Thursday, 14 October 2010

A life (slightly) less spicy

This is a good time of year for taking stock, and in this specific instance, taking stock of stock ingredients. I was going to run with taking stock of the stock cupboard, but that is for another day, so today's dire pun of a post will revolve around my spice drawer. Behold:

I think leaving home, branching out and discovering who you are and who you want to become inevitably involves some rebelling against your heritage and exploring what the world has to offer. In my case, that meant a good deal of experimenting with food and flavours. I am not a fan of bland, but a fan of strong, punchy, fragrant, warming, zesty, spicy, earthy, piquant, hot, cooling, sweet, sour, acidic, smoky and everything above beyond and in between. Which poses problems in a simpler kitchen, because you need a large spice drawer to house all of those adjectives.

With the exception of green cardamon pods, I have never met a spice or herb that I couldn't eventually work with. Living in a city with several excellent ethnic supermarkets meant I have had the opportunity to work my way around the world's flavours cheaply and find what I like. Unfortunately, I liked most of it.

I am now working and cooking for a family, which means there is less time for experimenting, less money for wasting and less space to store ingredients. So today I took a few minutes to pare down my spice drawer.  Firstly, I removed anything that was out of date, after a sniff and possibly a taste test. That removed about a quarter of the seasonings. Next I went through the nearly used up jars, to see if I could use them up before they were past their best. In my heart of hearts, I know that I will never use fennel and dill seed again, so they were out. I decanted my prized core herbs and spices that I could not live without into now empty air-tight jars and returned them to the drawer.

I like Indian food when eating at restaurants, but rarely cook it at home. All of the Indian and Balti spice mixes have gone, along with a few individual herbs and spices particular to those cuisines. Some seasonings are very versatile - garlic, ginger, oregano, basil, paprika, chilli, black pepper will service a range of different dishes from pasta to goulash to a stir fry or Thai curry (at a stretch). Some, such as cumin, I use only when I make a chilli or marinade meat, but then I make chilli quite often. Some spices I despise when dried but love fresh from the plant, such as parsley and coriander. Some seasonings are seasonal - I use sumac and dried mint by the ton in summer, but could probably go without over winter. Cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice don't see the light of day until autumn.

When I plan next years garden, I want to maximise my production of flavour ingredients. We have a potted bay tree; and bay also grows wild in the parks around here, as do massive rosemary plants.  We also have thyme, mint, tarragon, parsley and sage; and I plan to add a few others. I also need to learn, finally, how to preserve and store them at the end of the season.

A quick peruse of the Internet on spice storage is quite frankly, confusing, so I have distilled my own experience and a bit of common sense into a few basic rules that I will from now on be following: 
  • Don't buy large quantities of spices unless you use that spice in large quantities. It isn't cost effective if they are past their best when you come to use them. Most have a shelf life of up to 1 year at best.
  • Decant all herbs and spices the moment they are opened into airtight containers and store in a cool dark place, possibly even the fridge or freezer if ground. I lost good basil for want of this, sigh.
  • Buy whole spices and grind them as needed, if possible. They stay fresher for longer.
  • A quick sniff audit every now and again should tell you whether something is past its best - and that doesn't necessarily mean odourless. Savour the spices when they are fresh and you will know how they are meant to smell and taste.
  • Explore you locality for wild growing herbs. If you have the space, grow your own seasonings. This should save money, beautify your surroundings and mean you always have seasonings on hand for the pot.
If you are wondering why this important issue is so dear to my heart, please have a heart for those forgotten citizens of your spice rack. ; )

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