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Feeding the Temple – LET’S SPICE IT UP!

We’ve looked at some basic vegetable combinations to help start many different dinners. Check the beginning of our series, back in September, and you’ll find methods of shopping, preparation of foods for later cooking and the simple “how” to prepare different ethnic flavors to the same mix of veggies, merely by changing the “add-ons.”

The key to tasty meals, lifting flavors and rendering a dish ethnically recognizable is the spices you choose. Flavors such as Italian, Asian, Indian or Mexican can be achieved by adding herbs and spices that are fresh or dried. There are certain spices that are basics in my cabinet and I’ve seen these as a staple in most other kitchens.

You can pick up these gems at any supermarket or order online. And then there’s the utopia of spices that offers a combination of both…Penzeys Spices. You can even order Penzeys Spices on Amazon.com. Their spices are sold, as well, in their stores in major cities.

A logical question is: Why go to a store and spend valuable time…a commodity of which I have so little?

The answer is: When you enter a Penzeys and inhale the tantalizing scents of the different exotic spices in bottles, jars or plastic bags, you’ll know why the trip is worth the time and energy. Ahhh!

If a shop like Penzeys is not a possibility for you, most supermarkets, or stores like World Market, have areas where you can find spices or spice mixes that are more pungent and aromatic than the run-of-the-mill shelf offerings.

The difference in spices depends on the source of the spice, the quality, the handling and, in some cases, how different spices are combined to offer you the perfect mix so that you needn’t figure out the best balance of flavors on your own. After a while you’ll recognize the savors you prefer and which you’ll choose to use more abundantly. At that point you’ll buy some individually to add discriminately to please your own palate. Then you’ll lift the spoon to your mouth, take a sip of the sauce, roll it on your tongue and nod appreciatively or shake your head and grab for more of the same or search for another spice to complete the flavor you desire.

There are certainly many preferences in the varied ethnicities of foods we enjoy today. Almost every kind of taste pleaser is available in the major cities. Rather than offering you a list of spices in alphabetical order, I’ll start with the dishes that are most popular wherein these spices might be used.

Since there will be quite a list, we’ll present these in the form of a serial…the source of food with its spices, and a recipe or two, each visit. Remember this is a jumping off place. Your own taste will dictate the use and quantity.

Who doesn’t love Italian food? Let’s start here. When you think of Italian, don’t you see tomato sauce in your mind’s eye? The basic ingredient, tomato…chopped, diced, broken up or sauced…is enhanced by a number of spices that may be used dried for speed and efficiency.

Basil can be grown in your kitchen. If you have a green thumb, and a place for this leaf to grow in a small pot, you will probably find many uses in addition to its perfect marriage to the tomato. You’ll find it again, in its fresh state in Thai food. It’s a leaf that has an aromatic, mellow, almost sweet flavor, the pungency of which is lost when dried. When cooking a pasta sauce, this spice is indispensable, dried or fresh, along with oregano. The easy way to use basil when in a hurry is store-bought dried, mixed Italian Seasoning, available virtually everywhere.

Pesto, another popular sauce whose major ingredient is basil, has oh, so many different applications from topping pasta or ravioli, to dipping bread or adding to ground beef to flavor meatballs.

Oregano is a strong Italian food ally, as is basil. Also, it is a gem in Greek, Mexican, and Indian foods and is, as well, a wonderful addition to salad dressings. This spice is actually stronger in the dried version.

Marjoram is an herb similar to oregano and is lumped in the same genus. A mild form of oregano, it too, can be grown right in your own kitchen. Like basil, you just snip what you need to add fresh flavor to a pot of minestrone or pasta sauce, or sprinkle on a pizza to add some more pungent zing.

Rosemary is another aromatic leaf that adds to round out the flavor of sauces and is generally found along with the others mentioned here in Italian Seasoning that you can buy, bottled, off the shelf in any supermarket.

Thyme, which has a heartier, almost “meaty” savor, is not as easy to find fresh as those mentioned, but is easy to use dried and available in mixes or solo. This one herb requires crushing in the palm of your hand because it has a “hard” finish.

Bay leaf, another seasoning used in tomato-based dishes, is used dried. Also known as Laurel, it’s great in sauces, soups and marinades. A little goes a long way. While most dried spices benefit from being broken up or ground in the palm of your hand, this leaf is used whole. It is removed from the pot after cooking so that an unsuspecting diner does not swallow it, since the leaf doesn’t soften during cooking.

Remember the recipes for both the Scratch Marinara (the recipe that takes 20 minutes, if that, to prep, and about 3 to 4 hours to simmer) and the doctored, jarred variety, are in previous articles.

Everyone is seeing Pesto in various shapes and sizes offered on pasta, pizza, salad, as a topping for bruschetta, as a dip, and on and on. There are bunches of different ways to prepare this. Here’s where your taste matters. I’ll present the basics and you make them “yours.”

Some call for heavy on the basil, some use spinach along with the basil and some are really heavy on the garlic.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups packed fresh basil leaves or half and half basil/spinach
  • 2 – 4 cloves garlic, to taste
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup pine nuts
  • 1/3 to 2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan or Pecorino cheese
  • Lemon juice, optional

Blend all ingredients

Voila! Pesto!!

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