Whether you store them in a drawer, as I do, in a countertop or wall-mounted rack, or in the cupboard, there is no doubt that spices play a very important role in a recipe. They add flavour, depth, heat and colour. They can change the ethnic origins or influences of your meal.
Dried herbs and spices lose their flavour over time, so it's best to always buy small amounts, and keep them in a cool, dry, dark place. Light and heat cause the natural oils to break down. Whenever possible, whole spices are best, as you are guaranteed to have pure spice when you grind it. I use a coffee grinder that I keep especially for spices. It grinds small amounts up to a fine powder very easily, and is good to have on hand if you want to make up your own spice blends, such as garam masala.
I prefer to use fresh herbs over dried, as the flavour is brighter. But if you have no choice, remember that dried herbs have a more concentrated flavour and you need to use less than the recipe calls for. Likewise, if a recipe calls for dried herbs, you are free to use fresh if you have, just remember to use more than is called for. Tasting is the best way to be sure you have adjusted it correctly.
Besides being dried, fresh herbs freeze well. Chop them up and freeze them in ice cube trays, then store in a freezer bag, well labelled, until you need them. These work well in things like soups or stews.
As I try out new recipes and ethnic foods, I buy the new spices needed, and gradually build up my collection. I make sure to buy small amounts, and to use them often. Experimentation is the best way to learn about what works with what.
If you are using a marinade, dry rub or adding the herbs and spices to a sauce, these very basic combinations will give your chicken a distinctive taste.
Below are a few different cooking styles, with some of the commonly used herbs and spices.
MOROCCAN / NORTH AFRICAN:
|Clockwise starting from the top: cumin, turmeric, ginger, cayenne pepper, cinnamon|
Moroccan dishes are often identified by the sweeter spices such as cinnamon and ginger, and the distinctive taste and colour of turmeric. Often containing other sweet ingredients such as raisins, dates and apricots as well as honey and nuts such as almonds, walnuts and pistachios Moroccan dishes are full of the flavour of spices, but not the heat some people associate with the word 'spicy'.
North African dishes from other regions such as Tunisia tend to contain more heat, relying on spice blends such as harissa ( a paste made up of various roasted and dried sweet and hot peppers, garlic, herbs and spices and olive oil). the region of North Africa refers to a number of countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Olives, saffron, chick peas, mint, tomatoes and potatoes are just a few of the most common foods used.
ITALIAN / MEDITERRANEAN:
|Clockwise from top: chili flakes, garlic powder, oregano, fennel seeds, dried basil|
People often associate Italian food with basil, garlic and oregano. Italian food relies on the freshness of the ingredients, using herbs and spices to enhance the flavours of the food being served. Herbs are often fresh, other common ingredients are anchovies, olive oil and olives, pine nuts, capers, various cheeses, peppers and tomatoes.
When preparing meatsauce or meatballs for spaghetti, I like to include crushed fennel seeds and chili flakes, two of the distinctive spices in Italian sausage.
MEXICAN / SOUTHWESTERN:
|Clockwise from top: chili powder blend, cumin seeds, cinnamon, dried ancho chili, dried chipotle chili, dried oregano|
These two cuisines are very similar, using many of the same spices such as different types if chile peppers - jalapeno, chipotle, ancho to name a few. Cumin adds a distinctive taste that complements the heat.
Other common ingredients are corn, beans, vanilla, cinnamon and chocolate, tomatoes and tomatillos, and avocados.
Try using a pinch or two of hot chile peppers in your baking, the chocolate in brownies and cookies is enhanced by the heat. Likewise, experiment with vanilla and chocolate in savoury dishes. Mole sauce is a good example, but vanilla adds depth to a vinaigrette or marinade. Try it, you might surprise yourself!
|Clockwise from top: Green cardamom, cinnamon sticks, fenugreek, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, whole cloves, chili flakes|
Indian food relies on a large variety of spices and spice blends, such as garam masala and tandoori masala. These blends can be purchased at the grocery store, or blended at home with a spice grinder. Once the various spices have been purchased, it's a simple case of measuring and grinding.
Besides the well known spices such as cinnamon, ginger, cumin, turmeric, coriander and cloves, Indian cuisine also calls upon lesser known spices such as fenugreek and cardomom.
Other common ingredients are fresh garlic and ginger, cilantro and mint, onions, potatoes, chick peas and lentils.
|Clockwise from top: kaffir lime leaves, garlic powder, five spice, ginger, curry leaves, chili flakes|
Asian cuisine is a broad category including that of Japan, China, Malaysia, Korea, the Philippines and Thailand to name a few. Each country and region has its own distinct style of cooking, and today the lines are often blurred.
Fresh garlic and ginger are used often, along with spices such as dried chilies, five spice blend (cinnamon, star anise, cloves, fennel and Szechuan peppers). Some Asian cuisines use dried or fresh curry or kaffir lime leaves (Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian).
Other common ingredients are soy sauce, tamarind, sesame oil or seeds, coconut milk, fish sauce and hoisin sauce.