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Herbs and Spices

March 14, 2010

I don’t think it’s a dirty little secret that I have two spice drawers in my small kitchen. I’m always amazed how adding a shake of this or a pinch of that to an otherwise “not quite right” dish can make it fab-u-lous. A while back a friend of mine was asking advice about the taste of some chili she had made. It was ok, but kind of bland. I asked her if she had some cumin but when she took it out I saw that it was an off-the-shelf plastic container. So I ran home and grabbed jars of cumin, coriander, ground chili, cinnamon, clove and some cocoa powder. I doctored that pot of chili up in no time thanks to the magical powders in those jars.

I get my herbs and spices at The Spice House in Evanston. They have several other shops or you can order on line, as my nephew/chef Tim in Texas does. Shopping in this store is like letting a kid loose in a penny candy store. Ground fresh daily and sold by the ounce, the quality in unmatched and costs much less than supermarket spices. They carry a great selection of salts and blends they have crafted and cleverly named to match the flavor profiles they represent. Through great labeling and a very educated sales staff, I’ve learned the subtle differences between Vietnamese “Saigon” Cassia, China Tung Hing Cassia and True-Ceylon cinnamon and when it’s best to use Dutch processed versus natural cocoa. When I’d read a recipe with fennel pollen this is where I found it. And WOW was it good. I brought my office to their knees when I brought in a jar of truffle salt, with pieces of white and black truffle in it, crazy good on popcorn with a little melted butter and white truffle oil. 

Taken from Wikipedia,  I thought this was interesing and concise.

A spice is a dried seed, fruit, root, bark, leaf, or vegetative substance used in nutritionally insignificant quantities as a food additive for the purpose of flavour, colour, or as a preservative that kills harmful bacteria or prevents their growth.

Many of these substances are also used for other purposes, such as medicine, religious rituals, cosmetics, perfumery or eating as vegetables. For example, turmeric is also used as a preservative; liquorice as a medicine; garlic as a vegetable. In some cases they are referred to by different terms.

In the kitchen, spices are distinguished from herbs, which are leafy, green plant parts used for flavouring purposes. Herbs, such as basil or oregano, may be used fresh, and are commonly chopped into smaller pieces. Spices, however, are dried and often ground or grated into a powder. Small seeds, such as fennel and mustard seeds, are used both whole and in powder form.

Happy Sunday nighthope you’ve enjoyed week one of my musings on food.


5 Comments leave one →
  1. Barbara permalink
    March 14, 2010 9:35 pm

    Ummm. Would that friend be ME??
    As I recall, for my birthday that year you bought me some amazing spices from the Spice House!!
    Though I still have plastic bottles and tins of spices in the cabinet, the Spice House ones are SO much better.

    • March 15, 2010 5:33 am

      It is, and I hope you don’t mind me telling your spice story…I withheld names to protect the innocent 🙂

  2. Jacqueline permalink
    March 15, 2010 8:10 pm

    Hi Amy. I used Spice House cinnamon to make my first batch of killer homemade cinnamon ice cream last week. Quite amazing, and nothing at all like the “Red Hot” flavored stuff you get commercially. Even more fabulous paired with a scoop of the fresh peach ice cream I made the day before. Next I’ll go to Spice House for cinnamon sticks and see how much better it can get.

    • March 15, 2010 8:16 pm

      Cinnamon ice cream sounds great… will you share your recipe? I find something new to try each time I go to The Spice House, and love their staff.

      • Jacqueline Allen permalink
        March 16, 2010 12:36 pm

        I researched 5 cinnamon ice cream recipes & tried to make the best combination for my taste. Some looked too sugary, some too eggy, and some used cinnamon stick for which I had to approximate a powder measurement. In the end you have to go by personal taste and make adjustments as needed (e.g., if you cut down on egg and sugar, as I did, then increase the ratio of cream to milk so it doesn’t get icy.)This was my first attempt so I’ll keep experimenting, but it’s already very good.

        HERE’S WHAT I USED, and it was a huge it with everyone:

        1 2/3 c. whole milk (if you make your own, you can use lactose free!)
        4 oz + 2 tsp. sugar (regular or “extra fine”)
        1 c. whipping cream (I used regular, you can use part “heavy”)
        1 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
        Dash of salt
        5 lg. egg yolks (can use 6)
        1/4 tsp vanilla extract(Optional. Taste cold custard before adding this.)


        1) Combine milk, 4oz. sugar, cream, cinnamon & salt in heavy saucepan. Heat to almost simmering, stirring frequently.

        2) In large bowl, whisk egg yolks & 2 tsp. sugar. Gradually whisk in hot milk mixture.

        3) Return custard to saucepan & cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until custard thickens & coats back of spoon. DON’T BOIL or the egg will curdle. Candy thermometer takes the stress out of guessing: heat to 180-185 degrees MAX, then take pot off burner to stop temp from rising further.

        4) Allow mixture to cool some, then place in a covered container in fridge until really cold. (Overnight recommended, I was eager so I just waited until cool to the touch.)

        5) Stir in vanilla, if you like. It’s kind of refreshing w/o the vanilla, but obviously vanilla has it’s own charms. I split the difference and just used a tiny bit. (Note: Always add vanilla to custard after cooking. Heat makes it lose flavor. Also, as w/spices, fancier extracts have more interesting flavor–I used Cook’s South Pacific [Madagascar] vanilla.)

        6) Process in ice cream maker, about 25 min. You can serve directly if you want it the texture of soft-serve. Or, if you want it harder and can stand to wait, place in covered container in fridge for several hours to harden up.

        Expands a little as it freezes. Makes about 4 cups.

        1) Make sure your ice cream maker bowl is thoroughly frozen before using. Shake it to be sure there’s no unfrozen liquid. I put mine in the freezer overnight to be sure.
        2) If you put the ice cream in the freezer to harden, it can get really hard. Helps to let it thaw a bit in the fridge before serving. Also can taste a tad icy if served too cold. More fat & sugar makes ice cream less prone to iciness, but that’s a tradeoff. e.g., gelato has intense flavor partly because it is low fat, and has to be served fairly warm accordingly.
        3) If you want to be more ambitious and possibly even more delicious, you can substitute about 3+ cinnamon sticks & maybe 1/2 vanilla bean for the powder & extract. You break up the sticks, slice open & scrape out the bean, & put all of it in the milk as it heats. If you do that, you need to strain the custard to remove the pieces of stick and pod. In addition to flavor, using cinnamon sticks instead of powder might make texture more refined, and vanilla bean also gives nice appearance of dark vanilla flecks from the paste inside the bean. But really, it is easy and delicious to use the ready made ingredients.

        My whole family loved this, especially alongside fresh peach ice cream. (Like cobbler a la mode.) Would also go well with apple pie or other fruit desserts. Let me know how you like it!

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