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Spices, page 2


 


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Spices are generally defined as fragrant, aromatic plant products like cinnamon (bark), cloves (flower buds) and pepper (berries/seed). Spices generally do not include the leafy parts of the plant; therefore some plants fall into both categories; herb and spice. The coriander plant has edible leaves used in Southwest and Asian cooking and yet also has edible seeds (coriander seed, classified as a spice) more often used in Indian cooking or in baking, as they have a mildly lemony flavor. This same is true for a variety of plants; dill, fenugreek, anise and mustard, to name but a few.

Spices often come from exotic places; cinnamon from Ceylon, pepper from India, nutmeg from Grenada. The flavors can be so exotic, and some are so homey. Cinnamon. EverHere will begin a list of spices, where they come from, how they might be used.


Nutmeg and Mace   -  Myristica fragans

The nutmeg tree is important in that it provides two spices: nutmeg and mace. The tree is native to Indonesia, and also grown in Malaysia and the Caribbean, particularly Grenada. Nutmeg is the seed or pit of the fruit, while mace is the lacy reddish covering, or aril, surrounding the nutmeg seed. The mace aril is removed and dried, and most often ground into a reddish powder. The mace arils may be broken and sold as “mace blades”, though these are most often found only online. The nutmeg can either be left whole or dried and grated for sale. Nutmeg is best when grated fresh, easily done on any small-holed grater. In its native sites, the available fruit surrounding the nutmeg and mace is used  to make jam or candy.

Nutmeg and mace have similar flavors, with nutmeg having a slightly sweeter and mace a more delicate flavor.  It is most often used in baking cakes cookies or pies, though it is also wonderful in stews, sausages, soups. Holiday eggnog would not be the same without w grating of fresh nutmeg. A little can even enhance the flavors of spaghetti or lasagna recipes.

Mace is sometimes preferred in light colored dishes for the bright orange saffron-like hue.  It is generally used in stuffing, yam dishes and sausages, though it works well in most dishes where nutmeg would be used. Mace is often associated with Fall dishes, but is wonderful at any time.

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Tamarind Paste packaged and unwrapped
Tamarind  - Tamarindus indica

While not actually a spice, this sweet tart fruit is used like a spice to flavor foods all around the world.Tamarind is originally from Africa, around what is the Sudan, today. It grows abundantly in India and the name tamarind comes from the Indian words Tamar Hindi, meaning Indian Date. The tamarind was introduced into Mexico and the Caribbean sometime around the 16th century. The tamarind tree can grow to a height of around 80 feet in its preferred climate. The tree appears feathery, with tiny leaflets down each side of the stems. These leaflets close up at night. The fruit grows as brown pods. The outer casing of the pods is dry and brittle and easily cracked off. The inner fruit is a dark reddish brown, thick, fibrous and very sticky. The fruit encases 1 to 12 glossy brown seeds. It is tart and sour when young, sweetening as the pods ripen.

Tamarind was highlighted in the US when interest in world cuisines and fusion cooking picked up in the later 1990s. The focus was on the pulp used in recipes as a seasoning and flavoring agent.

Tamarind is both sweet and sour at the same time. It is a potent flavor, best used somewhat sparingly unless you are quite accustomed. It is a wonderful addition to any sweet and sour dishes, and is an ingredient in Worcestershire sauce. In Southeast Asian cooking, it is a flavor often combined with such other ingredients as garlic, dried shrimp, coconut and chilies. Pad Thai is one commonly known Thai dish using tamarind.

In India, it is used to make delicious chutney, as well as a Tamarind Rice or South Indian Fish Curry. In the Caribbean islands it is often used in cooking seafood. Small amounts of tamarind paste are used in sauces for dishes containing cassava, chickpeas, potatoes or rice with greens. It can be used to make sweet and sour sauces, mixed into recipes with both sugar and pepper, mixed into barbecue sauces , made into beverages, desserts and candies. One common use for tamarind is in sauces, which gives control of the amount used.

Plain tamarind sauce or paste is available in many places these days, including online. Adding from a teaspoon to many tablespoons of this prepared sauce simplifies making any recipe. It can flavor a marinade for meats. Chicken, beef, pork and lamb are all candidates for a tamarind flavored marinade. The natural acidity can be used in a marinade to tenderize tougher cuts of meat. It can be used in vegetarian dishes, adding wonderful sweet and sour flavors to a vegetable stew. The paste can be cooked into a jam. If making a Caribbean type barbecue sauce with tamarind, some suggested ingredients would be chilies, mango, onion, garlic and a bit of spicy mustard (see my recipe for Mango Tamarind Barbecue Sauce). Sugar may be added to taste. These flavors seem to beg for barbecued chicken.

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Saffron  - Crocus sativus

From 70,000 to 250,000 flowers are needed to make one pound of saffron. The process of picking the 3 tiny stigma of each flower is very labor intensive, making it the costliest spice in the world.  Saffron comes from the autumn crocus, Crocus sativus, grown mainly in lands with a long hot summer.  It grows from Spain to India, two of the main countries that export this spice.  Some of the best saffron in the world comes from Iran and India, but is also found in Egypt, Morocco, and Turkey, among others. It has a penetrating, bitter and highly aromatic taste. A very small amount will produce the most brilliant golden color.

Spices are defined as various strongly flavored or aromatic substances of vegetable origin.  They are usually obtained from tropical plants, and commonly used as condiments. Spices are generally dried roots, bark, buds, seeds or berries. Herbs are generally defined as the leafy parts of a plant used for flavoring. Saffron seems to fall in neither category, but it is grown in tropical places, and is definitely not leafy matter, so is defined as a spice. It is also used as a dye, to scent perfumes and as an aid to digestion.

Probably first cultivated in Asia Minor, saffron was used by all the ancient civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean, the Egyptians and the Romans. Later it was grown in Spain, possibly taken there by Arabs. In the 11th century it reached France, Germany and England. During this time, saffron had great commercial value. Powdered saffron is to be avoided as it is easily adulterated with paprika, turmeric, beets or pomegranate fibers, and even with the tasteless, odorless stamens of the saffron crocus itself. The highest quality saffron is recognized as the deepest in color. Too many yellow stigmas in the mix make it an inferior quality.

The flowers are picked once the petals open, late in autumn.  The stigmas are removed and set to dry. Saffron is easy to use as its strong yellow dye is water soluble. Common saffron substitutes are annatto, safflower or turmeric, though the flavors are far different. My most early memory of saffron was its use in my Grandma’s soup.  The entire house smelled of her soup, with its high saffron note.  At the time, during my childhood, I knew nothing of saffron, or that it was what made Grandma’s soup taste so wonderful. When I discovered saffron on my own, I realized this was what gave her soup that particular flavor and color, and saffron is now a favored spice in my cupboard. 

Some uses for saffron are in breads and buns, giving them a lovely golden color. Use saffron in soups where color and aroma are desired.  It is a key ingredient in Spain’s paella, and also used in France’s bouillabaisse and in risottos of Italy. Saffron is excellent with fish dishes. Obviously, it can be used as a dye, with its strong yellow gold color.  It is an ingredient in some liqueurs, such as chartreuse.  Use your imagination and be creative with its use.  The tiniest pinch is all that is needed.





Saffron
Saffron threads
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