In the articles about herbs, I said as a general rule that you want to only use one or two herbs per recipe so as not to overpower or mask the flavor of your dish, or hide the flavor of the herbs themselves. Now that we are going to talk about spices, you can throw that theory right into the pot and let it boil away.
Spices are often used in various combinations that complement each other or work together to achieve a desired affect, such as adding spice or heat to a dish. The next time you are picking up your favorite meat or fish rub, check the ingredients and there will probably be a minimum of three or more spices. Chinese five spices, which will often include seven spices, is a great example of a mixture of spices used for various recipes. The same is true for the amounts of spices used in Cajun, Mexican and other dishes from around the country and the world. The spicier the food, the more of a combination you might find. Curry is itself not a spice, but is rather a combination of no less than three other spices depending on what color curry you get.
Although you can buy dried herbs or dry your own to use later, herbs are generally better used fresh. Because most spices are the dried seeds, fruit or bark of the plant, they are already dried when bought. That doesn’t mean a jar of cumin is a jar of cumin and they are all the same.
Whenever possible, buy your spices in their whole form instead of already ground. Get yourself a coffee grinder and a fine grater to use specifically for spices and you will notice a huge difference in the flavor. Cumin, which is one of the most widely used spices, will have a much more pronounced flavor when you grind the seeds to order, and I’m sure you have noticed what a difference there is between store-bought ground black pepper and pepper right out of a mill.
One of my absolute favorite spices to put in dishes is nutmeg. Whoever would have thought that would be so high up on my list? Not me, until about 15 years ago and my Mom gave me a nutmeg mill (you can just use a fine grater) and fresh seeds. I’ve always put a small amount of nutmeg in my mashed potatoes, but after discovering the incredible difference between store-bought ground and fresh ground, I put it in all kinds of dishes, sometimes as the only spice.
Like herbs, when you are adding spices as a simple flavor enhancer, add a little at a time as not to overpower the dish. When I add nutmeg to mashed potatoes, I try to add just enough so you know there is something there, but it doesn’t really stick out enough to hide the flavor of the potato. For spicy dishes, there will almost always be a combination of a variety of peppers such as chipotle, cayenne, chili, black pepper and paprika, along with cumin. Here you are going for the spice and heat and not so much for the original flavor of your meat or whatever it is your seasoning. The original use of heat in dishes was to mask food that might not be the freshest, especially in warmer climates where meats would tend to spoil a little faster. Unlike herbs, which you add near the end of cooking, spices are usually added right away so they can cook right into the dish.
Food trends are always changing and so will the various combinations of how we use spices. The main things are that fresh ground will always trump pre-ground, and since you are the one eating it, change recipe amounts for your taste buds. For example, if you want a hotter dish, use Hungarian paprika instead of Spanish paprika, or for less spicy substitute paprika or chili powder for cayenne or leave one of the peppers out altogether. Experimenting is a good thing. Try a sprinkle of fresh ground nutmeg on your vegetables or potatoes and enjoy.
Trained under Master Chef Anton Flory at Top Notch Resort in Stowe, Vt., Smitty is a personal chef specializing in dinner parties, cooking classes and special events. For more information and archived copies of Stir it Up, visit chefsmitty.com. Smitty welcomes your questions and comments at[email protected] or (530) 412-3598.