Most of my spices and herbs are in a kitchen cupboard, as far away from the stove as they can be. Spices don’t like heat, so you don’t want to store them close to the kitchen stove.
I was totally nonplussed to see photographs of a kitchen make-over in a nation-wide magazine, with the spices stored right by the stove! (Yes, I wrote a letter to the editor of the magazine; they totally ignored me).
I’ll be the first to admit we have a lot of herbs and spices; when my brother Bill’s home burned down a few years ago, I took a bunch of small empty jars and sent him half of whatever I had on hand. I still had a lot left over. I also make my own dried celery leaves, chives, parsley and cilantro. It’s easy to do if you have an oven with a pilot – I save all the celery leaves and spread them out on a cookie sheet to dry in the oven. I do the same with parsley, chives, and cilantro. You know when you buy fresh parsley or cilantro; you are never going to use it all up. I dry it out. When we have had a bumper vegetable crop, I have dried out carrot tops, beet leaves – along with parsley and celery leaves – and mixed it all together for my own soup seasoning. It doesn’t take a lot of time and the rewards are great. Why would you buy dried parsley, cilantro, celery leaves or chives when you can make your own for a fraction of the cost? And it’s FRESH.
If you are interested in doing something like this, the first thing I would suggest is that you save up a lot of small bottles and jars. Whenever we use up something in a glass container, I wash it and keep it on hand for herbs, spices – or even very small amounts of jellies and jams when I am canning and there is a small amount left over and it’s not enough for a jelly jar. (The small jars pimientos come in are handy for this). Don’t ever throw out small glass jars (which are becoming less and less available) – there are so many good uses for them. It breaks my heart remembering that we threw out hundreds of small bottles and jars when we were moving. Baby food jars would also be useful for this if you have a baby in the house.
But getting back to spices – why so many, you ask? I think, if you do a lot of cooking, it becomes a cumulative thing over the years. I need ground allspice but I also need whole allspice balls for a lot of my pickling recipes. Ditto cloves – you need both ground and whole ones. Admittedly, when I was first married in 1958, I thought “spices” were salt, pepper, cinnamon, paprika, and bay leaf. We always put bay leaf in our chili—and from my mother I learned to put a bay leaf into the flour, cornmeal and Bisquick containers –You will never get weevils or any other kind of creepy critters if you keep bay leaf in those containers. As for paprika – well I have a German/Hungarian heritage – paprika was used in a lot dishes (such as chicken Paprikash and stuffed peppers). But over the years I learned how to use so many other spices—having them on hand is useless unless you know how to use them.
Before I start, I want to admit that I don’t like curry. It’s my least favorite spice (although I have been known to use a bit of it when it’s called for in a recipe). What is curry?
It’s a mixture of up to twenty spices, including turmeric, cumin, coriander, ginger, clove, and cinnamon. Ok, I like most of those spices on an individual basis (excepting, maybe turmeric which is called for in some of my canning recipes). That being said, I was astonished to learn that turmeric is a member of the ginger family – and I love ginger! Not only do I have plenty of ground ginger on hand (it’s an ingredient in so many of my recipes) – I buy fresh ginger and after peeling it, put it into jars filled with sherry. It keeps indefinitely this way and if you are doing a stir-fry with a little fresh ginger – a bit of the sherry it’s been marinating in can be a nice finishing touch.
Well, I digress. The purpose of this post is to discuss with you some of the many spices and herbs available today, with perhaps some tips on which ones to use in different recipes.
I mentioned ALLSPICE – you can buy it either ground or whole; the flavor resemble a combination of cinnamon cloves, and nutmeg. It may be an ingredient in a chicken recipe but I use it most often in cookies and cake recipes, especially fruitcakes.
ANISE can be purchased either whole or ground. I use it mostly to make Springerle cookies for Bob but it may be an ingredient in other cookie or cake recipes – or even fish recipes. Anise has a slight licorice flavor.
Then there is BASIL –my brother Jim has been growing his own and sending me dried packets of basil. It’s a member of the mint family—did you know that? And if you buy small containers of fresh basil to start an herb garden in your back yard, you will find a number of varieties to experiment with. Basil is an ingredient in tomato dishes, pesto, salads, marinades, fish and egg dishes. Try adding basil to your tomato juice cocktail—basil and tomatoes are natural partners. You can also grow your own basil and then dry it out to have it on hand throughout the winter months!
Then there is BAY LEAF which was the only kind of leaf used in cooking that I was familiar with the entire time was growing up. (My brother has been growing bay leaf in Florida, too). It has a stiff dark green leaf and an aroma similar to sassafras – if you know anything about sassafras. It comes from the Laurel tree and is used in stocks, sauces, soups, stews and braised meats. In my family it goes into the chili pot. You generally fish out the bay leaf before serving your meal. And remember to put a bay leaf into your flour canister. (Stick a bay leaf into the Bisquick and Cornmeal canisters too !)
BOUQUET GARNI is a bunch of herbs or spices that are tied up in a piece of cheesecloth although I find my tea caddy handy for this purpose. But what you can do is cut out double pieces of cheesecloth, about 6” square, put your selection of dried herbs or spices in the center and tie it together with string or twine. You can make up batches of these at one time and keep them in an airtight container—they would also make a nice gift for someone who likes to cook. Most bouquet garni contains thyme, bay leaves and sage; they may include basil, chervil, rosemary and peppercorns. You can also make a very simple garni with ¼ cup dried parsley and 2 TBSP thyme—but don’t feel intimidated by what needs to go into a bouquet garni; choose what you like and know would go well with your favorite soups. The bouquet garni is removed from the soup or stew before serving!
One of my favorite spices is BEAU MONDE and I think Spice Islands is the only company making it any more. For a while I couldn’t find it so I found some recipes on Google for making my own – it wasn’t the same. I continued searching until I found a jar of it. Spice Islands still manufactures Beau Monde. According to the jar, the ingredients are salt, dextrose, onion, celery seed and silicon dioxide so how difficult can it be? Beau Monde is great in soups, stews, gravies – and you can even make a great dip with it. I found a recipe in my files but didn’t remember it containing dill weed – however, it’s a great recipe that you might want to try.
To make Beau Monde Dill & Onion Dip, you will need:
2/3 cup mayonnaise
2/3 cup sour cream
1 TBSP chopped green onion
1 TBSP chopped parsley
½ tsp Beau Monde Seasoning
½ tsp Dill Weed.
Mix all ingredients until well blended; serve with chips or crackers or crisp vegetables.
Then there is CARAWAY which is a spice that you buy as a whole seed. It is used in rye bread, cabbage and a lot of Eastern European recipes. I love it in rye bread and not much else. I do love to make my own rye bread, though.
Then there is CARDAMOM, a ground spice, which is my #1 favorite at present, along with nutmeg. I am inclined to substitute either or both in my cookie recipes that have cinnamon as an ingredient, for a subtle change of flavor. On my jar of Cardamom the manufacturer advises “Cardamom enriches diverse cuisines from India or Scandinavia. Its exotic flavor complements sweet cookies, meat stews and curries…” They recommend adding it to simple butter, sugar, or pressed cookies or to fruited coffee cakes, quick bread and muffin batters. (Sometimes when I am making butter cut-out cookies, I like to sprinkle the dough with cardamom or nutmeg). In “The Book of Spices” author Frederic Rosengarten wrote, “It is said that a poor man in Saudi Arabia would rather forgo his rice than give up his cardamom.” Cardamom is a mainstay in the cooking of India, Sri Lanka, Scandinavia and the Middle East—but has only become very popular in this country in the past fifteen years or so. For centuries it has been treasured, like cinnamon, for its medicinal value.
And, somewhere in my cookie files is a recipe for a cardamom cookie that I began making when a girlfriend at work requested something – anything – with Cardamom in it. Before that I didn’t know what it was. It’s a tad expensive but well worth it. You can also buy whole cardamom seed which was often called the seeds of paradise. The container label suggests adding 3-4 cracked pods to simmered or steeped recipes, pot roasts or marinades, or rubbing cracked seeds on steaks or roasts for a pleasant minty note. (Crushed seeds from 10 pods is equal to ½ tsp ground cardamon). Coincidentally, an article about cardamom is in the April issue of Saveur magazine; author Monica Bhide refers to cardamom as the Queen of Spices.
CAYENNE is a ground hot red pepper native of French Guiana, good to use in soups, sauces, fish, meat, vegetables, sauces, gravies, sausages, spaghetti and pizza recipe as well as egg dishes – and if you are from Cincinnati, you will most likely add some to your personal authentic recipe for Cincinnati Chili.
CELERY SALT AND CELERY SEED – the latter is a tiny brown seed with a strong celery flavor; it can be used in salads and dressings, pickling recipes, tomato dishes and marinades. Celery salt is celery seed – with salt added to it. If you are using celery salt you may want to reduce or omit regular salt from the recipe.
CHERVIL is an herb that is a relative of parsley but has a slight anise flavor; it’s a staple in French dishes; add whole leaves to green salads or chop to add to egg-salad sandwiches or scrambled eggs.
CHILI POWDER is a ground spice which is a blend of ground cumin, chili pepper, oregano and allspice and can be purchased either mild or hot. I also have in my spice cupboard CALIFONIA CHILI PEPPER – and I can’t tell you if this is available throughout the country or not. I use it the most often of all my chili powders, as evidenced by how little is left in the container. The label suggests using it in preparing Mexican foods, soups, stews, sauces and dips. Great in chili – and it’s also great to add to guacamole!
CHINESE FIVE SPICE is a blend of spices used in Oriental cooking. It contains cinnamon, fennel, licorice root, ginger, chili pepper, allspice and cloves–wait! That’s more than five! But there’s a good explanation. Although the exact origins of five-spice powder are lost to history, there is some belief that the Chinese were attempting to produce a “wonder powder” encompassing all of the five elements. All of the five flavors – sour, bitter, sweet, pungent, and salty – are found in five-spice powder. These days the specific combination of spices used to make up five-spice powder varies. In fact, some brands could more accurately be labeled “seven-spice powder,” since they contain seven ingredients. A standard recipe calls for fennel, cloves, and cinnamon, along with star anise and Szechuan peppercorns. However, you’ll also find five-spice powder made with cassia (a member of the same family as cinnamon), ginger, nutmeg, and even licorice (star anise has a wonderful licorice flavor). Experiment with different varieties until you find the one you like best. If you can, purchase your Five Spice powder at an Asian market. You’ll pay less and the spice mixture will be more authentic. An added advantage is that it is frequently packaged in plastic bags, allowing the aroma to come through and giving you a chance to compare brands before buying. At home, remove from the bag and store in a dry place in a sealed jar.
CHIVES are an herb that you can purchase fresh, dried or frozen; they are used in salads, egg and cheese dishes, fish, soups and sauces – OR do as I do; when you buy fresh green onions and have some of the green tops left over; chop them up very fine and spread them on a cookie sheet to dry in the oven. I buy a lot of green onions – and make up some dried “chives” every time there is something left over.
CILANTRO, also known as Chinese parsley, is an herb and it looks similar to parsley but there the resemblance ends. Cilantro has a stronger much more distinctive flavor than parsley; the leaf is from the coriander seed. It is used in salads, sauces, soups, eggs and dressings—but here in California is it mostly used in Mexican dishes, especially salsas. I think cilantro is an acquired taste—when I first began using it in recipes, I didn’t really care very much for it and use it quite sparingly. Nowadays I make my own salsas and wouldn’t dream of not including cilantro.
CINNAMON—who doesn’t love cinnamon? Think cinnamon toast! Snickerdoodles!
Cinnamon is a spice that can be purchased either in sticks or ground and is probably the most commonly used spice in the USA. It is used in preserves, stewed fruits, breads, cookies and pastries and is an ingredient (stick form) in some of my pickled fruit recipes.
You know, I could devote an entire post just to cinnamon—one of our very oldest spices. Cinnamon is mentioned in Chinese writings as far back as 2800, BC and in ancient Egypt, cinnamon was used in the embalming process. The Egyptians also used cinnamon for medicinal purposes – and with good reason; studies have shown that just half a teaspoon of cinnamon a day can lower LDL cholesterol and another study has found that smelling cinnamon can boost cognitive function and memory. You can purchase cinnamon capsules at health food stores if you want to give some of this a try. As for me, I’ll take cinnamon toast any day!
CLOVES are a spice that can be purchased whole or ground; it’s the dried flower of the tropical clove tree and is native to Indonesia. You will use whole cloves in marinades, stocks, sauces, and in pickling recipes. Many people stud a baked ham with cloves, maraschino cherries and pineapple slices for a pretty and tasty presentation. Ground cloves are used in pastries, cookies, cake and pastry recipes. A recipe will generally call for a small amount of ground cloves – ¼ or ½ teaspoon is often more than enough; it’s a strong spice. I like a little clove, nutmeg and cinnamon in my favorite oatmeal raisin cookies.
CORIANDER is a spice that can be purchased whole or ground. It’s a round light brown seed from cilantro leaf and is native to Argentina and Morocco; it is used in pickling recipes, gingerbread, salsas and dressings.
CUMIN is a favorite spice in my family; my brother Jim adds cumin to his pot of Cincinnati Chili and so do I (We don’t have the same favorite recipe. All the Schmidts think their chili recipe is the best. Mine is more of a California style Cincinnati chili).
Cumin is grown in Mexico and you will find it in a lot of chili and curry recipes, as well as salsas, egg and cheese dishes. It’s a favorite spice in many Mexican dishes.
CURRY – I’ve already admitted to you that curry is my least favorite spice; it’s a mixture of up to 20 spices—most of which I like individually – but I am not especially partial to Indian (as in from India) cuisine although I have been to Indian restaurants and can generally find something I like reasonably well on the menu. If a recipe calls for curry I will generally concede to adding a small amount. Curry spice can be purchased ground or as a paste.
DILL, however, is an herb that I love. You can buy it fresh or dried. Or buy it fresh and make your own dried dill with whatever is left. I make my own tartar sauce and like to add a lot of dill to the recipe. A few years ago I began adding dried dill to my salmon patties as well. Yum! The seed is using in pickling, soups, sauerkraut and marinades while the herb goes into soups and salads, fish and shellfish recipes, as well as sauces and vegetables.
FENNEL is a spice; the whole seed is greenish brown and it has a flavor similar to anise. It is used in sausages, tomato sauces, marinades and fish recipes.
FINE HERBS is an herb blend of three or more freshly chopped blends which might include chives, parsley, basil, or tarragon to make an herb sauce which can be used on broiled meats and fish.
GARLIC – who isn’t familiar with garlic? You can buy fresh whole bulbs of garlic –Or powdered garlic or garlic salt. You can also purchase small jars of minced garlic which will keep a long time in the refrigerator. When whole bulbs of garlic are very cheap I will spend an hour or so peeling all of them and putting the ‘toes’ of garlic into a jar of olive or canola oil. It keeps for months this way in the refrigerator and the oil will have a lovely garlic scent, nice to use in stir fry recipes. Garlic is a member of the onion family – did you know that? FYI – we had some toes of elephant garlic (that my penpal Bev brought tome in February) sprouting so I had Bob put them into little pots of potting soil. I have them on the counter above the sink; they have really sprouted and the stems can be used much the same way you would use chopped chives. Mine were growing very long so I cut them off, chopped up the stems and dried them in the oven. The originals are growing back and I have some nice dried garlic to use in recipes. Garlic is also good for scaring off vampires.
GINGER is another favorite spice. You can purchase fresh, whole ginger which is a light brown knobby root from a tropical plant—or you can buy it as a dried powder or candied crystallized ginger, which we have been getting from Australia. It is even available in small jars of minced ginger—Use in any recipe that calls for fresh minced ginger. It will keep for a very long time in the refrigerator, after being opened. When I have found fresh whole ginger on sale (even at the 99c store!) I buy several and sit in front of the TV peeling it and then cutting it into pieces that will fit into a jar. Then fill the jar with sherry and store it in the refrigerator. It keeps almost indefinitely also. Actually, I have never known ginger in sherry to ever go bad. Ginger can be found in gingerbread (of course) and gingerbread cookie dough, fruit and curry dishes, pickling and chutney recipes; it is popular in Chinese, Caribbean and Japanese cuisine.
JUNIPER BERRY – this is a whole spice and – I don’t have any in my spice cupboard! The Juniper is a slightly soft purple berry and the principle flavor in gin. It is used in marinades, sauerkraut (although not MY sauerkraut) and game dishes. Well, I don’t cook or eat game so that probably explains why I don’t have any Juniper berries in the house.
MACE is a spice that is made from the outer covering of nutmeg and it is similar in flavor to nutmeg. A few times when I have been out of nutmeg, I have used mace as a substitute. Use it in cookie or cake recipes, fish or vegetables dishes or preserves–or any recipe that calls for mace or nutmeg.
MARJORAM is an herb from the mint family; it’s similar to oregano but milder – so you can always use marjoram in a recipe that calls for oregano if you are out of the latter. It is used in beef, veal, lamb, and poultry recipes as well as soups, vegetables, salads and sauces.
MINT – is an herb that can be purchased fresh or dried. I know a lot of people who grow it and say its prolific – however, ours always dies. I’m not the gardener so I can’t explain this. Mint is used in lamb, fruits, teas, beverages, jellies and soups and sauces. My friend Bev & her husband, who live in Oregon, used to have a mint crop every year (I don’t know if they still do) – but some years ago she sent me a tiny bottle of mint oil, from their crop…I think it must keep forever and you only use a tiny amount. I make a minted walnut confection during the holidays and when you add the drops of mint oil into the pot of hot cooking syrup – it’s a blast of fresh minty air that will open all your sinuses. Also makes the kitchen smell great!
MUSTARD SEED is a spice; you can purchase the seed whole or found; I use it most often in pickling recipes (which I would be happy to share with you sometime – back in the 90s I entered a lot of my pickled recipes into the LA County Fair and won a fair number of Blue Ribbons). It’s used in pickling and sauces – and I like to have a wide variety of prepared mustards on hand (This may explain why I need two refrigerators. One refrigerator is usually packed to overflowing with relishes, pickles, chutneys and other work-in-progress-recipes.)
NUTMEG is another favorite spice; you can purchase it whole or ground. Whole nutmegs sometimes come with a little grater—if not, you can buy a tiny nutmeg grater and keep it with the whole nutmegs. It is used in cookies, pieces, sauces, soups, desserts and breads. A couple of hundred years ago, nutmeg was one of those highly prized precious spices—cookbook author Elizabeth David tells an interesting amusing story about nutmeg in her book “IS THERE A NUTMEG IN THE HOUSE?” which you may find interesting reading if you are anything like me and enjoy reading about food and recipes as much as cookbooks themselves. Nutmeg, like cinnamon, is one of those spices we could devote an entire article about. I love to sprinkle a little ground nutmeg on cutout butter cookies for a little extra special touch.
OREGANO is an herb; you can buy it fresh or dried. As indicated earlier, it’s similar to marjoram but has a stronger flavor. Oregano is native to Italy and Mexico and so you will find it in many Italian and Mexican recipes—soups, stews, sauces, and meats. If you are unfamiliar with the taste of oregano, use it sparingly.
PAPRIKA is a spice that is ground from dried sweet red peppers. The best Paprika is (In my opinion) Pride of Szeged Hungarian Hot Paprika that comes in an attractive red and white can—but about a year ago I began broadening my horizons when I saw someone on the Food Network using a smoked Spanish paprika, also known as Pimenton de la Vers, and a Hungarian sweet paprika both of which I ordered online from The Spice House. I ordered enough to send half of each container to my brother Jim, in Florida. We use paprika in chicken Paprikash, Hungarian Layered Potatoes, and Stuffed Bell Peppers—recipes bestowed upon us by our paternal grandmother and Aunt Annie. It can be used in fish, seafood, meats, sauces – and is nice sprinkled lightly on top of deviled eggs.
PARSLEY is an herb and possibly one of the easiest herbs to grow in your own back yard. Fresh parsley is generally quite inexpensive, however, and you won’t believe the difference in taste until you have chopped fresh parsley into something like a homemade chicken soup as, say, opposed to using some dried parsley. Whenever I have leftover parsley from a recipe, I remove all the stems and spread it out on a cookie sheet to dry in the oven. My own dried parsley is the next best thing to fresh.
PEPPER is a spice that can be black, white, or green; it can be purchased whole or cracked or with a medium to find ground. A lot of great new pepper mixtures are available nowadays and you can even buy a mixture of whole peppercorns. My personal favorite is white pepper which is milder than black. It’s a little more expensive than black pepper but I think the expense is well worth it. If you start using white pepper for cooking you will never go back to black—but I keep the pepper shaker for the table filled with black.
POPPY SEED is a spice; they are tiny black seeds with a nutty flavor and is a product of the opium poppy but relax, it does not contain opium. My grandmother used poppy seed in many of her European pastry recipes and a girlfriend who married a Hungarian refugee would make Hungarian Palascinta (similar to a crepe) with poppy seed filling—yum! It’s commonly used in breads, rolls, cookies and cakes and dressings.
ROSEMARY….Oh, Rosemary! We had a huge healthy rosemary bush in our front yard in Arleta – whenever I wanted to make my Rosemary-Lemon roast chicken, I could go outside with a scissors and snip off a few branches. Rosemary is an herb that you can buy fresh or dried – but the fresh far exceeds the taste of dried. It’s an aromatic green leaf that looks like pine needles; it can be used in chicken, lamb, fish, and beef recipes – as well as soups and salads…but my favorite is Rosemary-Lemon chicken (All you do is take a whole chicken and stuff the cavity with rosemary and some pieces of lemon. Spray the chicken with Pam and sprinkle on lemon-pepper. Surround it with carrots if you like – I just cover it with foil and let it roast in the oven, uncovering it the last half hour). My manicurist has a rosemary bush and has been bringing some to me!
SAFFRON – what is it? Not a spice, not an herb! The stigmas from the saffron crocus are used to produce saffron which comes in a teeny tiny vial and is very expensive. It gives a bright yellow color to foods and has a mild but distinctive flavor. You use it in rice, potato, soup and sauce recipes as well as curries and meats. I have some in my spice cupboard and hoard it. Yes, it IS expensive.
SAGE is an herb that can be whole or ground, purchased fresh or dried. It has such a distinctive flavor – we think of it most often as an ingredient in turkey stuffing, at Thanksgiving time. But you can also use it in meat and other poultry recipes, in soups and salads.
SAVORY is an herb that can be purchased fresh or dried. It is a member of the mint family and can be used in salads, egg and vegetable dishes, stuffing, soups, meat and fish dishes. Savory has a robust peppery flavor that is a strong component of poultry seasoning; try adding to canned soup or homemade bean or pea soup.
SESAME is an herb and the small seeds have a high oil content – you can purchase sesame seeds or sesame oil but fair warning – because of the high oil content, it can become rancid…so if you have sesame seed in you spice cupboard, smell it before you use it. It is used as a topping on breads and rolls and can be used in salads – and is an ingredient in Oriental candy. You may find some sesame candy to try in Chinatown – if you have a Chinatown in your area. (There is a Chinatown in downtown Los Angeles that I just love).
TARRAGON is a delicate green herb that also has a flavor similar to licorice—Use it in sauces, vinegar, chicken and fish recipes, salads and dressings. Try adding it to tomato juice cocktail; it’s good in all egg dishes if used sparingly.
THYME is also an herb that can be purchased fresh or dried. The tiny brown-green leaves are very aromatic—it has a strong, warm clove-like flavor. It is used in soups and chowders, sauces and stocks, as well as meat and poultry recipes. Blend with strong cheeses or tomato juice cocktail or scrambled eggs, if used sparingly. Thyme is often used in Cajun and Creole dishes.
And finally TUMERIC – it’s a spice that is ground. It has a mild-peppery flavor and is an ingredient in curry powder, pickles, relishes, salads, egg and rice dishes.
Now that I have completed this list for you, I can’t wait for spring to arrive so I can plant some herbs in a small patch outside our back door. I want to plant a rosemary bush also. Happy cooking! Happy gardening too!