So, I have decided to make my Thursday Thirteen post center on 13 bits of culinary trivia to bore you with instead. Ready to begin? Fantastic! Let's go.
If you've read a few posts, you know that my Kiddo and I LOVE spices. The smell, the taste, the variety. Spices are so ingrained in our various cultures that many cultures even have a trademark "flavor principle." For example, Mexico is typified by chile and lime. India: cumin, garlic and ginger. Greece: cinnamon, lemon and oregano. You can experience the world from your spice cabinet.
Spices and herbs both come from plants. The primary difference is that herbs are usually from a plant's leaves, stem or flowers, spices are usually from the bark, roots, seeds, buds or berries of the plant. Some plants are the source for both an herb and a spice, as in the case of dill and coriander (cilantro). Fennel is also both an herb and the fennel seed is a spice, but the plant bulb is also used as a vegetable.
Thirteen Interesting Spices in My Cabinet:
- Anise and Star Anise, which are not related at all, yet have a similar flavor and name. Both can be used in pastry and vegetable dishes. Star Anise is one of the primary flavors in Chinese Five Spice Powder.
- Caraway. This is possibly the world's oldest spice, it's use has been traced to the Stone Age. Caraway is most familiar to us as the peppery flavor in rye bread.
- Cloves are the unopened buds of a certain species of tropical evergreen. Cloves have a powerful flavor and only a small amount should be used.
- Allspice. Even though it smells like a blend of cinnamon, cloves and nutmegs, allspice is from a single source, the dried berry from a tree found in Jamaica. It is commonly found in foods like cakes and curries, and jerk chicken.
- Cinnamon and Cassia. Actually, most of what we think is cinnamon here in the States is actually the less expensive, related spice Cassia. Cassia has a stronger, less subtle flavor than true cinnamon. There are also varieties that offer different flavors. For example, Ceylon Cinnamon is soft and fruity and complex in flavor. Vietnamese Cinnamon is crisp and deeply spicy. Both are very different in flavor than China Cassia, what is normally sold as cinnamon.
- Fenugreek. I just bought this and have used it on the herb chicken recipe. It works well with poultry. It has a fresh, tangy smell with a hint of almost maple to it. It is often found in curries.
- Nutmeg and Mace both come from the same fruit of a tropical evergreen. The mace is the lacelike shell around the nutmeg seed. Ironically, ground mace will retain its flavor for longer than most spices, but nutmeg quickly loses its flavor when ground. For this reason, it is best to buy the nutmegs whole and use a microplane or grinder as needed.
- Black and White Peppercorns both come from the same plant. The difference is the point at which they are picked and how they are processed. Black peppercorns are picked when the berry is still green, then it turns black as it is dried. White peppercorns are picked when the berry ripens and turns red, then they are allowed to ferment. The outer red skin comes off in processing and the resulting spice is white. White pepper is commonly produced by mechanically removing the black skin from black peppercorns. This is not the same spice, though the process is cheaper. This inferior white pepper should be labeled "decorticated."
- Galangal is from the rhizome of a plant that is native to India. It's flavor is similar to ginger but with pepper and pine notes. Fresh ginger can be used as a substitute.
- Saffron and Cardamom take the top two spots as the most expensive spices. It takes about 250,000 saffron crocus flowers to produce a pound of saffron.
- Curry. While there is a single jar on the shelf labeled curry, curry is actually a blend of several other spices. There are also several kinds of curries as well. The bright gold powder most of us are familiar with contains a blend of pepper, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, ginger, mace and turmeric. A fun thing to do is to get a few of these blended spices and see if you can tell (no peeking at the label) what spices are in the mix. Well, it's fun for me, anyway.
- Masala. A masala is a blend of roasted and ground spices. Garam masala, a favorite of mine, contains a blend of pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, nutmeg, turmeric, bay leaves and fennel seeds.
- Juniper berries. I have these in my cabinet, but I have no idea why or what I might make other than a bathtub of gin. My culinary text says they can be used in wild game, venison or wild boar dishes. It's a bit more likely I would be making the gin.
There are hundreds of spices. Hundreds. I only get 13 in this post. But, there's always next Thursday!