Your own Spice Blends will save you time and money and ensure your flavors are truly unique to your own kitchen.
One of my rituals of the new year is to go through my spice/herb shelf and take inventory. I usually have a lot to replenish after the cooking of the holidays, and this is a great time to take stock, refill, and refresh.
While fresh herbs are the first love (and I keep a few pots around the house all winter), dried herbs are the loyal friends on the shelf that keep us happy all year long. Dried herbs are also preferable in such applications as roasting vegetables, because the fresh will tend to burn and get bitter in a long cook. Save them for a last-minute garnish.
But dried herbs that have been around longer than a year should be inspected carefully and given a good “whiff test.” These delicate dried green leaves of the herb plants lose their strength when stored longer than this, and some even start to deteriorate after six months. A few, such as parsley and basil, are notorious for loosing their flavor quickly.
Spices will hold up a little longer if not ground up. Spices include all those parts of the plant that are not leafy greens such as roots, bark, seeds, and dried fruits. Think nutmeg, chilis, cinnamon, cumin seeds, ginger, and peppercorns. When possible, store these before grinding them up and they will last longer. The life of spice is short, so I always try to take care of them!
Both spices and herbs should be stored in air-tight containers out of direct sunlight to keep them fresh. I don’t know why so many spices and herbs are sold in clear bottles, because sunlight and the store lighting can affect their freshness.
If you grow your own herbs in the summer, you will have the freshest possible product to store through the winter. If not, the best bet is the bulk section of your local food co-op or health food store. Even some grocery stores today have bulk food offerings. It is tempting to buy a trash bag full because they are much less expensive this way, but only buy what you can use in a reasonable amount of time, and store them in small containers.
Make it your way!
One of my favorite time savers is to make up my own spice/herb blends. While I love to vary the blend of spices I use when making a curry, if I just need a small amount of curry flavor in a dish, it is handy to grab a jar and measure out just a little rather than dig out a dozen containers. I’m never a fan of the prepared “curry powder” blends, so when I make my own I’m creating a seasoning that I know I’ll be happy with because it’s my own.
However, there are a few commercial seasoning blends I love – Bell’s Seasoning for poultry because it hits a lot of childhood memories, and Old Bay for fish stocks! They always have a place on my shelf, and my husband loves Sun Brand Madras Curry Powder, so that has a little spot there as well.
There are other blends of spices I use frequently – a spicy Moroccan blend, herbes de Provence, Italian seasoning – but I prefer to make these myself. My “House Blend” is a little curry, a little Morocco, and a lot me, and I sprinkle it on stir-fried and steamed vegetables, chicken, rice dishes, and even eggs!
What do you love? Do you have a dry rub that you use on lots of grilled foods? Experiment with what you like the best, and make enough for a few uses. How about a special pizza blend, or a Cajun blend that you absolutely need for your catfish dish. In general, if you frequently find yourself at the spice rack dumping the same four of five spices together, you might have a special blend in your future!
To ready the spices, you can use a spice grinder (or a dedicated old coffee grinder), but I like the work of a mortar and pestle best. First of all, the aroma of the spices as they are crushed is absolutely wonderful, and this is no small gift. The mortar and pestle crushes the spices to just where you want them; a grinder can get away from you, and the tiny little blades cut rather than crush, so you will not get the same release of the oils.
This was the first tool invented by stone-aged ancestors for the preparation of food, and it remains one of the best! Plus, it uses no electricity.
To create your own special blend, measure out the herbs you think you are going to use in a recipe, plus a little more. Then, as you mix the spices and herbs together, write down what you actually used. Taste the dish to double-check, and if you love it, make up a batch in larger amount.
Just don’t forget to write down what you used, you will probably not remember.
In mortar and pestle, or food grinder, crush:
1 tsp. fenugreek seeds, lightly toasted*
1 tsp. cardamom seeds, lightly toasted*
1 tsp. mustard seeds, lightly toasted*
1/4 tsp. cloves
2 tbsp. ground turmeric
2 tbsp. ground cumin
1 tbsp. ground coriander
1 tbsp. ginger
1 tsp. sweet or hot paprika
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. cayenne
Continue grinding until pulverized to the desired consistency and well mixed.
Store in an air-tight container.
- To toast, place in a dry sauté pan over medium-high heat, swirling around for a few minutes until you smell the scent of the seeds toasting. Immediately place in a cold bowl to stop the cooking process.
This Indian spice blend is easily found at local markets and co-ops, all slightly different. But if you want to make your own blend with what you like best, buy the spices in bulk and combine:
- 2 tsp. ground coriander
- 2 tsp. ground cumin
- 2 tsp. ground cardamom
- 2 tsp. ground black pepper
- ½ tsp. ground nutmeg
- ¼ tsp. cloves
Mix these together and store in a tightly sealed container out of direct light
Herbes de Provence Blend
I use this blend frequently on just about everything from potatoes to casseroles. I do not grind up the herbs in this mixture, leaving them as whole as possible. When I use it, I measure out the blend into my hand and crush over the food to release the oils then.
I love the flavor of lavender, as does my family, so I use a lot here. If you are not so sure, start with less and add more if you like. It is traditional to have a little rosemary in this blend, but I think it is easy for the rosemary to take over. Go ahead and put some in, but do so with caution!
1 tbsp. fennel seeds
Gently mix in with:
1 tbsp. thyme
1 tbsp. basil
1 tbsp. summer savory
1 tbsp. marjoram
1 tbsp. lavender flowers (don’t crush these!).
My Favorite All-Purpose House Seasoning
A lot of house seasoning blends use salt and pepper and garlic and/or onion powder. I’m usually using fresh garlic and onion in a recipe, so I don’t need these added to my blend, and I like to add the salt and most of the pepper as I go. But if you want to make a simple blend, combine 4 tbsp. salt, 2 tbsp. black pepper, 1 tbsp. each onion and garlic powder.
My favorite blend uses warmer spices that are anti-inflammatory and absolutely delicious on a wide range of foods, literally from soup to nuts.
1 tbsp. Ground Anise Seeds
1 tbsp. Turmeric
1 tbsp. Sweet Paprika
1 tsp. Ground Cumin
1 tsp. Allspice
1 tsp. Thyme
1 tsp. Ground Mustard
1 tsp. Cayenne Pepper
Have fun with these. Mix them up to whatever proportion you like best. Add more heat, or leave it out altogether.
A friend asked me for this spiced nut recipe this past week, so it got me to thinking about herbs in general, thus this post. Thanks Nancy!
Now, use some of these beautiful herbs for a treat!