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COOKING WITH SPICES AND SEEDS
Cooking with Spices and Seeds
Centuries ago, spices were the treasures of kings, as much cherished and sought after as gold. Today, you don’t have to sail the Seven Seas to find them-they’re available at your supermarket. What are spices, exactly? Most consist of the seeds, shells, buds, fruit or flower parts, bark or roots of plants that grow in the tropical regions of the world.
If you want to crush or blend the seeds of spices, use a mortar and pestle, spice grinder or small electric grinder. Some cooks like to toast spices and seeds because toasting intensifies the flavor. Spices that are good for toasting include cumin, coriander, fennel seed, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon sticks and mustard seed. To toast, spread a thin layer of spice or seed in an ungreased skillet, and shake or stir over low heat. Watch so they don’t burn! When the aroma really strengthens, take the skillet off the heat and pour out the spice or seed. Let it cool, then store in a container with a tight-fitting lid.
Tips for Seasoning Mixes
– Seasoning mixes and rubs are highly concentrated blends of dried herbs and spices that flavor the outside of the food as it cooks.
– Store seasoning mixes tightly covered in a cool, dry place for up to 6 months. After 6 months, they begin to lose their flavor or the flavor may actually change.
– Rubs, a dry or wet concentrated blend of spices, are a great way to give food more flavor than just sprinkling it with seasoning. Start by moistening poultry, meat or vegetables with a little vegetable or olive oil or even water. Then rub a seasoning or mix onto the food. Cook immediately, or for a more intense flavor, cover and refrigerate the food from 1 to 24 hours.
A mixture of dry or wet seasonings rubbed completely over meat, using your fingers, before cooking. Rubs traditionally were used for barbecued meats cooked in dug-out earth pits, where the pitmasters had their own “secret rub.” You can add a rub and immediately cook or grill the food or, for more flavor, cover and refrigerate about 1 hour.
Rubs may contain sugar or salt or even ground nuts. The “wet” seasonings get their name from added liquid, such as oil, mustard and reduced liquids such as wine, mixed with the dry seasonings and creating a paste.
You can easily mix together seasonings from your spice cabinet, or purchase ready-to-use rubs at the super-market. Rubs also can be used to flavor a wide range of dishes such as condiments, soups and stews.
From “Betty Crocker’s Complete Cookbook, Everything You Need to Know to Cook Today, 9th Edition.” Text Copyright 2000 General Mills, Inc. Used with permission of the publisher, Wiley Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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11 Essential Spices for Indian Cooking
One of the things that people find intimidating about cooking Indian food is the vast array of spices used — both whole and ground, which are often combined into complex spice mixes. However, having taught classes on Indian food, I find that as soon as people are able to identify and understand the spices we use, then suddenly they find this cuisine is not as hard to make after all.
Here are the 11 spices I reach for most often when cooking Indian food and how I use them!
Using Indian Spices
Most spices, with some exceptions – notably, nutmeg – are dry-roasted to release their essential oils before being ground into spice mixes. While some spices can be blended using a mortar and pestle, I normally recommend the use of a spice grinder or powerful blender to make sure your mixes are finely ground, especially because some spices, like cassia bark, are very hard and tough to blend down to a fine powder.
There are two kinds of cardamom used in Indian cooking: green and black. Green is the more common variety, used for everything from spice mixes to lassis to Indian desserts. The flavor is light and sweet, with a mild eucalyptus note. Green cardamom can be blended whole when making spice mixes, like garam masala, however when using them in sweets or desserts, you would pop the pod open and lightly crush the fragrant black seeds before using.
Black cardamom, on the other hand, is very powerful and smoky, and needs to be used with a lot of caution. Normally only the seeds would be used, and if using the whole pod, it’s best to pull it out before serving the dish, as it can be very spicy to bite into.
- Cook with cardamom:Lamb Rogan Josh
Clove is a common spice in Indian cooking and its anise notes are easily recognizable in many Indian preparations. The strong, almost medicinal flavor of clove comes from the concentration of essential oils. Cloves are technically flowers, and a lot of their oils are pressed out before they are dried and used in cooking. Cloves can be used whole or blended into spice mixes. They do need to be used with caution, however, as they can tend to overpower more delicate spices.
- Cook with cloves:Kerala Coconut Chicken Curry
3. Cassia bark
Cassia bark is an interesting spice. Also known as Chinese cinnamon, it is a genus of the cinnamon tree. Cinnamon is a little bit different from cassia, and usually differentiated by being called “true cinnamon.” Cassia is cheaper to produce, and the majority of ground cinnamon is actually made from cassia bark. Indians use cassia instead of true cinnamon in their cooking, as it has a milder flavor and can be used in larger quantities.
Cassia can also be used whole or ground in spice mixes. It is easily distinguishable by its rough, tree bark-like texture, and the best way to check for freshness is to rub a little on your fingers. If you can smell a cinnamon fragrance, then the bark is fresh.
If substituting cinnamon for cassia, use less, as the flavor of true cinnamon is more intense.
- Cook with cassia bark:Paneer Mughlai Curry
4. Black pepper
Black pepper is actually native to India, primarily from the Western Ghats and Malabar region. It is a surprisingly hard spice to grow, as it depends on many natural cycles, like a set amount of rainfall, which is why prices for fresh pepper vary a lot.
Like most spices, black pepper needs to be toasted before blending. For the best flavor, however, fresh black pepper can also be ground directly into dishes.
- Cook with black pepper:Indian Chili Chicken
Cumin is used frequently whole and in spice mixes to add a characteristic smoky note to Indian dishes. It can be identified by its distinct ridged brown seeds and intense fragrance. It is sometimes confused with fennel, caraway, and anise seeds, but you can tell the difference by looking at its color (brown, as opposed to green fennel) and taste (smoky, as opposed to a stronger licorice taste).
Cumin is best used freshly ground for the most intense flavor. One thing to keep in mind while dry-roasting this spice is that it burns really easily, and burnt cumin tastes very bitter and will be very noticeable your dish. Toast this spice until your nose just gets a whiff of smoke and fragrance (about 30 seconds max), and then let it cool before blending into mixes.
One of the things that people find intimidating about cooking Indian food is the vast array of spices used — both whole and ground, which are often combined into complex spice mixes. However, having taught classes on Indian food, I find that as soon as people are able to identify and understand the spices we use, then suddenly they find this cuisine is not as hard to make after all. Here are the 11 spices I reach for most often when cooking Indian food and how I use them!