Wouldn't it be nice if we could solve all our problems with spices? Maybe that's a little too optimistic, but every day there are more reasons to season. Spices enhance our health in addition to delighting our senses (and recipes). We can appreciate table salt and black pepper as truly basic, so it is time well spent to open our eyes and noses to the world of spices beyond these two standards.
Initially, every culture used their native plants and herbs for their spices, but as people began to move around the world, they took their spices with them. Often spices were blended together to create more complex sensations. This is common in curries, which makes every batch unique.
Buck’s Fifth Avenue in downtown Olympia features a world of spices packed into its cozy space. Curry blends have names such as Jamaican, Hot Madras, African and Vindaloo. You can have your own blend mixed on site. The shelves are lined with bottles and jars of dried lemons and limes, leaves, spice mixtures and tools of the trade, including the ever popular coconut grater. Longtime owner Anne Buck revels in the possibilities within the walls of her business and is happy to measure out exactly the amount a person wants. You are not required to buy a whole bottle of anything. Her business motto is to be your ultimate source for impossible-to-find ingredients and culinary tools. As far as service goes, a coconut grater was once personally delivered to a customer in Samoa.
Yes, it is great to spice up your soup or cookies, but spices are more valuable than that. Some studies now indicate that certain spices have anti-inflammatory properties, may curb hunger and boost metabolism. They typically contain no fat or sugar, adding virtually zero calories to a dish. You just get more flavors.
Let’s look at a few spices you likely have at home already. Cinnamon, which comes from the bark of a tropical tree, is used in both sweet and savory dishes. It is thought to improve circulation and help lower the level of blood sugars, among other healthful properties.
Cloves, cardamom, ginger and cumin, all fragrant and warming, can be made into teas, too.
Cloves, which contain eugenol, can ease arthritis symptoms. It also makes a great mouthwash.
Ginger relieves nausea.
These spices are mixed for many Indian dishes. Two such recipes are featured today. This first is for Fragrant Basmati Rice and the second for Red Lentil Dhal.
Dhal, also spelled dal, dahl and daal, uses dried beans or lentils (pulses) to make a thick stew which usually is eaten with rice and vegetables.
Both recipes use spice combinations with an Indian flair, and you can adjust the spices to suit your tastes. Before you automatically discard one spice because you have not liked it in the past, may I suggest that you keep it in the blend – as sometimes the synergistic effects of the multiple flavors together are greater than an individual spice alone.
A visit to the spice emporium will charm your senses.
Buck told me that “most of my customers are men,” but she will share her tips with any interested chef.
Spices can light up your eggs or mashed potatoes; they can be used to marinate meat or sprinkle on popcorn.
Spices are for stews and cakes, risotto and mulled wine. Maybe the spice of life is spice itself. Happy sniffing. Bon appetit.
Mary Ellen Psaltis lives locally and eats globally. You can reach her at TheRecipeWriter@hotmail.com.
Fragrant Basmati Rice
1 cup Basmati Rice
2 tablespoons ghee or oil
Spice Mixture: could include cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, bay leaves, peppercorns, cumin, etc.
2 cups water
Wash and soak rice for about 10 minutes. Heat the oil in a pan and add the spices which allow the flavors to come out and infuse with the oil. Add the rice and stir until all the grains are coated. Add water and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and cook covered until rice is done. Do not stir. It will take about 10-12 (maybe longer) minutes. Fluff with a fork and top with almonds.
Source: The Post Punk Kitchen, http://www.theppk.com/
Red Lentil Dhal
Prep time: 15 minutes, 50 minutes cook time
Yield: Serves 6-8
3 tablespoons peanut oil
1 medium yellow onion
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup dried red lentils
2 tablespoon tomato paste
4-5 cups water or vegetable broth
5 plum tomatoes, chopped
juice of 1 lime
1 cup lightly packed chopped
2 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
6 whole cloves
4 cardamom pods
2 dried red chilies (seeds removed)
One-quarter teaspoon ground cinnamon
In a sauté pan over medium heat, toast the seeds (but not the dried red chili) for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from pan and let cool. Transfer to spice grinder, along with the dried red chili and cinnamon, and grind to a fine powder.
Over medium-high heat oil a soup pot, add onions and sauté for 5 minutes. Add garlic and ginger and sauté 5 more minutes. Add spices and salt, sauté 5 minutes more.
Add 4 cups of water and stir to deglaze the pot. Add tomato paste and lentils. Bring to a boil then lower the heat a bit and simmer for 20 minutes.
Add the tomatoes, lime juice and cilantro and more water if it looks to thick. Simmer 10 more minutes, or until lentils are completely tender.
Chef's Note: Toasting and grinding your seeds is absolutely worth the effort and doesn’t take long at all. Serve this dhal as a main dish with rice or as a side dish. It is aromatic and delicious.