Category: Herbs & Spices

Let’s Talk Spices, New on YouTube

One of the things I love to talk about is food history. It’s no secret I’ve spent many, many hours reading and researching where the food comes from.

I got the opportunity in January at the Arizona VegFest to share some food history. I gave this talk on the history of spices, where they come from and why some of them are on our baking racks instead in our savory recipes.

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Following the Spice: Star Anise

We are back on the Spice Road and this time looking at star anise. What makes this licorice tasting spice so popular, even today?

Star anise is a spice that hails from southwestern China. It spread through Indo-China and Japan, ultimately finding its way into Europe and the rest of the world by the late 1500s. It is a medium-sized evergreen tree from the magnolia family. The fruit creates a star shape that can have up to eight points on it. The seeds are contained within this casing. The plant itself is highly decorative and can be grown for its beauty as well as its spice.

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Herbs and Spices Day: Dill is Anything but Dull

June 10th is National Herbs and Spices Day and we are focusing on Dill: a great summer herb that can add a lift of flavor to the dishes you cook. Dill has traditionally been used in pickling (dill pickles) and to delicately season fish, but it has so many other uses.

Dill grows in the early spring and is in season during the summer. The fronds are picked and used as the herb. Usually the root is not used in American cooking. Both the flowers and leaves are edible.

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Many Uses, One Herb: Epazote

Epazote is the preferred herb in Mexican dishes. It adds a certain earthiness to food, providing a balance with flavors like lime and coriander.

Even though I grew up cooking in the Southwest all my life, I had not heard mention of using this plant for cooking. By the time I could reach the stove and stir the pot, my grandmother and other cooking teachers were using Mexican oregano instead of epazote. I heard about this herb (weed) for the first time while working in a country club in the middle of Phoenix. One of the chefs there introduced me and I am forever grateful.

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Following the Spice: Peppercorns

peppercornsWhat is the first thing a person does when a plate of food arrives for consumption? Or after you fill your plate up when it’s “family” style? Reach for the salt and pepper, of course. Most people know where salt comes from, but pepper? What really is in that pepper mill or shaker? We were taught to shake it on our food, but why?

So here’s a little history about pepper and its uses.

Pepper is from India. South India to be exact. Pepper is harvested before it turns ripe and then goes through a process that transforms it into the little black pebbles that are then ground onto your salad.

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Following the Spice: Nutmeg & Mace

Spices. We love them. We use them.

Nutmeg is a small round seed that comes from the inside of an apple looking fruit. It is encased in the “netting” of mace, another spice that has a variety of culinary uses.

Once spices became common and lost their mystique, (sometime between the 18th and 19th centuries) the fragrant and aromatic nutmeg was pushed back into the Bakers rack. After centuries of spicing meats and poultry, it became a base seasoning for desserts.

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Following the Spice: Clove

There’s that jar of cloves that sits on the back shelf of the pantry until winter comes, and baking cookies and cakes and mulling cider begins. Then, suddenly, there’s cloves; the star of the winter season bringing heat and warmth to our food, and our senses. Cloves, along with her sisters, cinnamon and nutmeg and next to ginger and pepper, were valued spices in ancient and medieval times for this reason.

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Following the Spice: Cinnamon

Cinnamon sticks

Cinnamon was always on the shelf in my home growing up. Mom used it for everything from toothaches (just stick it on the gums) to cinnamon sugar on toast. She put it in a variety of dishes, which confused some of my friends and neighbors. Isn’t cinnamon a spice for baked goods? Pastries, apple pies, not spaghetti sauce and meat rubs.

It turns out my mom wasn’t wrong. She was operating on the idea that cinnamon is good for the gut, fights off diabetes, and helps reduce cholesterol. She learned these things from her mother, who learned it from her mother, and so handed down through my family.

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The Power of Cilantro

Cilantro in a glassI’ve been using cilantro in cooking for years. Growing up in the Southwest, it is easily accessible. I’ve always enjoyed the flavor, the smell, and the taste. What I did not know was the considerable health benefits linked to this one plant used as both herb and spice.

Cilantro, also known as fresh coriander and Chinese parsley, has been used in medicine and cuisines around the world for over 5,000 years. Thought to be one of the oldest cooking herbs, traces of the plant have been discovered in tombs in Egypt and an ancient cave in Israel. Cilantro provides a healthy dose of Vitamin K, Vitamin C, and E. Reported health benefits include aiding digestive health and relieving anxiety. There is some research that indicates it can alleviate the food poisoning known as Salmonella. It can act as a preservative that helps prepared foods last longer. Combine it with citrus and the shelf life of salsa and other foods increase by 3-4 days.

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The Golden Spice, Turmeric

Abstract image of Indian tumeric powder from vegetable market.

Turmeric is called the Golden Spice. It is a root, a rhizome of a plant in the ginger family. Turmeric is used as a spice, a coloring, and an healing herb. Its uses date back at least 4,000 years.

Turmeric needs rainy, wet places to grow. Once harvested, it is boiled, dried in ovens, and then pounded into a powder. Once in powder form, it is used in the process of dying fabrics, and in the kitchen as a main ingredient in most curries, and subzies (vegetables).

The health benefits of the active ingredient curcumin are numerous. Its main function is an anti-inflammatory. It also aids in digestion, and is used as an anti-oxidant, destroying free radicals in the system. More research is being done on the benefits of turmeric.

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