starts to cook in the pan, add the 1/2 cup of wine. Allow the mixture to come to a simmer. Now add the oregano, marjoram and basil. You will notice that the smell of Italian cooking fills the kitchen. Cook the entire mixture at a simmer for 10 more minutes and then serve it over half of the warm rice. Mmmmm…. Italian food!

Now let’s try the Indian dish.

The process starts out exactly the same, except we’re going to use the clarified butter instead of the olive oil. Add the rest of the onions, cook as above, and then add the garlic. It’s at this point we do something different. As the garlic is turning golden, add the curry powder and cook it along with the garlic and onions for a couple of minutes. The kitchen will fill with the smell of Indian food. Add the tomatoes and saute, stirring, until they start to melt into the onion, garlic and spice mixture. At that point, turn up the heat slightly, pour in 1/2 cup of water and add the chicken, stirring until the mixture boils. Then turn the heat down and simmer for another 10 minutes. When it’s done, pour the mixture over the rice and taste. What a difference!

Curry powder, by the way, is made from mixing different spices. Curry powder often includes a combination of turmeric, cumin, fennel, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, hot pepper, and nutmeg, among others. You can learn to mix your own curry powder to taste, though there are a variety of commercial brands available.

If you choose you want to try either of these dishes in larger amounts I have one more suggestion. For Italian food, use a small-grained rice, and for Indian food, use a long-grain rice (like Basmati). Different kinds of rice taste very different. But that’s another article…

You can flavor meats and vegetables other than chicken using the same techniques. Try the Italian method on beef, pork, or a white fish. The Indian method is brilliant with lamb or vegetables like cauliflower, peas, or spinach.

That’s how simple it is to make two really different meals out of nearly the same ingredients.

For more information about improvisational cooking with spices, visit recipefreecooking.blogspot.com/2006/10/guide-to-spicing-food-introduction.html A Guide To Spicing Food.

Shawn Scott, Ph.D. combines professional work as a researcher with a lifelong like for cooking. Before becoming a college professor, Scott worked as a caterer and a chef and continues to cater benefits and charity affairs as a volunteer. You can find more of Scott’s writing at “Recipe-Free Cooking”: recipefreecooking.blogspot.com/ recipefreecooking.blogspot.com/.

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