Thursday, April 19, 2007

Thursday Thirteen: Spices

I was trying to plan my Thursday Thirteen during my "lunch run," the 3.7-mile loop around my office I suffer a few times a week. I realized yet another post on 13 things I do in a week might, just might, not be that interesting. In fact, I might not be that interesting. Other than a nod to my crazier past, well, I'm fairly normal, sort of, kind of, if all things are considered.

So, I have decided to make my Thursday Thirteen post center on 13 bits of culinary trivia to bore you with instead. Ready to begin? Fantastic! Let's go.

If you've read a few posts, you know that my Kiddo and I LOVE spices. The smell, the taste, the variety. Spices are so ingrained in our various cultures that many cultures even have a trademark "flavor principle." For example, Mexico is typified by chile and lime. India: cumin, garlic and ginger. Greece: cinnamon, lemon and oregano. You can experience the world from your spice cabinet.

Spices and herbs both come from plants. The primary difference is that herbs are usually from a plant's leaves, stem or flowers, spices are usually from the bark, roots, seeds, buds or berries of the plant. Some plants are the source for both an herb and a spice, as in the case of dill and coriander (cilantro). Fennel is also both an herb and the fennel seed is a spice, but the plant bulb is also used as a vegetable.

Thirteen Interesting Spices in My Cabinet:
  1. Anise and Star Anise, which are not related at all, yet have a similar flavor and name. Both can be used in pastry and vegetable dishes. Star Anise is one of the primary flavors in Chinese Five Spice Powder.

  2. Caraway. This is possibly the world's oldest spice, it's use has been traced to the Stone Age. Caraway is most familiar to us as the peppery flavor in rye bread.

  3. Cloves are the unopened buds of a certain species of tropical evergreen. Cloves have a powerful flavor and only a small amount should be used.

  4. Allspice. Even though it smells like a blend of cinnamon, cloves and nutmegs, allspice is from a single source, the dried berry from a tree found in Jamaica. It is commonly found in foods like cakes and curries, and jerk chicken.

  5. Cinnamon and Cassia. Actually, most of what we think is cinnamon here in the States is actually the less expensive, related spice Cassia. Cassia has a stronger, less subtle flavor than true cinnamon. There are also varieties that offer different flavors. For example, Ceylon Cinnamon is soft and fruity and complex in flavor. Vietnamese Cinnamon is crisp and deeply spicy. Both are very different in flavor than China Cassia, what is normally sold as cinnamon.

  6. Fenugreek. I just bought this and have used it on the herb chicken recipe. It works well with poultry. It has a fresh, tangy smell with a hint of almost maple to it. It is often found in curries.

  7. Nutmeg and Mace both come from the same fruit of a tropical evergreen. The mace is the lacelike shell around the nutmeg seed. Ironically, ground mace will retain its flavor for longer than most spices, but nutmeg quickly loses its flavor when ground. For this reason, it is best to buy the nutmegs whole and use a microplane or grinder as needed.

  8. Black and White Peppercorns both come from the same plant. The difference is the point at which they are picked and how they are processed. Black peppercorns are picked when the berry is still green, then it turns black as it is dried. White peppercorns are picked when the berry ripens and turns red, then they are allowed to ferment. The outer red skin comes off in processing and the resulting spice is white. White pepper is commonly produced by mechanically removing the black skin from black peppercorns. This is not the same spice, though the process is cheaper. This inferior white pepper should be labeled "decorticated."

  9. Galangal is from the rhizome of a plant that is native to India. It's flavor is similar to ginger but with pepper and pine notes. Fresh ginger can be used as a substitute.

  10. Saffron and Cardamom take the top two spots as the most expensive spices. It takes about 250,000 saffron crocus flowers to produce a pound of saffron.

  11. Curry. While there is a single jar on the shelf labeled curry, curry is actually a blend of several other spices. There are also several kinds of curries as well. The bright gold powder most of us are familiar with contains a blend of pepper, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, ginger, mace and turmeric. A fun thing to do is to get a few of these blended spices and see if you can tell (no peeking at the label) what spices are in the mix. Well, it's fun for me, anyway.

  12. Masala. A masala is a blend of roasted and ground spices. Garam masala, a favorite of mine, contains a blend of pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, nutmeg, turmeric, bay leaves and fennel seeds.

  13. Juniper berries. I have these in my cabinet, but I have no idea why or what I might make other than a bathtub of gin. My culinary text says they can be used in wild game, venison or wild boar dishes. It's a bit more likely I would be making the gin.

There are hundreds of spices. Hundreds. I only get 13 in this post. But, there's always next Thursday!


Mike & Misty said...

How fun--thanks for posting! I have a bad habit of buying spices because they sound interesting, but never actually getting around to cooking with them. My nose doesn't really work all that well so I can't identify any by smell yet.

No one showed up at our farmer's market yesterday! But it gave me a chance to look around the local specialty grocery store. I can get tomatoes in oil, but at a steep price of about $1 an ounce *ouch!*. No goat cheese, but I did pick up some yogurt cheese to try.

I tried out the lima bean hummus and thought it tasted pretty good :D A decidedly not unpleasant way to eat vegetables :) My husband hasn't tried it yet though.

The Expatriate Chef said...

I have faith you will wear him down and make a veggie lover out of him yet! Thanks.

Rachel said...

I think I have about ten of those spices in my cupboards. I'm still in the accumulation period, given that I've only been in the current kitchen for a year!

I must say, I can get in a bit of a rut with spices - my top ones are always rosemary and thyme (particularly this weekend, as I've made gallons and gallons of stock. It's autumn. I'm stockpiling!), basil and oregano, and various curry spices.

Have made some progress with Jess on new veg - including an orange campaign! Got Jess to accept pumpkin after whipping up a batch of pumpkin scones (ok, I know, a reach, but it WORKED!) She saw the orange color, tried it anyway, and then said "pumpkin yummy!" Success! Now onto leafy greens and the kale chips you wrote about!

The Expatriate Chef said...

Hey Rachel!
Congrats on the orange campaign. It's an ongoing battle on my homefront as well. Pumpkin scones sound lovely. Too bad you are so far away!

I love rosemary, it's a favorite. I even use rosemary soap, and just planted a ton of herbs. It took nearly 300 lbs. of potting soil.

We devoured another batch of kale chips. My brother-in-law who HATES all vegetables sat and ate them. Good luck going green! Thanks for stopping by.

AnyMoose said...

Then I'm sure you've read Chitra Divakaruni's The Mistress of Spices: A Novel.

It's an almost-fairy tale about the magical properties of spices.

I know, it sounds dumb, but it's very, very good.

The Expatriate Chef said...

I haven't read that! I will add it to my list. Thanks.

Rachel said...

I can send you the recipe I've used for pumpkin scones, although after trying it, I want to improve it. Or try a different species of pumpkin. It was just a little too savory for my taste buds, although my sister-in-law did point out that they'd be the perfect base for some smoked salmon (or fish roe, I think, too).

The Expatriate Chef said...

Please do! Thanks. I'd love to work on a version! And find out what you do to improve the recipe.

Have you tried pumpkin waffles? I love those for fall. Also pumkin mousse and puddings are fantastic. I love pumpkin!

Rachel said...

oooh, pumpkin waffles. No, I haven't tried that yet. And I need an excuse to buy a waffle iron.

I'll e-mail the recipe to you ASAP.

FWIW, the pumpkin campaign kicked into high gear chez nous because my brother-in-law (horticulturalist and resident of country Victoria) gave us an absolutely ginormous pumpkin(at least 10 pounds? you'd get a fantastic jack o'latern out of this gourd), fresh from his garden. Since carving the thing, I've done a massive batch of pumpkin soup, the scones, tonight, a batch of pumpkin risotto (yum), and I think I'll probably end up roasting the last quarter whole, with a stuffing of lentles and whatever spices come to mind.

The Expatriate Chef said...

Oh, one of these days I WILL get to Australia! I love pumpkin. Just coming out of winter, the idea of fall is a tough sell, but almost enough for me with pumpkin risotto. I will send you the pumpkin waffle link!

Rachel said...

autumn in Australia is like one, long, big Indian summer - days around 75, evenings around the upper 50s. Crisp air, and here in Melbourne, the leaves are just turning. It's a hard life... But I heartily recommend coming in November or early December - early summer!

The Expatriate Chef said...

Sounds like heaven! One of my good friends will be moving back there from China soon. Someday I will make it out there and bring the kiddo with me as well!