Katie Learns to Cook: Chapter 7 – Kitchen Staples (pt 1) See also, curry powder.

August 19, 2012

Time for another Sunday of Katie Learns to Cook! This week I have a massive chapter of “Kitchen Staples”.  And by massive, I mean 40+ pages of herbs, spices, nuts, oils, vinegars, condiments, plus learning how to prepare and serve quality coffees and teas.  For your sanity and minI’ve opted to split up the chapter into different sections.  So, lets talk herbs and spices!

First up, some vocab   To start, lets talk about the difference between flavoring  and seasoning.

1.  If you season  a dish, you’re adding something to ENHANCE the natural flavors  of the food without actually changing the taste.   Think salt, a little bit of salt can really bring out the flavors of things, even melons.  (Note – a LITTLE bit guys, heavily salting your cantalope will not have good results).

2.  If you flavor  a dish, you’re adding  a new taste, one that potentially changes the natural flavors.  I would think pickling something with vinegar may be a good way to think of this.   A pickle, does not taste like a cucumber.  But its still delicious!

Now lets talk more specifically about those things you can use to season or flavor a dish.  Oils, vinegars and condiments come a little later in the chapter,  so  today we’re going to focus on the herbs and spices.   Do you know the difference?

Herbs is the general title for the group of aromatic plants (aromatic – can enhance the natural aromas of a food).  Generally speaking, the leaves stems or flowers are typically used to flavor a dish and can come in dried or fresh format, fresh being the general preferred format (although I have to say, cooking with fresh rosemary is a pain).

Spices tend to be the bark, roots, buds and berries of aromatic plants and for the most part used in their dried form.    Especially fun are the plants that can give you both an herb AND a spice (Dill!)

Now.  Guys – there were 71 different herbs and spices they covered in this chapter.  71.  But don’t worry, I’m not going to go over them all.  What was most interesting to me was reading about the origins of the herbs and spices and generally what they pair well with.   Truth be told, the spices section, while interesting wasn’t really where I learned things, but it was the spices, the SPICES that I had a few “wait, what?” moments.  Which, if you think about it – is what this whole practice of Katie Learns to Cook  has been all about, right?  So lets talk a little more about spices and I’ll highlight some of those facts that were new to me.

First and foremost, I really enjoyed reading about the general history of spices.  Used as early as 2800B.C., spices have played a part in medicine, therapeutic purposes, cosmetics and of course, food.   The Romans used spices for preservatives and perfumes in addition to everything else.  Because of the long traveling distance to get these spices (a lot are native to China and India, etc), being able to purchase and use spices was a sign of significant wealth.   Exploration of the New World brought new exposure to foods, like chiles, tomatoes, potatoes and the delicious chocolate and vanilla flavors.  Can you imagine life without it?   By the 19th century, trading companies made monopolization of spices impossible and the cost of spices dropped significantly.  Although I would argue they’re still some of the more expensive things you can buy.

There are a lot of neat little facts in this chapter about specific spices and I’d like to highlight those for you now.  For instance, did you know that most commercial chile powders are actually a combination of spices that include oregano, cumin, garlic and others?   Or how about cinnamon?    Cinnamon happens to have a flavor cousin, cassia   ,  which is also cheaper.   Because laws do not require that labels distinguish between the two, chances are when you buy ground cinnamon here in the US, what you’re ACTUALLY getting is Cassia.   Now I’m curious, I have a grinder of “Saigon Cinnamon chips” and a container of “ground cinnamon”.  It’d be nice to think that my grinder contained real cinnamon and not cassia chips instead.  But who’s to say?

Lets  move away from individual spices and talk for a bit about herb and spice blends.  I SWEAR by some of the spice blends that I get from Penzeys.  I love supporting my local spice guy from home, but since we don’t get up there very often and my brother is conveniently located up the street from one of their stores, I make do (my favorite, btw are their Italian sausage spice mix and Turkish Spice mix – ahem…hint hint brother?).    While I was reading through the different mixes, I recognized a few of the names (Chinese Five Spice Powder, Garam Masala, Herbes de Provence etc., etc.,) and I came across Curry Powder.  Now.  Here is where I get to show my absolute ignorance of the culinary field.  And I hang my head in shame as I say this.

I thought curry powder was ITS OWN INDIVIDUAL SPICE.  So naturally, I did a double take, flipped back through the spice pages and and did not find curry.   I read the description of  “typical ingredients” that included black pepper, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, ginger, mace and tumeric.  But NO CURRY.   I admit.  I stormed into the kitchen and much to the annoyance of my husband, interrupted the brewing process so I could search through my spice cabinet for the last tin of commercial curry that we have (we’ve since bought from the spice guy up in Lancaster).  Sure enough.  “INGREDIENTS:  Coriander seeds, Tumeric, Chillies, Salt, Cumin seeds, Fennel seeds, Black Pepper, Garlic, Ginger, Fenugree, Cinnamon, Cloves, Anise and Mustard. ”

You guys.  Was I the only one who didn’t know this (stop laughing, Nik)?  APPARENTLY curry powder is a European invention that the Brits brought back from their colonial India.  The spice mix was meant to be the complete set of flavors for the ever popular “curry dish”.  There are different types, like mine – the Madras Curry, which is a spicy/hot curry style or the Bombay/Chinese style curry, which is more mild and sweet.

I don’t mind saying it.  My world is UPSIDE DOWN TODAY.    And if I ever questioned why the heck I was doing all of this “self-learning” thing, well….curry powder has reminded me.

Seriously.  Did everyone else know this already?



ps – now I really want some curry.

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