Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Spice Blends – Buy or Make?

Spices are such a necessary component in our cooking and baking. Continuing to expand your knowledge of spices is one way to improve your culinary creations. I have written a prior Tip on spices in general and I have written some other Tips on particular spices. In this Tip, I would like to discuss some of the more common Spice Blends.

If you ask ten different chefs for a list of their favorite spice blends, you would get ten different lists although I dare say there would be some commonalities. I am going to try to focus on those commonalities to help you understand the world of spice blends.

Spice blends are just what the name says – mixtures of different spices. I usually encourage all of you to make your own spice blends rather than buying numerous blends made by some company. You can make only the amount you want and you can personalize it to your own preferences. This is especially true for spice blends that contain individual spices that you already have in your pantry. That being said, there is a place for purchasing premade blends.

If it is a blend that you are going to use a lot, go ahead and purchase it. Also, if it is a blend that contains individual spices that you do not normally have on hand, it might be good to just purchase that blend. Just try to purchase the freshest and smallest amount you can. Something else to be aware of is even though a spice blend from Company A has the same name as one from Company B, that does not mean they will taste the same. They might have different amounts of the spices and might even have different spices in them. So, read the labels carefully and when you find one you like, stick with that particular brand.

Now, on to some popular blends that you might want to consider.

Barbecue seasoning

This blend usually adds heat and smokiness to your dish and is normally used to season meats before grilling or roasting. Common spices include salt, garlic, red pepper, onion, sugar and smoke flavoring. This is certainly one that you could make just when you need it, but if you have a favorite premade blend, go ahead and purchase it.

Berbere

Hailing from Ethiopia, this blend is a sweet & hot blend that is used in beef stews, lentils, chicken recipes and veggie dishes. Blends can vary but you will commonly find cinnamon, paprika, fenugreek, cardamom, coriander, cumin, cloves, nutmeg, garlic powder, onion powder pepper (red & black), ginger and salt.

Cajun seasoning

Blends carrying this name vary widely but are typically hot. This blend is used in Cajun cooking, especially in stews and seafood, rice and veggie dishes. It can be added to coatings or just directly onto your ingredients. Common spices include onion powder, garlic powder, paprika, thyme, oregano, chili, salt and pepper (white, black & red).

Chili Powder (not chile powder – see this Tip for why)

This is a blend of spices commonly found in Latin American cooking. It is another blend where the actual spices can vary greatly but you will often find different types of ground chilis (ancho, cayenne, chipotle), paprika, cumin, Mexican oregano and salt. Occasionally you will also find garlic powder and onion powder.

Curry Powder

Curry powder is actually a British invention that was meant to help them create an Indian dish. You will not find a bottle of “curry powder” in an Indian kitchen. Each cook will make his/her own and it can vary greatly from cook to cook and from region to region. What we find on our shelves typically includes turmeric, coriander, cumin, fenugreek and red/black pepper. Some varieties might also include mustard, ginger, anise, cinnamon and/or cardamom.

Dukkah

This is an Egyptian blend that contains not only spices but also nuts. Typical ingredients include anise, coriander, sesame seeds, hazelnuts/almonds. It adds a nice crunch to a coating or to a grain dish.

Five-Spice Powder

This blend has a warm spicy-sweet flavor. It usually includes five spices but not always the same five. It is one of the blends that I think you would be better off making yourself when you need it as you will probably already have most of the individual spices – cinnamon, star anise, fennel and cloves. The final traditional spice that you may not have is Sichuan peppercorns. These are not true peppercorns but rather are the dried berries of the Chinese prickly ash bush, a member of the citrus family. They are not hot but are said to impart a tingling sensation. Some mixtures may also contain ginger, galangal, white pepper and/or nutmeg. To make your own without the Sichuan peppercorns, just use a generic peppercorn. Even some premade blends will do this.

Garam Masala

Synonymous with India, the name of this spice mix could be translated to “hot spice mixture”. The actual mixture of spices will vary just as with curry powder. It is used to add heat and a wonderful aroma to your Indian dishes. Common spices in this mix are cumin, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, bay leaf, mace, nutmeg, star anise, fennel and black pepper.

Italian Seasoning

This is more of an herb blend than a spice blend. It is made from dried herbs, commonly basil, Greek oregano, thyme, rosemary and maybe marjoram and/or garlic. It is used to season meat, sauces and other Italian dishes.

Jamaican Jerk seasoning

Another blend with some kick to it, this seasoning can be used on fish or meat and also in marinades and dressings. The actual spices can vary but commonly include salt, sugar, allspice, thyme, cloves, ginger, cinnamon, onion and chile pepper. Some may add black pepper, nutmeg and/or brown sugar.

Lemon Pepper seasoning

A simple blend of black pepper and lemon zest, it can add a citrusy note to your meat or veggies.

Old Bay Seasoning

This is a trademarked American seasoning mix originating from Baltimore, Maryland. It is used in seafood dishes such as chowders, bisques and pastas but can also be used in veggie dishes. According to the container, it includes “celery seed, salt, spices (including red and black pepper) and paprika”. A more detailed list shows those spices might be allspice, bay leaf, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, mace, ginger, and mustard.

Poultry Seasoning

This is a combination of herbs and spices like nutmeg, sage, thyme, marjoram, rosemary, and black pepper. It can be used to season not only poultry but also seafood and veggies.

Pumpkin Pie mix

This is also in my “make your own” list because the components are so common – cinnamon, ginger, allspice, nutmeg and cloves.

Quatre Epices

The translation to English is “four spices”. This is a French blend of black and/or white pepper, cloves, nutmeg and ginger. It is perfect for soups, stews, veggies, sausage and pate.

Ras el Hanout

This is a North African blend that is used to season lamb, chicken, lentils and veggie dishes. It often contains cinnamon, cumin, turmeric and pepper (black & red). A 12-spice blend is common but others can contain more than 30 spices. Besides the above, other commonly included spices are allspice, paprika, coriander, cloves, cardamom, mace, nutmeg, ginger and/or anise.

Seafood Seasoning

This is a general purpose seafood seasoning mix that is typically made of celery salt, mustard, red pepper, black pepper, bay, cloves, allspice, ginger, mace, cardamom, cinnamon and paprika. It may also include parsley, sage, rosemary and/or marjoram.

Za’atar

A common Middle Eastern blend that is often used on grilled veggies or added to yogurt or hummus. It commonly contains thyme, sesame seeds, salt and sumac. Sumac is classic for this blend and gives it a slightly sour and citrusy component. Some blends also include oregano, cumin, black pepper, marjoram and/or savory.

As you can imagine, the above is just a short list of some of the most popular spice mixes. The one I always keep in my spice drawer is Italian seasoning. Even though I could easily make this mixture, it is something that I use often and I like the taste of the one I buy. I also usually have a chili powder (along with some chile powders such as ancho & chipotle) and a couple different curry powders. I do have a mixture of premade blends but they are there only because they were free gifts. The other blends I have are all homemade such as five spice powder, jerk seasoning and garam masala.

What about you? Do you have many blends? Do you purchase them or make them yourself? Whichever, have fun enlivening your dishes with all of these wonderful and delicious spices!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Sumac – a Taste of the Middle East

I have written prior Cooking Tips on herbs and spices in general and also some specific spices and/or herbs. In this Tip, I want to discuss a less common spice – Sumac.

Sumac comes from the berries of a plant that is native to the Mediterranean, the Middle East and parts of Asia. It is a relative to the cashew family. Because of that, avoidance is advised for those with nut allergies. Although most varieties of the sumac plant are not poisonous, there is a poisonous sumac – Toxicodendron vernix. It has whitish berries rather than red.

The sumac plant bears white flowers that develop into rust-colored berries and grow in dense clusters. The berries are harvested before they ripen and dried in the sun. They can be left whole or ground into a powder. The latter is how you will find it in most of our markets. This is at least in part due to the fact that grinding the berries is very difficult in a home environment and so, is usually done where they are picked.

The flavor of sumac is primarily tart and citrusy with some floral notes and an astringent finish. It is said that the Romans used sumac as we would use lemon juice or vinegar.

Besides adding that tartness to the flavor of a dish, it also imparts a dark red color. Lior Lev Sercarz, author of The Spice Companion, notes that the color of sumac can vary depending on the season. He says that has caused some marketers to add beet powder. They also salt to prevent clumping. Check the label of what you purchase to see if anything has been added. If it does contain salt, reduce the amount of salt in your recipe to compensate for this.

The use of sumac is prominent in Middle Eastern cooking but it can be used any time you wish to add a tart element to your dish. Because of its red color, it is also often used as a pretty garnish.

Common uses include:

  • Rubbing on kebabs and grilled meats
  • Stirred into rice dishes
  • A garnish for hummus or tahini
  • It is a major ingredient in the Middle Eastern spice blend known as za’atar.
  • Marinades and dressings

Serious Eats polled a number of chefs and asked how they liked to use sumac. Their answers were varied.

  • An all-around Mediterranean dish topper such as sprinkling on feta cheese, baba ganoush, hummus, roasted fish/chicken
  • Popcorn duster along with salt
  • Add to oil used for dipping bread
  • Season fried foods such as corn fritters, fried brussels sprouts, fried garbanzo beans
  • Meat loaf
  • Meat marinades
  • Sumac donuts
  • Chocolate sumac ganache

Although it is not that difficult to find, some people want to know what to substitute if they do not have sumac. If you are making a dish for the first time and it calls for sumac, I strongly advise you not to substitute. If you do, you will not know how the dish is really supposed to taste.

That being said, here are some possible substitutes. The first four are more strongly sour and so, should be used sparingly as a substitute.

  • Lemon zest
  • Lemon pepper seasoning
  • Lemon juice
  • Vinegar
  • If looking for the red color for garnish, consider paprika.

I do have sumac in my spice cabinet but, I must admit, I do not often use it. I need to think of it more often to add that citrusy, tart flavor as well as the red color. How about you? Does it deserve a place in your kitchen?

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Parsley — Garnish or Ingredient?

Have you ever seen that for recipes that call for parsley, some specify “flat-leaf” or “Italian” while others do not specify what kind? What are these types and does it really matter which you use? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Although your local grocery store will probably only carry one or two kinds of parsley, there are four main varieties.

Curly

  • This is the most common variety and is sometimes known as “common parsley”. It is easily recognizable by its curly leaves.
  • It has a milder flavor than flat-leaf and it is somewhat on the grassy side. Older plants will yield leaves that are more bitter.
  • Although it can be used in cooking, it is more often used as a garnish.

Flat-leaf

  • This is also known as “Italian parsley” and has leaves that are flat and serrated.
  • Although curly is known as “common parsley”, the flat-leaf variety is what is normally called for in recipes as it has a bolder and more aromatic flavor than the curly kind.

Japanese

  • This perennial variety is native to Asia and has leaves that are more pointed than other kinds.
  • The entire plant is edible. The leaves are normally used as a seasoning, the roots are eaten like a vegetable and the sprouts are often put on salads.
  • It does have a more bitter flavor than other varieties.

Hamburg

  • Other names for this variety include “root parsley” and “Dutch rooted parsley”.
  • It looks similar to flat-leaf parsley but the leaves are not eaten due to the strong flavor.
  • It has long, thick roots that look like a parsnip and is said to taste like a combination of celery and carrot. It is normally not eaten raw but used in soups and stews.

Uses for parsley

  • Recipes will often call for using parsley as a pretty garnish but it is also added to dishes for flavor.
  • It can be added to salads of mixed greens and/or herbs.
  • It is usually a component of a bouquet garni, which is a bundle of herbs used to flavor soups/stews. A typical mixture contains parsley, thyme, peppercorns and bay leaf. It is tied together before adding to the dish so you can easily remove it at the end.
  • Some dishes have parsley as one of the main ingredients.
    • Chimichurri – an Argentinian sauce served with grilled steak and composed of fresh herbs (including parsley) along with garlic, vinegar, olive oil and seasonings.
    • Tabbouleh – a Lebanese salad made with bulgur, parsley, tomatoes and a dressing.
    • Gremolata – a condiment of parsley, lemon zest, and garlic. In Italy, it is traditionally served with Osso Bucco.
    • Parsley Pesto – rather than making a classic pesto with basil and pine nuts, you can mix it up with other herbs, including parsley.

Parsley is a very versatile herb that is great to have on hand. If you have a green thumb, it is also easy to grow. We probably mostly use it as a garnish or secondary ingredient, but don’t forget it can also star in many dishes.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Basil — the taste of summer!

If you had to name one herb that spoke to you of the hope of summer, which would it be? I suspect many of you would agree with me that herb would be basil. Because basil is not just one herb, this Cooking Tip will enlighten you on some of the many types and uses for basil. There are over 100 varieties of basil although you will most likely only be able to find one or two in your supermarket. The other ones will need to be sought out in a good garden center.

Basil is native to tropical Asia and Africa and cultivated in many Asian and Mediterranean countries as well as the US. I am just going to discuss a few of the many, many varieties.

The most common variety is what is known as Sweet Basil. Its smooth leaves are oval in shape with a medium green color. It has a sweet but slightly spicy flavor. It is abundantly used in Italian dishes such as pesto sauce, salads, pasta and pizza. If your recipe does not specify a particular type of basil, this is your best choice. An interesting tidbit is that it also naturally repels mosquitos.

Genovese basil is the 2nd most common basil. It is very similar to Sweet Basil and, in fact, some growers will use these terms interchangeably. Some call it a variety of sweet basil. It does though, have larger and darker green leaves. Just as with Sweet Basil, it is a staple in Italian cooking although it does have a stronger flavor. When using this variety, start with just a small amount and then add more to your desired flavor.

Lemon basil – this variety is a mix of basil and lemon with a delightful citrusy scent and light green leaves. Because of the lemon component, it compliments poultry, fish dishes and grilled veggies.

Lime basil – The bright green, narrow leaves of this plant yield a rich citrusy scent like limes.

Greek basil – this variety is smaller than other basils and has delicate light green leaves. The flavor has a spicy quality to it and thus, is often paired with meat dishes or used in soups. It is also frequently used as a garnish due to its unique appearance. Many people like it for container gardening due to its compact size.

Cinnamon basil – with its small green leaves and purple stems/flowers, this is an especially attractive basil. It can also be referred to as Mexican Basil. It has a mild flavor with cinnamon undertones. It is often used in Asian cooking as well as in beverages. Due to the warm cinnamon notes, it pairs well with meat dishes.

Thai basil – this variety has light green leaves and purple flowers. It is very aromatic with a licorice flavor. As noted in its name, it is primarily used in Thai cuisine. It is one basil that retains its flavor when cooked at high temperatures.

Holy basil – also known as Tulsi basil, it has small leaves with a spicy fragrance and is often used in Indian dishes. It should be cooked as it can be bitter in the raw state.

Purple basil – there are different varieties that are sometimes called “purple basil”. Two of the most common are Purple Ruffles and Dark Opal. Purple Ruffles is actually a cross between Green Ruffles and Dark Opal. They both have purple leaves but the Ruffles variety has ruffled leaves. Neither are as sweet as other basil varieties and carry more of a spicy note.

Here are a few tips for using basil in the kitchen

  • Pick the type of basil that is best for your dish. Use sweet basil for European dishes, especially those from the Mediterranean. For Thai dishes, use Thai basil. If you are cooking up an Indian dish, consider Holy Basil.
  • Add the basil at the right time. The aroma can dissipate quickly as the herb is cooked and it does not stand up to long cooking times. So, add it towards the end of the cooking process. Note the exception above about Thai Basil.
  • Store basil in an upright container with its ends submerged in water after trimming the stems. Leave it on the counter uncovered and do not refrigerate. Replace the water daily.

What are your favorite uses for basil? Pesto is probably high on everyone’s list. Another classic and one of the simplest is a Caprese Salad. One of my favorites is a NYT recipe for Heirloom Tomato Tart. How about making a basil simple syrup and then using it to make a Strawberry Basil Soda? Whip up a batch of Basil-Lemon Scones (courtesy of Tea Time Magazine) for a great afternoon treat. Try making them with Lemon Basil.

Whatever you make, as we move into summer, enjoy the wonderful herb known as Basil!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Tarragon — a wonderful culinary herb

I feel like Tarragon is similar to Cilantro in that people either love it or hate it. However, tarragon is much less common and I would suspect many people have never tried it. I was a bit concerned about this herb as I heard it had a licorice flavor and there are few things I dislike more than licorice. This was an unfair judgement, though, and now I know it is a wonderful herb to have in your kitchen. Perhaps some of you feel the same as I did and this Cooking Tip is for you.

Tarragon is a perennial and is part of the sunflower family. Just as with many culinary herbs, there are different varieties of tarragon. The main three are French, Russian and Mexican.

French –this is the one with the best flavor and the one preferred by most chefs. The leaves are much more aromatic than the Russian variety.

Russian – as it is easier and cheaper to grow, much of the tarragon you will see is of this variety. Its flavor is much milder than the French tarragon. Since the tarragon you buy in the supermarket may not be labeled, the only way to tell which variety you have is to crush the leaves and smell it. If you do not have that classic licorice aroma, it is probably Russian.

Mexican – known as Mexican Marigold Mint

As can be seen by its name, this is not a true tarragon. However, this plant grows better in hotter climates and has a similar anise/licorice aroma and flavor.

Tarragon’s primary flavor is light licorice. It also has notes of citrus, grass, vanilla, mint and a bit of spiciness. Because its flavor is fairly prominent, don’t overdo it by adding too much.

There is also a dried version and, unlike many herbs, dried tarragon does retain much of its licorice flavor but the other flavor notes disappear. Therefore, dried tarragon has a strong but less complex flavor.

You can use it like other fresh herbs but it is great with dishes containing chicken, fish, shellfish, eggs, butter and cream. Lemon also complements it well because of the citrusy notes in the herb.

As with most herbs, fresh tarragon should normally be added towards the end of cooking to retain its flavor. The dried should be added earlier in the cooking process. If you do use dried in a recipe that calls for fresh, remember the 3-to-1 rule. Whatever amount of fresh is specified, only use ⅓ of the amount of dried.

There is no real substitute for tarragon because of its unique flavor. Some feel chervil and fennel (bulb, fronds, seeds) do a decent job but true tarragon is still preferred.

Tarragon can be stored similarly to basil – in a glass of water on the counter. Or, roll the leaves in a damp paper towel, put in a plastic bag and in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator.

As tarragon is beloved in French cuisine, you will often see it in French recipes. For example, Béarnaise sauce is a classic French sauce containing tarragon which is considered a derivative of hollandaise sauce. It is one of the ingredients in the dried herb mixture of Herbes de Provence. It is also an important component of the fresh herb mixture known as Fines Herbes. This is also known as PCCT – a mixture of parsley, chives, chervil and tarragon and it is the seasoning in a classic French omelet.

Although our supermarkets carry many more flavored vinegars than they used to, tarragon vinegar is one I have difficulty finding. However, you can make it yourself with white wine vinegar and fresh tarragon. This can then be used in vinaigrettes, on salads or on roasted veggies

One of my favorite uses for fresh tarragon is in a recipe by Australian chef, Bill Granger, for Chicken, Leek and Tarragon Pie. It also makes a nice addition to egg salad.

A classic French recipe Suprêmes de Poulet à l’Estragon (Supremes of Chicken with Tarragon) from the book Classic French Recipes for Special Occasions by Carole Clements and Elizabeth Wolf-Cohen demonstrates a company-worthy dish featuring both fresh and dried tarragon.

Those are just a few ideas for using this wonderful culinary herb. If you have never tried it, I hope some of these will inspire you to get on the tarragon wagon!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Saffron – A beautiful but expensive ingredient

I was writing out my grocery list and as I added saffron to the list, I wondered how many of you used saffron or were familiar with how to use it. I would suspect that the average cook doesn’t have saffron in their pantry. This is probably due to not only their unfamiliarity with this ingredient but also due to the significant cost. I want to delve into this world of saffron in this Cooking Tip.

Saffron is the dried stigma a flowering blue saffron crocus. The reason that it is so expensive is that it is a very labor-intensive harvesting process, something that can only be done by hand. Each crocus flower contains three stigmas. It is only open for a few hours, which is when it must be hand-picked. The stigmas are then separated out by hand and dried. It is estimated to take 200 hours of labor to harvest enough crocus flowers (~70,000) to yield 1 pound of saffron, which can be sold for up to $5000.

The best saffron is said to come from Iran. It is currently illegal to import Iranian saffron to the US due to trade sanctions. Other good saffron comes from Spain, Morocco and India. Some estimate that most of the “Spanish” saffron is actually from Iran and then repackaged and labeled as Spanish, a process that is illegal in the US. A small amount is grown in the US, mostly in Pennsylvania.

Because it is so expensive, imitators have emerged. At times, safflower will be marketed as saffron. Saffron threads may be mixed with yellow crocus stamens (which are tasteless) or even silk threads. Other take saffron powder and extend it by adding turmeric or paprika. If the price seems to too low, don’t buy it. The only way to distinguish real from adulterated is that real saffron is soluble in water and will start to bleed its color as soon as you put it in the warm water. Because of this problem, be sure to buy your saffron from a reputable source. Some stores offer a ground saffron. Because you never know what is in that type of saffron, it is best to grind your own with a mortar and pestle.

Once you purchase it, it should be stored in a cool, dark and airtight environment. Properly stored, it will keep for months or even years.

Due to a pigment called crocin, saffron will color foods a bright yellow. The taste is said to vary depending on where it is grown and the amount of crocin it contains. People have a difficult time describing the flavor but commonly it is felt to be pungent and earthy with notes of honey, fruit and/or flowers.

As mentioned above, it is the most expensive spice you can buy. The good thing is that you do not use very much in each application. Many recipes call for a “pinch”, which is not a standard measurement. It is usually just few threads, enough that you can notice it in the dish but not be wasteful or overpowering.

To use saffron, it must be “bloomed” in a hot liquid. For a dish that is hot and contains plenty of liquid (soups, stews, braises), you can add the saffron directly to the dish. Add it early in the cooking process to allow enough time for it to properly flavor the dish. Otherwise, the threads should be crumbled or ground in a mortar and pestle and steeped in a hot liquid for 10-20 minutes. Because not all the carotenoids in the saffron threads are water soluble, you may want to add a bit of alcohol to the steeping liquid.

Saffron has many culinary uses. It is most frequently used in cuisines from countries where it is harvested such as Spain, Morocco, India, etc. It is often used in fish and seafood broths to give them a golden color. Paella gets its signature golden color from saffron. In the Middle East, it is used along with cardamom to flavor coffees. Scandinavians use it in a saffron bread called Lussekatter for a celebration for the feast of the patron saint Santa Lucia. The Pennsylvania Dutch use it in their signature potpies.

The flavor pairs well with almonds, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, mint and nutmeg.

Because of the price tag, many ask if there is a suitable substitute. The answer is not really. Turmeric will give a similar color but not the same flavor profile.

Do you have saffron in your pantry? It may be something to consider, especially if you are a fan of the above mentioned dishes. Just be prepared to pay for a quality product and then store and use it properly to maximize your investment.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

An Essential Ingredient to Thai Curries

In the last couple of Cooking Tips, I discussed different aspects of Thai Cooking. In the first Tip, I explained the differences between a Thai curry and an Indian curry. Tip #2 was a more general discussion of important Thai ingredients. In this Tip, I want to spend a bit more time looking at one of those ingredients – curry paste.

The word curry can be used to either mean a dish or a spice mixture. In Indian cooking, that spice mixture would be made up of dry, ground spices. In Thai cooking, it is called curry paste and it is a moister mixture that is finely ground or pureed made not only from spices but also from many fresh ingredients.

There are many different versions of curry pastes and the ingredient list for each may vary depending on the cook and/or brand. Let’s first discuss ingredients and then the most common types of curry paste.

Ingredients

  • Chilis – depending on the variety of curry paste, it may contain red or green chilis, either in the dried or fresh forms.
  • Fresh aromatics – typical ones are shallots, garlic, lemongrass, galangal, cilantro root, makrut (aka kaffir) lime zest, grachai (a member of the ginger family), turmeric and ginger.
  • Dried spices – other than those pastes that have some Indian or Muslim influence, dried spices are not typically used. When they are included, you might see coriander seeds, cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, mace and cloves.
  • Umami boosters – shrimp paste and dried shrimp. Besides giving an umami boost, shrimp paste also gives an authentically Thai flavor.

Types of Curry Paste

Red
This paste is made with dried red chilis and can have up to 20 different varieties. Traditionally, the dried red chilis are soaked, which reduces some of the harshness and heat. One expert lists what he calls the “Basic 10” of ingredients – dried red chilis, garlic, shallots, lemongrass, galangal, cilantro root, makrut lime zest, white peppercorns, shrimp paste and salt. Others may also add coriander and cumin.

Green
The chilis used in this paste are very similar to those in red but here they are in their fresh (green) state. Besides the fresh green chilies, other typical ingredients are shallots, lemongrass, white pepper, coriander root, garlic, kaffir lime zest, shrimp paste and sea salt. This all gives this paste a green color. In the final dish, sweet basil leaves, round green Thai eggplant and kaffir lime leaves are often added, which contribute even more to an overall green hue. As compared to red curry paste, this one has a more balanced and herbier flavor.

Some consider red curry paste as the spiciest whereas others give that prize to green paste.

Traditionally, Thai people considered green curries as the hottest followed be red. As Thai food became popular in the West, the red curry emerged as the hottest. However, in authentic Thai cuisine, a green curry will always be spicier than a red.

Yellow
The color of this variety comes from fresh turmeric and curry powder. Other common ingredients are coriander, cumin, lemongrass, galangal, shrimp paste, dried red chilies, sea salt, ginger, garlic and shallots. It is milder than the other pastes but the actual spiciness will depend on the actual chilis used. It also often has a touch of sweetness.

Panang
This curry paste is similar to red but has the addition of ground peanuts as well as cumin, coriander seeds, dried red long chilies, shallots, garlic, galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime zest, coriander root, white pepper, salt and shrimp paste.

Massaman
Because of the Muslim in influence in this curry paste, it has abundant dry spices that are commonly seen in south Asia – cinnamon, star anise, cloves, cardamom and nutmeg. Other ingredients are dried red chilies, shallots, garlic, galangal, lemongrass, coriander, cumin, white pepper, salt and shrimp paste. It is a relatively mild curry paste.

The most common use for curry paste is in Thai curries where the curry paste is cooked with a protein and/or veggies and a liquid such as coconut milk or stock. That is not the only use, though and these pastes can be used as a marinade, a rub for chicken, fish or beef as well as in stir fries.

If you have been reading these Cooking Tips for very long, you know that I do not use or recommend many convenience items. For example, when you need a small amount of Chinese Five Spice, do not buy an entire bottle that may go stale before you use it all up. Rather, make your own from ingredients that are probably already in your pantry.

Curry pastes are different, though. You can certainly make these pastes from scratch but it is a fairly time consuming process and involves a whole host of ingredients, many of which are difficult to come by outside of a good Asian or international food market. Therefore, most of us will buy a good prepared curry paste.

A good curry paste is said to have an aroma strongly of herbs. When looking at the ingredients, there should only be herbs, spices, salt and shrimp paste. No oils, no additives and no water. Many Thai cooks strongly suggest only buying Thai brands.

Some differences that may be seen between store-bought & home-made is that the home-made version may have more complex flavors and may have a fresher taste as the herbs are added at the end and not further processed. Another advantage of home-made is that you can customize the blend to accommodate dietary restrictions and flavor preferences.

Brands – Favorite store-bought brands are:

  • Maesri – one advantage of this brand is that it comes in small cans rather than larger containers.
  • Mae Ploy – this is my favorite brand but it does tend to be saltier than other brands.
  • Chef’s Choice – this brand is mostly found in Europe and Asia.
  • Mae Anong – a favorite of many Thai afficionados.

Storage
Curry paste can be refrigerated for at least a week or frozen for six months to a year.

With the info found in these last three Cooking Tips, you should be able to make your own kitchen your favorite Thai restaurant!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Oregano – not just one herb!

I had a friend visiting and I took her to my favorite spice shop, Savory Spice, to restock her spice pantry. One of the items she wanted was Oregano. I asked her if she wanted Mediterranean Oregano or Mexican Oregano. She looked at me strangely and asked about the difference. She said she did not know there was more than one kind. Since she is a great cook, I figured if she didn’t know this that maybe many of you did not know either. Thus, this Cooking Tip was born.

What most cooks think of as oregano is probably the Mediterranean version. It is part of the mint family, Lamiaceae.

Mediterranean is a bit of a generic term for all types of oregano grown in that region. Different varieties include Greek, Italian and Turkish. Most supermarket versions will not specify what type it is but good spice shops will often list that information. The most common is probably Greek. It is typically known as the “true oregano” although some will also apply that term to the Italian variety.

Mediterranean oregano in general has a robust flavor with sweet, minty and peppery notes. It will, however, vary somewhat in taste depending on which variety it is. Some may be more bitter, sweet or peppery than others. Greek is said to be the most savory and earthy, Turkish is the most pungent and the Italian is the mildest. The latter is actually a hybrid of sweet marjoram (also a type of oregano) and common oregano.

Mexican oregano is native to Mexico, the southwestern United States and Central America. It is part of the Verbenaceae family, to which lemon verbena also belongs. Its flavor is different than Mediterranean oregano. It has pungent, citrusy flavors with a peppery note and a subtle licorice undertone.

When do you use which variety? Well, if you have read many of these Cooking Tips, you will know I do not have many hard and fast rules. However, the best results happen when you pair the particular variety to the cuisine of that geography.

Therefore, you would use the Mediterranean variety when you are making those dishes. It pairs well with flavors such as onion, garlic, basil, flat-leaf parsley and thyme. It is especially known for its use in Italian dishes including pizza & pasta sauce, herb butters and Italian vinaigrettes.

Pair your Mexican oregano with other spices such as cumin, chili and paprika. Use in dishes with Mexican or southwest-type flavors such as chili, enchiladas or salsa.

One last tidbit about oregano. Chefs generally prefer fresh herbs over dried herbs in many preparations. However, oregano maintains excellent flavor when dried. In fact, many feel that fresh oregano is too pungent and they prefer the dried.

Did you know that there were different types of oregano? Do you always use just one or do you switch it up depending on what you are cooking? Now that you know the differences, I hope you will feel much more comfortable using this wonderful herb!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Fresh Lemon Substitutes

In a prior Cooking Tip, I wrote about Lemons, different varieties and their uses. If you do not have the fresh fruit available, are there any suitable substitutes? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

If your recipe calls for lemon zest, Better Homes & Gardens suggests trying the following although they do caution that you will not get the same flavor as you would with fresh zest.

For 1 teaspoon of freshly grated lemon zest, try one of the following.

  • ½ tsp lemon extract
  • 2 Tbsp bottled lemon juice
  • 1 tsp lime zest or other citrus zest

When it comes to using bottled lemon juice rather than fresh, there aren’t too many side-by-side taste comparisons.

Cook’s Illustrated tried making both lemon curd and lemonade with packaged products. Although none were ideal, they found that ReaLemon lemon juice from concentrate and True Lemon crystallized lemon juice both were acceptable.

A news organization did a taste test among five of their staff where they used fresh lemon juice or one of the substitutes in seltzer water. Only two of the five correctly identified the cup with fresh squeezed juice. However, the fresh juice was preferred for flavor overall.

The other consideration is the ingredient list. For fresh lemons, there is only one ingredient – fresh lemon juice. I looked at the ingredient list for different brands of lemon juice products at my local market. This is what I found and it should help guide you if wish to buy one of these products.

Kroger —lemon juice concentrate (water, lemon juice concentrate), sodium metabisulfite (preservative), lemon oil, sodium benzoate (preservative)

Italia —lemon juice, lemon oil, potassium metabisulfite as a preservative

Santa Cruz — organic lemon juice

Lakewood — organic lemon juice

Minute Maid frozen lemon juice – 100% lemon juice from concentrate

Tantillo — lemon juice (99.94%), essential lemon oil (0.12%), potassium metabisulfite (0.06%) (as a preservative)

ReaLemon —lemon juice from concentrated (water, concentrated lemon juice) and less than 2% of sodium benzoate, sodium metabisulfite and sodium sulfite (preservatives), lemon oil

I try to always have fresh lemons available. If kept wrapped in plastic in the produce drawer in the refrigerator, they will last quite a while. Alternatively, zest and juice the lemon and store them separately in the freezer. I am not a fan of the packaged products for dishes in which lemon is a predominant flavor although they can work in a pinch when you only need a small amount.

What about you? Have you ever done a taste test? Which do you prefer?

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Vinegars — so many to choose from

Vinegars are certainly a pantry staple that are used in many different applications. Just as with so many things today, we are often faced with a myriad of choices. Looking at the vinegar shelf at your local supermarket, it can be overwhelming. In this Cooking Tip, let’s delve into this world of vinegars and which ones deserve a space in your pantry. I want to start with some general information about vinegar followed by an explanation of the types of vinegar and ending with recommendations for what to keep in your pantry.

Vinegar is made by turning fermented liquid into acetic acid by adding certain bacteria to the liquid. Acetic acid is important for a couple reasons. As it is a very potent antimicrobial agent, it is a very effective preservative. Acetic acid also contributes two flavor elements to food – an acidic/sour taste and a pungent aroma.

How acidic or tart it tastes depends on the strength, which is defined by the percent of acetic acid. The FDA says it must be at least 4% to be called vinegar. In the US, most industrially produced vinegars are adjusted to 5% acetic acid. Some wine vinegars may by 7% or higher. Mild rice vinegars may be only 4%. Balsamic vinegar is usually about 6% but could be up to 8%. In my supermarket, most of the bottles had the strength listed somewhere on the label.

The Vinegar Institute conducted studies about vinegar’s shelf life and confirmed that it is almost indefinite. According to them, “vinegar is self-preserving and does not need refrigeration. White distilled vinegar will remain virtually unchanged over an extended period of time. And, while some changes can be observed in other types of vinegars, such as color changes or the development of a haze or sediment, this is only an aesthetic change. The product can still be used and enjoyed with confidence.” If you do not like the sediment, you may strain it out.

Red wine vinegar

  • Made from red wine
  • Flavor
    • Very tart with significant grape flavor
    • Hot and robust
  • Uses
    • Marinades for red meat
    • Stirred into hearty stews
    • Tangy vinaigrettes

White wine vinegar

  • Made from white wine
  • Flavor
    • Lighter and more delicate in flavor than red wine vinegar
  • Uses
    • Light pan sauces
    • Marinating poultry
    • A lighter vinaigrette

Champagne vinegar

  • Made from the fermented juice of champagne grapes
  • Flavor
    • More delicate than white wine vinegar but most tasters cannot tell the difference
    • Lighter and less acidic than other wine vinegars
    • Light body, crisp
  • Uses
    • Good base for fruit and herb vinegars
    • Light vinaigrettes

Cider vinegar

  • Made from a base of yeast-fermented apple cider
    • Comes filtered or unfiltered. Filtered has had the cloudy sediment of the “mother” (bacteria from an established vinegar) removed. Cooks Illustrated tasters thought the unfiltered was more complex when tasted from the bottle. This preference continued in light pan sauces but the differences were minimal in stronger preparations such as BBQ sauce.
  • Flavor
    • Medium sharp vinegar with a very fruity quality
    • Tastes like hard apple cider
    • Mellow and slightly sweet
  • Uses
    • Use as wine vinegars but especially in salads with apples, pork marinades and braised pork dishes
    • Glazes, slaws, sauces

Fruit vinegar

  • These are made in one of two ways.
    • Many are just ordinary vinegars that are infused with macerated fruit or fruit purees.
    • True fruit vinegars are made by fermenting fruit juice into wine and then letting it mingle with acid.
  • Flavor – dependent on the fruit
  • Uses
    • Fruity vinaigrettes
    • Drizzle over grilled fruit

Malt vinegar

  • A dark colored vinegar made from ale (cereal grains, sprouted barley)
  • Flavor
    • Mellower than many vinegars
    • Nutty and toasty
  • Uses
    • Fish/chips
    • Potato dishes

Rice vinegar

  • Made from fermented rice, aka rice wine
    • Same as rice wine vinegar, but NOT rice wine
    • Comes seasoned (added salt/sugar) and unseasoned
  • Flavor
    • Prominent in Asian cuisines and is slightly different depending on where it is made
    • Mild, barely sweet flavor
  • Uses
    • Since this is the least sharp vinegar, it is very versatile
    • The seasoned variety is used for seasoning sushi rice, but the unseasoned variety is used for most other purposes.
    • Marinades, seasoning cooked veggies, dressing salads

Distilled white vinegar

  • In the US, this is made from grain alcohol (ethyl alcohol) and is among the purest form of acetic acid.
  • Flavor
    • This is the cleanest, sharpest and cheapest vinegar.
    • It is flavorless except for the acidity.
  • Uses
    • Great for cleaning
    • Pickling veggies
    • Not recommended for other culinary uses

Balsamic vinegar

Balsamic vinegar could be an entire Cooking Tip on its own. I am going to greatly simplify it for the purposes of this Vinegar Tip. There are different types of balsamic vinegar ranging from the very expensive, traditionally-made balsamic to what we call “imitation balsamics”.

The traditional is made only from grape musts, which are freshly crushed grapes. It is cooked down to a syrup and aged in wooden barrels for a minimum of 12 years. It is very dark, thick, sweet and meant to be more of a condiment than a cooking ingredient.

Supermarket balsamics are made from grape must and wine vinegar. These are meant for everyday use. Although it may have a nice taste, it will not be as complex as the traditional product. If the first ingredient listed is the vinegar, it will be more on the tart side. If grape must is the first ingredient, it will be mellower and sweeter. If “grape must” is not listed as an ingredient, it will be a much lower-end product.

Cooks Illustrated recommends a “hack” to improve the flavor of a cheaper balsamic. Combine 1/3 cup balsamic, 1 Tbsp sugar and 1 Tbsp port in saucepan and simmer until reduced by half. In a taste test, most could not tell the difference between this and the high-end balsamic vinegar.

White Balsamic

  • This is a milder version of red balsamic. It is created by cooking white Trebbiano grapes, at a higher pressure and lower temperature. This prevents caramelization and allows the vinegar to retain a pale, golden color.
  • While similar to red balsamic, white balsamic is milder and less-sweet. It also does not impart color to the dish.

Sherry vinegar

  • Made from sherry wine although the grapes may differ, giving a different flavor profile. All sherry vinegar is fermented in oak barrels for at least 6 months, Reserva is aged for 2 years and Gran Reserva for a minimum of 10.
  • Flavor
    • Acetic acid concentration can reach 10%.
    • The flavor is warm, toasty, nutty and less sweet than balsamic.
  • Uses – It is great for pan sauces and Spanish dishes.

Herb vinegar

These are actually infusions. Highly aromatic herbs like tarragon, sage, rosemary or basil are added to light-flavored vinegars and set aside to steep for 3-4 weeks before discarding the herbs. They add fresh flavor to salad dressings and marinades.

What you keep in your pantry somewhat depends on your taste and cooking style. However, you will want, at a minimum, the following multi-purpose vinegars.

  • Wine vinegar – red and/or white
  • Cider vinegar
  • Rice wine vinegar

You may want to consider a good balsamic and possibly a sherry vinegar, as there are really no substitutes for these.

The remainder of the vinegars are fine to have in your pantry but are not necessary and either can be replaced by one of the multi-purpose vinegars or have a very limited use.

What vinegars do you have in your pantry? Which ones do you use the most? Some of the specialty vinegars are fun to play with but you certainly do not need them.