From Boring to Beautiful: It's a Snap with Spice

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This guest post was written by type 2 diabetic and chef Ward Alper. It originally appeared on his website, The Decadent Diabetic, and was republished on Information About Diabetes with permission.

This is for those of you who have very full lives and little time or interest in cooking and also have trouble facing that boring piece of baked chicken on your plate night after night after night.

Whether it is fish, chicken, pork or a person, it just takes a little seasoning to be made into a thing of beauty. For those of you with busy lives, that seasoning can even come from a jar.

Dinner from a Jar

The great news is that you don’t have to be an alchemist to create great-tasting meals. There are hundreds and hundreds of spice combinations available for any cook to try. The most well-known example is curry powder. Curry powder is a blend of spices from hot as blazes to mild, and it has been around for centuries.

I have and use a lot of spices in my cooking. But, like any cook, I only stock the spices I use most often. What do you do if you don’t have the space or need for every spice under the sun? There are companies out there that sell spice combinations for every conceivable dish. This year seems to be the year of the rub. You can purchase rub combinations to suit your taste buds from hot to mild. Most of them are delicious.

However, most of them have salt as the first ingredient. The other thing is you have no idea how long they have been on the shelf. Unless a combination is very popular, like curry, it could have been sitting there since the store opened. My advice is always to dig to the back of the shelf for the freshest jar. Better yet, if you have a place that sells spices in bulk, shop there. Not only will they be fresher, but you can buy smaller amounts and they won’t age in your cabinet. In the long run, they actually are cheaper because you throw away less.

Homemade Mixes

If you don’t want to spend the money to buy prepackaged seasoning preparations, and you don’t have one of those cute little spice drawers or racks, or a home garden, you need to figure out which herbs and spices you are going to use most often. A kitchen without salt and pepper is just a room, but you don’t need to own every spice known to man.

The trick is to keep an open mind. Please don’t limit yourself to just one or two choices. If you like Italian flavorings, basil and oregano are key to that region. To expand on that, you can add fennel to your stock pile. You will find that the fennel will also work for French flavorings.

Dried vs. Fresh

Some cooks just go crazy at the very suggestion of using dried herbs. I think that they are a second choice, and if you don’t have a garden in the kitchen, you can still get much of the flavor with the dried. Keep in mind that if you can, fresh is usually the best choice.

However, my personal choice is dried oregano and tarragon over fresh for foods that need cooking. I just think that they taste better (what I call "softer"). I only use those two fresh for cold foods, and much less of the fresh than the dried. Any spice or dried herb that I don’t use often, I like to keep in the freezer. I take out what I need and back it goes. They won’t last forever, but you can extend their freshness span.

Regional Spices

Some recipes call for a lot of different spices. Every region has a flavor sense. The Mediterranean is full of lemony spices like oregano, thyme and basil. The Asian flavors are represented by strong senses like cinnamon, anise, ginger and garlic. Nordic countries seem to favor lighter flavors like dill.

I want to get back to the spice combinations. Even with the space and usage a professional kitchen has, some flavors are just not used that often. If you are preparing a French-style dish, you can mix together those herbs to get a mixture that reminds you of France, or you can just buy a bottle of Herbs de Provence. I am absolutely capable of creating that mixture myself, but a prepackaged Herbs de Provence is faster and easier. In the long run, it is cheaper than to keep all of the separate herbs on hand.

This is also true of Chinese five spice. I don’t use enough of any of the components to keep them on hand individually. A jar of the combination sits in my freezer when the only thing on Earth I want for dinner that night is a Chinese taste.

As a wedding gift, I was given a jar of Greek seasoning. If it was not a gift from two of my food lovin’ friends, I might have left it on the shelf until clean-out-the-cabinet day. The combination is from a family-owned restaurant in upstate New York called Symeon’s. Interestingly enough, I stock all of the spices in the mixture in my kitchen and could just use them. But this mixture has it down pat. So for a “lazy” but absolutely delicious night, I use this combination on steak, pork, chicken or fresh tuna. I can’t do it better.

There are a lot of “family” restaurants that do their own seasoning mixture. If you like the restaurant, it is a good bet that you will like their mixture. If they are willing to share their “secret” with you (like I am) take full advantage.

Decide what flavors you like and keep them on hand. Don’t worry about having everything for a recipe. If the recipe you are making requires something you don’t usually have, look for the smallest amount you can get and get cooking!

Enjoy, be happy, be healthy, be creative, and BE DECADENT!

Click here for three of Ward's Herb and Spice Mixes!

Get more nutrition tips and recipe ideas from Ward Alper, the Decadent Diabetic, on his website.