Thursday, June 25, 2009

Why my cooking tastes better than yours. Volume two. Herbs and spices, or the dead and dying!

Again, don't judge me from the title of this post.  I don't believe for a moment that I have more natural cooking talent that the next guy.  It's just that I have lived and learned in the kitchen more than most, and have some basic knowledge to pass on to those frustrated individuals who just can't seem to get their dishes to taste like they think their recipes should.  One cause of this dilemma might be what you use in your pantry.  Do you remember those jars of herbs and spices from that nice little spice cabinet you received back in 1967 when you married your husband?  The stuff that's still in those jars that might look perfectly fine is just as bad as using little pinches of King Tut to cook with.  It's dead.  It's mummified, and if it's all not totally dead, if you listen closely enough, you'll be able to hear the death rattle.  

Now this might be hard for you to believe, but the shelf life of dried herbs and spices is only about 6 months, AT THE MOST!  After that, the structure of what's in there begins to break down, and all the flavor begins to go away.  Now throwing this stuff away might seem like a waste, but it's no longer food.  Put it in your compost pile (I can't guarantee the worms will even like it.)  Here is another thing that's hard to believe.  The major spice manufacturers may not ship their inventory for a few weeks after it is made.  Why?  Well, they don't have enough orders to fill, so they keep stuff in stock to sell.  Also, your mega mart may have the same bottles of spices on their shelves for several days before you come to buy it.  All told, you may be purchasing spices that are already a month or two old.  Stay away from the bargain bins!  These have already expired.  Cheap yes, but you actually need twice the amount your recipe calls for if you want to truly draw out the real flavor profile your recipe calls for.  So what it the answer?  Most towns have an organic market with a bulk spice bin.  Buy your herbs and spices in small amounts and use old jars to keep them in.  After a couple months if you still have any left, toss it.  Throwing away a couple teaspoons of something hurts a lot less that a whole jar.

Now if you want to keep your spices longer, buy them whole and grind them yourself.  If you like cumin, buy whole seeds, toast them in a pan for a couple minutes, and put them in a spice grinder.  If you have a recipe that calls for chili powder, buy some real dried chilis and grind them yourself.  I'll post a wonderful recipe for that later.  Buy a microplane and grate your nutmeg (by the way, in large quantities nutmeg is a hallucinogenic.).  Cinnamon ground from sticks has much more flavor than the already ground stuff.  When purchasing cinnamon sticks, look for long sticks that are still malleable, the McCormick stuff is crap, don't use it.

Contrary to what people might say, dried herbs are not evil.  When I think of the Italian grandmothers who hang the abundance of herbs they grow in their gardens up to dry for the winter, I think, "Wow, there has to be a reason for this."  In many instances I prefer dried herbs over fresh.  They have a more pungent taste and aroma than the fresh, and are great in dishes that cook for long periods of time.  I tend to prefer fresh herbs to finish a dish.  They add a brighter flavor at the end.  Marinara sauce especially is a sauce made from canned tomatoes.  It's made traditionally from canned tomatoes because it is a wintertime sauce.  Sauce pomodoro is made in the summer.  Marinara to me cries out for dried basil over fresh every time.  I like to add the fresh on the top as a garnish when I serve it, but that deep robust basil flavor infused into the sauce can only really come from the dried stuff. 

The important thing to remember is to throw the old stuff away.  Be frugal in other ways, but don't subscribe to the theater of the bland by torturing your family and friends with herbs and spices that have lost their flavor.

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