Saturday, July 16, 2011

Put Some Spice in Your Life...

...Or at least in your food.

(But spice in your marriage is also a good thing!)

I wrote this post about a month ago for a guest spot on (Please go check out Lorene's blog.  She's hysterical; I love her writing style and her sense of humor.)  Recently, I've had several friends ask me about cooking with spice and flavor, so I decided to repost this snippet of info.

Transforming Your Meals from "Blah" to "Ta-Da!!"

Good flavor, whether it's from herbs, spices, or other food items, is essential to good cooking.

Becoming comfortable with flavors in the kitchen is like opening my PJ drawer and pulling out my favorite jammie pants.  I know they will be comfortable.  And how do I know this?  Through experience.  I put them on almost every night, and I have confidence that they will not ride up my rear, cut into my muffin top, or squeeze me like a corset.  The same goes when I'm cooking.  I know, through experience, that certain combinations of flavors will yield comforting results:  lemon + garlic, wine + cheese, Nutella + a spoon on a direct path to my mouth.  Which may be why I have a muffin top.  But I digress.

Experimenting with flavors and getting comfortable with different combinations and strengths will create a very firm foundation for your cooking experience.  

Getting the Most Flavor from Basic Ingredients

So, what are basic ingredients?

They are the things you can easily pick up at the store and/or items that are part of your regularly stocked pantry.  (Here's more information on basic pantry staples or a well-stocked pantry.)

Basic stuff like: 
Olive Oil
Parsley (fresh or dried)
Roasted Garlic (so easy to make at home)
Red Pepper Flakes
Parmesan Cheese
Freshly Ground Black Pepper*
Kosher Salt

How about we cook up a little dish that easily employs these {flavorful} ingredients?

Summer Pasta with Roasted Garlic and Lemon

Or how about making a DELICIOUS sauce to pour over sauteed chicken breasts...from...SCRATCH.  Don't freak out on me here if you're not a regular "from-scratch" person.  You will be dancing a little jig in the kitchen when you sample this delectable delight.

Orange-Rosemary Sauce, will you be mine?

Sauteed Chicken with Orange-Rosemary Sauce
Click here for the tutorial, or scroll down for the recipe.

And how about curry?  It's one of those love-it-or-hate-it spices.

I love it.

Curried Chicken Salad, anyone?

Just take four ingredients (chicken, apples, dried apricots, and green onions), make a curry dressing, mix it all together, and VOILA

A healthy, flavorful dinner.
(Here's the tutorial.)

Random Spice Tips:

Switching It Out:  You can successfully substitute dried spices (or herbs) for fresh ones.  Just reduce the amount by about half when applicable.  (Example:  If you're to add two teaspoons of fresh parsley, add about 1 teaspoon of dried parsley.)

And It's How Old?  Herbs and spices do expire, but not necessarily to the point of becoming rotten and rancid.  They will just lose their flavor punch over time.  Do a smell test.  If something that is normally pungent, like cumin, smells rather weak, it might be time to toss it.  Dried herbs, if exposed to moisture, can get moldy, which is really gross.  But generally speaking, I do not switch out my spices every six months as I've heard recommended. 

When To Add It?  To preserve the flavor (and not over-cook it),  I usually add fresh herbs to the pot near the end of the cooking time. 

Freshly Ground Black Pepper:  I'm a huge believer in the noticeable difference between "regular" black pepper and the pepper that is freshly ground.  I use this grinder every single day. 

Kosher Salt:  I use Kosher salt because I love it's texture and it's easy to pinch and toss into my pots as I'm cooking. Chemically, it's the same as finely ground salt.  It's near the regular salt sold at the store.  

Cumin:  I use cumin at least once a week.  We eat a lot of chicken around here, and a generous dash or two always adds just the right umpf to the dish.  I even "doctor" up the boys' mac-n-cheese with it because I want them to get used to different flavors.  No complaints have been lodged to date.

My adoration for cumin is so well known that I received this as a birthday present last week:
My favorite spice from my favorite grocery store:  HEB in Texas.  
I love it that my friends know me so well. 

I could go on and on about spices, flavors and cooking in general.

But my "you're talking way too much" alarm is going off in my head.

So I'll wrap it up now.

Here are a few of the recipes I mentioned above.

Summer Pasta with Roasted Garlic and Lemon
Serves 4-5 

1 pound pasta (I used bow-tie [Farfalle]), cooked according to package instructions
2 heads roasted garlic (this is about 15-20 cloves)
2 tablespoons olive oil
Juice of half a lemon (about 2-3  teaspoons)
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley (that's a small handful of leaves); substitute 1 tablespoon dried
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (use more or less if desired)
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Place prepared pasta in a large bowl.  Add remaining ingredients and mix well.  Serve hot or cold.

Sauteed Chicken Breasts with Orange-Rosemary Sauce
Serves 4

3 boneless chicken breasts, skin removed and sliced in half lengthwise
1/2 cup of flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil (divided)
1 large shallot, chopped into thin slices and separated into rings
1 cup orange juice
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 teaspoons fresh rosemary, minced (or substitute dried rosemary)
2 teaspoons zested orange peel
salt and pepper to taste

To saute the chicken:
Cut chicken breasts in half.  Pound lightly with a mallet and then pat dry with a paper towel.  Mix salt and pepper with the flour.  Place flour mixture on a large plate.  Dredge the meat in the flour (just lightly pat the meat into the flour, coating it on all sides).  Discard flour and set meat aside.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in large skillet over medium-high heat.  Carefully sprinkle a drop of water in the oil.  If/when it sizzles, the oil is hot enough. 

Add the chicken to the skillet, being mindful to not crowd the pan.  Saute the chicken in two batches if you need to.  But use the same pan to cook both batches of chicken if you will make the sauce.  

Saute chicken about 3-5 minutes on one side.  Then gently "pry" it up from the pan with a large spatula, flip it, and saute it for another 3-5 minutes.  (Don't flip the chicken too soon.)  If you are concerned that the chicken isn't done, cut into a piece.  Once chicken is done, remove it to a clean plate and cover with foil to keep it warm.

To make the sauce:
Add the remaining tablespoon of olive oil to the skillet.  (DO NOT WASH THE PAN OUT AFTER YOU SAUTE THE CHICKEN.)  Saute the shallot over medium heat, stirring frequently, until it begins to turn brown, about 4-5 minutes. 

To deglaze the pan, pour in the orange juice.  Then add the mustard, brown sugar, and rosemary.  Increase the heat to medium-high and whisk very well, intentionally scraping up the brown bits that are stuck to the bottom of the pan.  Cook and whisk for 5-7 minutes or so, until the sauce begins to "reduce" and darken in color.  (It will be thick and bubbly.)  Add in the orange peel and cook for a minute more.  Add salt and pepper to taste (be sure to use that tasting spoon!). 

Pour sauce over chicken breasts and serve. 

Recipe adapted from here.

Curried Chicken Salad Wrapped in Swiss Chard
Serves 4-5 as an entree

1 pound skinless, boneless chicken breasts, sauteed and diced
4-5 dried apricots, diced (that's about 1/4 cup diced)
1 scallion (green onion), sliced (some of the white part, all of the green part)
1 small firm apple (Fuji, Gala, Granny Smith), cored and diced
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt (you can substitute regular plain yogurt)
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
2-3 teaspoons curry powder (to taste)
2-3 tablespoons cup dry white wine

8-10 large leaves* of Swiss Chard (substitute red or green leaf lettuce, large spinach leaves, pita bread, whole wheat tortillas, flatbread, etc.)

In a large bowl, mix together the chicken, apricots, and scallion.  In a small bowl, mix together the diced apple and the lemon juice.  (This will keep the apple from discoloring and will add flavor to the dish.)  Add the apple to the bowl with the chicken.  Set aside.

In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade, add the mayonnaise, yogurt, pepper, salt and 2 teaspoons** of the curry powder.  While the ingredients are processing, add the wine a tablespoon at a time until a smooth consistency is obtained.  Taste.  Add another teaspoon of curry powder if desired.

Pour curry dressing over the chicken/apricot mixture and stir to evenly coat.   Spoon the chicken salad onto a leaf and wrap like a burrito.   Serve wraps immediately or refrigerate the chicken salad (unwrapped) for several hours prior to serving to allow the flavors to fully develop. 

* The amount of leaves you will need to wrap the entire recipe depends on how big the leaves are, how large your want the servings to be, etc.  This number is just an estimate.  The swiss chard leaves I used were very small...but they were from my garden and are not the size typically found in stores. 

**You can start with a smaller amount of the curry powder.  Add it a little at a time until you are happy with the taste.


The Undercover Cook said...

A well stocked spice drawer is happiness! But it is so easy to get in a rut and keep reaching for the same 3 or 4 day after day. The spice I am really liking this month is smoked paprika.

Amy @ Kitchen and Kids said...

I agree with both of you on spices. The right spice can take a dish to the next level. I run across recipes without any spices and I about die. How can you cook without spice? I guess it isn't for everyone. Smoked paprika is a favorite in our household and has been for several years. Today's spice of choice was a Cajun conglomeration for some fish tacos.