Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Flavor Profile: Spices

Spices are next in the series of Flavor Profiles. A broad term, I know, as it covers a vast array of them, and that being the case I can only focus on a few. Since I am a huge fan of Indian cuisine, it is no surprise then that some of my favorite spices are cinnamon, ginger, cumin, and turmeric. (I left out the obvious curry powder because that is really a spice blend and I will be covering dry rubs and spice blends in my next Flavor Profile.)

Like most spices, cinnamon has been known since antiquity. The Old Testamant makes mention of the spice many times. It was so highly priced among ancient nations that it was regarded as a gift for monarchs. Cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka and was imported to Egypt as early as 2000 BC. Arab traders brought the spice via overland trade routes to Egypt, where Venetian traders held a monopoly on it until the Portuguese, Dutch and finally the British got in on it. For a long while, the origins of this spice were a mystery fierecely guarded by the spice merchants so as to protect their monopoly. Cinnamon is obtained from the inner bark of the cinnamon tree. The branches are scraped of the outer bark then beaten with a hammer to loosen the inner bark. The inner bark is then laid out in sheets and cut into strips. These strips curl into rolls (or "quills") upon drying. Cinnamon is used in Mexico for the preparation of chocolate. Though used mostly in sweets it is also found in savory dishes with chicken and lamb, particularly in the Middle East.  Persian cuisine uses cinnamon quite frequently in thick soups. In some curry mixes, it is also added. Cinnamon has been reported to be a cure for colds, aid as a blood sugar regulator for those with diabetes or other blood sugar disorders, it is an antioxidant, and an insect repellant.

Ginger is native to southern Asia and has long been a staple to Asian cuisines as well as to Caribbean Islands. It was popular during the Roman Age, but upon its collapse it all but disappeared. It was Marco Polo's trip to the Far East that brough ginger back to Europe and it was Queen Elizabeth I of England who is credited with the invention of the gingerbread man. Ginger is a tuber and its flavor also works well with either sweet or savory dishes, though most of us know it for its lively addition to savory dishes. It grows in tropical areas of the world and is therefore prevalent in the cuisines of those areas. It is well known that ginger tea can aid indigestion and treat nausea. Ginger can also be pickled, made into candy form, or used dried in teas and powdered form.

Cumin was originally cultivated in Iran and the Mediterranean region, where the Greeks kept cumin at the dining table much like we do with pepper today. This practice continues in Morocco. During the Middle Ages, cumin fell out of favor in Europe except in Spain and Malta but was introduced to the Americas by Spanish and Portuguese colonists. Superstition during the Middle Ages cited that cumin kept chickens and lovers from wandering and in Germany it was carried by both bride and groom at the wedding. In Europe cumin's cousin caraway was more commonly used and is found in everything from sauces to bread. You can find cumin in Indian, Pakistani, No. African, Midle Eastern, Sri Lankan, Cuban and northern Mexican cuisines. Cumin has a distinctive flavor and strong warm aroma which helps add an earthy and warming feeling to cooking, making it a staple in certain stews and soups, as well as curries and chili.

Turmeric is a relative to ginger and is also native to tropical regions of the world, particularly South Asia. The rhizomes of the plant are boiled for several hours and then dried in hot ovens, after which they are ground into a deep orange-yellow powder commonly used as a spice in curries, to dye fabrics and to impart color to mustard condiments. It has a distinctive earthy, slightly bitter, hot peppery flavor and mustardy smell. In medieval Europe is became known as Indian Saffron as it was used an an alternative to the more expensive saffron. Turmeric is a key ingredient for many Persian, Indian, Thai and Malay dishes. It is also used to give a yellow color to prepared mustards, canned chicken broth and other foods. It is sometimes added to rice for color. Turmeric also has many medicinal properties and is used for cuts, burns and bruises. It is antibacterial, and aids stomach problems. It is also currently being investigated for possible benefits for Alzheimer's disease, cancer, arthritis and other disorders.

Some of these spices you may already be using in your cooking. I did not use ginger, cumin or turmeric much in my early cooking years, simply because they were sort of foreign to me, and I didn't really understand how to use them. Part of the fun of cooking is experimenting. I like to buy something I've never used before and see where it takes me. The only trouble is that spices shouldn't be held onto for too long. A year seems to be the recommended length of time to keep them. Any longer than that and they really start to lose their punch and should be replaced. Here are some tips to remember about spices:

• Ground spices release their flavor more quickly than whole spices. Ground spices such as ground thyme or ground cumin can be used in recipes with short cooking times or can be added near the end of cooking for longer cooking recipes.

• Whole spices need a longer time to release their flavor. They work well in longer cooking recipes like soups and stews.

• To double a recipe, increase spices and herbs by one and one-half, TASTE and then add more if necessary. In most recipes one and one-half times the seasoning will be sufficient to provide desired flavor.

• Spices such as fennel seed, cumin seed, sesame seed and white peppercorns may be toasted to intensify their flavors. Simply add the spice to a dry, non-stick, heated skillet and heat until aromatic.

• Whole spices and seeds may be best ground using a small electric coffee grinder or spice mill. A pepper mill or mortar and pestle may also be used.

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