Wednesday, November 03, 2010

REAL MEN COOK 21 (Supplies - Spices)

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
-Some old hippies, "Scarborough Fair"

Assorted Spices
The most significant thing that separates a cook from someone who just makes food is spices. Spices can turn a boring meal into something interesting, they can make awful prepared food tolerable, and make a familiar dish into something new and interesting.

Everyone in every house should have some salt. Its your most basic and critical spice, and an important component of your diet. Salt is used on hundreds of critical processes in your body from nerves to muscles and more. And it has a very powerful chemical effect on food. Salt has a nice flavor of its own but more importantly it acts like steroids for food. Salt chemically bonds with food to enhance flavor and intensify it, so it is good to cook with as well as add on later.

The problem with salt is that it also dehydrates food, so you have to be careful how you use it and when. You can't just dump salt on chicken and roast it, you'll turn the chicken into leather. Like all spices, you have to use it wisely. Too little and you don't get the intended result. Too much and you ruin the food. Remember: you cannot remove spices, you can only add. Its easy to overdo with a favorite or new spice for a while, so its takes some experimentation and self control to handle them properly.

Most chefs like kosher salt, not because of any religious connotations but because it is in flakes and thus attaches well to foods, instead of cubes which can fall off more easily. Kosher salt costs more and it isn't that critical. Don't worry about iodized or not; iodine is in salt to provide trace amounts of an important chemical that isn't easy to get in modern food, it never hurts to have some and as cheap as salt is you might as well go for the iodized sort. Personally I prefer sea salt which is significantly more expensive but has a better flavor.
As an aside, salt used to be difficult and expensive to obtain. It was used as currency in many old civilizations, and in medieval times, only the lord of the house had salt. He would have it at the head of the table and bestow it on favored people at times: they were worth their salt. Now we have tons of the stuff.
Pepper is the other main gun every house should have. Black pepper, and not the superground dust but coarse ground*. The dust isn't worth much other than causing sneezes, it adds almost no flavor and is what's left behind in the machines when real pepper is made. Pepper adds a bit of heat and a distinct flavor to food, and you'll find that nearly every main meal recipe you make calls for pepper and salt. Adding pepper and salt to hamburgers gives them a slightly better flavor, for example.

The third most important spice you can have is garlic. Now, garlic is technically an herb, but I'm lumping it in with spices because of its use. The easiest form to use is garlic powder. Avoid garlic salt simply because the powder is cheaper and you can make your own garlic salt with garlic powder and... salt. If all you have is garlic salt, you'll be dumping extra salt into every recipe whether you want to or not.

Garlic is another flavor enhancer, and a powerful one. It gives foods a more interesting, potent taste and is also said to be very healthy. But lets be honest, we're cooking to eat and for taste, so who cares, right? Garlic also is typical in many ethnic dishes, which means if you don't have it, you can't make that lasagna or chili quite right.

And here are some more you should have, always, if you want to be a good cook:
  • Basil - you can't really cook Italian food without Basil but be careful, it is very strong.
  • Bay Leaf - These tough leaves don't taste very good but they have an interesting chemical effect that reduces bitterness and enhances flavors of sauces and soups.
  • Cayenne Pepper - Again, an ethnic spice, useful in Cajun cooking and a lot of other foods such as Mexican.
  • Cinnamon - not only does it taste wonderful and smell great, but it isn't just for desserts. Try it on meats and sauces, just a little bit.
  • Cumin - the smoky flavor of cumin is what makes Chili taste like Chili, and its is indispensable for Mexican cooking and goes well with most meat.
  • Dill Weed - people use this for fish, but it also plays very well with nearly any kind of vegetable
  • Ground ginger - Useful for Asian cooking and various baking recipes, ginger adds an interesting savor to meats as well.
  • Nutmeg - can't make good eggnog without it, and if you bake, you'll want this around.
  • Oregano - again, many ethnic dishes (Italian and Mexican in particular) use this.
  • Paprika - there are two kinds, hot and sweet. Hot is slightly spicy but both are great for their color and the mild flavor they add meats.
  • Parsley - Keeping fresh parsley around at all times helps a lot of meals, just chopping it up. However, it spoils very rapidly, so dried will do in a pinch.
  • Rosemary - I'm not real fond of this as it has too strong a pine taste, but it is good with poultry.
  • Thyme - more Mediterranean, this has a wonderful flavor without being too strong.
  • Sage - great for poultry, also good for other kinds of meats, but it has a dry flavor so you have to use it carefully.
In addition, while you don't need these to be a great cook, you'll probably find them all useful:
  • Chives
  • Onion Powder
  • Celery Seed
  • Dried Mustard
  • Nutmeg (ground or whole)
A final word on Chili Powder. You're going to want this if you do any Mexican cooking (especially chili), but you have to be careful. A lot of this stuff, especially the cheap ones, are awful. You can make your own, and here's what you want:

Cayenne Pepper
Garlic Powder
Smoked Paprika

You don't want much oregano, nor much cayenne - the purpose of chili powder isn't to be hot, its to have flavor. Heat comes from other sources, not the chili powder. The bulk should be Cumin and Paprika with lesser amounts of cayenne and garlic, then less yet of oregano. If you want a fancier, more fresh and very flavorful powder (also harder to make) Alton Brown has a great recipe he shared on Good Eats.

*A word on grinders: own them, if you can afford them. At the very least, have a pepper grinder so that you can put in real peppercorns and get the freshest, best flavored spice you can. You can grind up sea salt and a lot of other hard spices and most dried spices (oregano, rosemary, etc), so if you can find a nice spice grinder set, its worth considering.

Grinding stuff up releases flavor and oils, which adds to the taste of food, so its always good if you can do it. Other spices like Nutmeg and Cinnamon are grated rather than ground, and if you can get those whole (cinnamon sticks are easy to find, nutmeg nuts somewhat less so) you'll get a fresher, better flavor from them as well.


eric said...

Excellent list, but you missed one of my favorites: cilantro

It's a necessary part of any good chutne or salsa, and can be useful elsewhere. My wife always adds just a tiny bit of chopped up cilantro, salt, and lime juice to plain white rice and it is really good. The trick w/ cilantro is to always add it to the end of your recipe and never cook it, as heat quickly saps all of its flavor.

Also, some people don't like it, but curry powder is also a good one to keep around and is suprisingly useful in small dashes to add subtle flavors to a meat dish or stew or chili.

Christopher Taylor said...

Yeah I'm not real fond of the stuff but if you do any Mexican cooking you really need it.

Philip said...

I thought it was "Simon and Garfunkle"...

Christopher Taylor said...

Eh it was some old hippie band.

Actually its an old, old folk song but you're right. Its possible that CSN did a cover I guess.