THE GOCHISO GOURMET: The Spice of Life

No, it’s not the waitress (or waiter) that you’ve been eyeing at the local diner. It’s not a group of Brits singing pop songs on the radio. Nor is it a metaphor for any other indulgence (illicit or otherwise) that you’re engaging in. Real spice’s:  The stuff that flavors food.

And I’ll be liberal in my definition and include seeds, bark and roots — whole or ground (true spices) plus leaves — whole or ground (actually termed herbs) that add multiple dimensions of flavors to things we eat and drink. Heck, I’ll even include flavored salts in the mix of spices, and that’s a whole ’nother column on its own.

Though most of our spices simply lie dormant in the spice rack (and should have been thrown out a long time ago), they have applications well beyond “cracked black pepper” and “cinnamon sticks.” But how many of us use those other spices that come with the spice rack?

A Spicy Life

“Spice” generally refers to the dried seeds, roots, bark and fruits of plants. Because they started life as live plant matter and are simply dried, they do have a finite life span. And it’s not the same life span as the kitchen stove, silverware or even the spice rack itself. After about six months, they should either be used or tossed out. (I actually run old spices down the garbage disposal as a natural air freshener.)

Why six months? It’s not because spices go bad in the sense that someone will get sick on your cooking; they simply start losing flavor or worse yet, take on funky flavors from the kitchen, potentially gracing your hard-earned meal with old-fried-fish/garlic–fries/somewhat-basil-like flavor.

My family is just as guilty as any other; Mom has original Schilling spices in her spice cabinet that were around well before we landed on the moon. I’m actually contemplating sending them back to the Schilling Company — maybe they can display them in their company museum (if they have one).

Same goes for herbs, though it’s usually apparent when it’s time to toss them – brilliant green is now various shades of brown and yellow. And unless it’s saffron that you’re tossing in the garbage, it doesn’t cost a whole lot to replace — most supermarkets have regular sales on spices and herbs.

OUT WITH THE OLD SPICE — (Clockwise from top left): coriander, cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin, fenugreek, star anise and caraway.

Spice Applications

I’m sure everyone has tried the basic spice conglomeration that is known as curry powder. It’s native to India and is the ground seed casing of the indigenous curry palm. After the monsoon season, the curry palms rapidly grow — up to 2 feet per day — then blossom and drop the seeds of this ubiquitous spice.

Seriously, there is no curry palm (and if there is, it doesn’t produce curry powder), and while you may see curry leaves in various recipes, curry powder is an amalgam of various individual spices like coriander, cardamom, fenugreek, turmeric, ginger, garlic, various spicy peppers and a host of others.

Though the final dish is called a curry and in the States we usually only use one blend of curry powder, the various ratios of the individual spices produce a wide range of “curries” in the Old World.

If you don’t feel adventurous enough to experiment with your own blend of curry powder, how about trying the next level of spice enlightenment? Use previously unknown spices in your next chicken dish. Why chicken? Well, almost everyone eats chicken, it doesn’t have a strong flavor to clash with strong spices, and it’s hard to ruin a chicken dish.

Where to start? How about cinnamon? It’s not just for desserts, you know. Commonly used in the Middle East and parts of the Mediterranean, a cinnamon-laced chicken stew with a sweet element like apricots or raisins, or a tart element like preserved lemons or tomatoes, or a contrasting textural element like toasted almonds or pistachios, will have your taste buds dancing!

Or perhaps try adding it to Greek-flavored lasagna, substituting goat cheese for mozzarella, elbow macaroni for flat noodles, and a dash of cinnamon in the meat sauce.

Still too adventurous for you? OK, we can start at the basics, like that all-American classic, chili. But instead of using pre-bottled chili powder, how about concocting your own special blend? With individual toasted cumin, your own blend of various peppers like paprika, chipotle, Anaheim (which makes up most of the pre-bottled chili component), garlic powder, Mexican oregano, salt and black pepper. Who knows? Your own spice blend may be able to win some chili cook-off someday… then folks will be beating a path to your door for the secret blend.

Still Not Ready to Bottle Your Own?

In the Bay Area, it’s very easy to sample cuisines using spices and herbs that you’ve seen in the supermarket but haven’t thought about adding to your own culinary creations… just yet. On our last sojourn to The City late last year, we sampled several restaurants with bold, spicy flavors.

Dosa on Fillmore

An avant garde Indian restaurant (700 Fillmore St., San Francisco), Dosa features Southern Indian cuisine with layer upon layer of flavor sensations. Offerings included the Beet Box martini, which includes anise (frequently in braised Chinese dishes); the Chennai Chicken appetizer, flavored with coriander and cumin; and the Lamb Biryani, which seemed to include the kitchen sink of spices but in harmony with each other so as not to dominate the dish. (415) 441-3672

Saha

This Arabic fusion restaurant (1075 Sutter St., San Francisco) incorporates the usual host of spices, including cinnamon, cumin, mint and za’atar (a blend of thyme, basil, oregano and savory added to sesame seeds, salt and sumac). The Lahem Sougar or grilled lamb was so tender that teeth were optional to consume it,  and the spice blend spread over the palate like a wave. The Mansaf or stewed lamb with cauliflower, yogurt, allspice and mint had me debating which lamb dish was better. They BOTH were excellent! (415) 345-9547)

Basic Spice Tips

Purchase in small quantities unless you know that you’ll use the whole batch within six months. Throw it out after six months. Don’t let spices sit in direct sunlight or right next to your oven burners — heat and light shorten their life span.

If you decide to grind your own whole spices, get a separate coffee grinder for this application… unless you don’t mind clove, cumin and coriander flavored coffee and espresso flavored curries and stews.

Purchase spices where the spice turnover is high, i.e. spice shops or gourmet stores. The price will probably be a little more, but you’ll derive the full flavor of each spice. Your neighborhood supermarket might be cheaper but that bottle of whole cardamom pods was probably sitting on the shelf longer than six months. Experiment, experiment, experiment!

There are no rules. Who said that curry powder blends can’t have star anise and whole fennel seeds? If you and your family love the taste of your own creation, GO FOR IT!

I realize that in my spice mania, I haven’t really touched on herbs and salts like I originally stated. I guess that’ll have to wait for another column.

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the Univ. of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, Hawai‘i and can be reached at gochisogourmet@yahoo.com.

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