Monday, June 17, 2013

Bringin' the heat

I  know what you’re thinking; you’re thinking “oh no, they let this guy back on the internet”. Sorry about your luck folks, but I’m back.

I’m going to start out the actual cooking portion of my cooking blog with something that is a major stumbling block for a lot of people: spices.

Spices are a great way to enhance any dish, and they’re also a quick way to make something inedible. I’ve found the best way to initially discover which spices work with which dishes is to look up multiple variations of whatever dish you are thinking of making and taking note of which spices are in all or at least most of the recipes. After a while you will develop a working knowledge of which spices work well with which foods and which work well together.

Remember that different spices are used different ways. Things like garlic, oregano and black pepper are just added into dishes while other things such as star anise or cardamom pods need to be removed from the food before it is consumed or you risk someone biting into them which could potentially be dangerous. Spices can also be used on food instead of in food as in a dry rub on ribs or chicken before you cook them. So always look into the proper method of using the spices before you use them.

The first thing most people need to know about spices is that less is more. You can always add more to a dish if it needs it, but you cannot take it out once it’s put in. We’ve all--at some point--had a dish that tasted like the contents of a used diaper, because your Aunt Gertrude doesn’t know how much curry she should put on her meatballs. So add your spices in small amounts and taste your foods frequently. Another aspect of this rule is to not use too many types of spices in one dish. Eventually they will just end up fighting each other and will ruin the taste of the food.

Secondly, learn which spices give which effect to your food and in which way. Oregano, basil and thyme are all “earthy” spices but they all give their own flair to food. Chilies and peppers both give heat to food but each does it a different way and with a different flavor. Using one spice in place of another can detract from the overall effect of your meal.

Now that I’ve said that all that, the third rule of thumb is to not be afraid of spices. It is way too easy to just get into the habit of using the old standard garlic, salt and pepper on everything. This is a wonderful strategy if the desired effect is to have boring salty food night after night. Again, the internet is your best friend when trying to figure out which spices work best with which foods. Try looking up recipes or just lists of spices and how to use them. I personally bought a book called “The Spice and Herb Bible” which has pretty much every spice known to man in it with explanations of the spices and examples of how to cook with them. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys cooking.

I think there are a few spices that no kitchen should be without. Here is a short list of what I think are the must have spices:

Seasoning Salt – I am not a fan of regular white salt and rarely salt anything, but when I do I use seasoning salt due to its extra flavor. I pretty much only use this on grilled meats like steak or burgers or in tiny amounts in sauces if they need a touch of salt after preparing them. In my opinion, white salt should be reserved for baking only.

Garlic – Garlic is a delicious relative to the onion that adds a wonderful flavor to a wide variety of dishes. I use it both in fresh form or as a dried powder. In its fresh form I finely mince it and cook it down in whatever dish I am preparing. Usually in fresh form I use it in pasta sauces, chili, soups or other “saucy” dishes and on grilled vegetables. I use the powder form in burgers, meatballs, on steaks or in dry rubs. Be careful not to overdo it, a little goes a long way and a lot can ruin a great meal.
Oregano, Basil and Marjoram – I call them the Holy Trinity of pasta sauce. They add a wonderful earthy flavor to whatever you put them in whether you use fresh or dried varieties of each. Outside of sauces I enjoy putting them in burgers and meatballs or in soups to add a depth of flavor. They are also very commonly found in a wide variety of sausage.

Black Pepper – Probably the most versatile spice in any cupboard, black pepper can literally be put in virtually any dish and in small amounts will make almost anything better. It can be put in food or on them when they’re grilled.

Smoked Paprika – A recent addition to my repertoire, smoked paprika is now in my favorite spices. It adds a terrific sweet and smoky flavor to things like burgers or chili and can be put in virtually anything. Use it sparingly though as it can overpower easily.

Dry Mustard – Another recent addition for me, I’ve found dry mustard to be very helpful in adding a serious depth of flavor to a wide variety of dishes. It is useful in marinades and sauces or anything that needs a bit of a kick like pulled pork. 

I think that’s enough for now, here is this week’s recipe

Boston Baked Beans

2 Cups Navy Beans                                                   ½ Tsp Black Pepper
1 Pound Bacon                                                          ½ Tsp Dry Mustard
1 Med Onion Chopped                                              ¾ Cup Ketchup
6 Tbsp Molasses                                                        2 Tbsp Worcestershire Sauce
2 Tsp Salt                                                                   ½ Cup Brown Sugar

  1. Soak beans overnight in cold water. Simmer the beans in the same water until tender (1-2 hours). Drain and reserve liquid.
  2. Preheat oven to 325 F
  3. Put beans, bacon and onion in pot.
  4. In a saucepan, combine molasses, salt, pepper, mustard, ketchup, Worcestershire and brown sugar. Bring to a boil and pour over beans. Add enough of bean water to just cover the beans. Put lid on dish.
  5. Bake 3-4 hours until beans are tender. Remove lid halfway through cooking and add more bean water as needed to prevent beans from getting dry.

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