The Gourmet Garage Cookbook
The Old Basics:Herbs and Spices, Flavor Boosters
Sometimes when we cook, the simple, old basic pointers can make a difference in the end result. How much salt, and when do we put it into the recipe if the instructions read, "Salt to taste"? When do you add spices or fresh herbs for best results? Since peppercorns come in all colors and intensities, which do we use for what? Here is a brief synopsis of some of the rules and techniques we have used in testing the recipes in this book.THE RECIPE INSTRUCTIONSWe have tried to be very exact and specific about our instructions in all the recipes, and we hope they are not daunting. For example, how big is a "large" onion or a "medium" one? Each recipe gives a suggested weight. How do you get all the grit out of mushrooms? Check the cleaning details we've given for each variety. Throughout the book we have also given exact pot and pan sizes for each recipe.And should you come across an instruction that tells you to use a blender rather than a food processor (or vice versa), don't panic if your kitchen boasts just one of those wonderful machines. We prefer to use a blender for a really smooth puree for soups and for fine bread crumbs. A food processor can be substituted, but the texture will be somewhat coarser.SALTOur recipes call for "salt to taste." Professional cooks usually add tiny amounts of salt during each step in a recipe. For example, a bit of salt is added when sautéeingonions or other vegetables, then another after the next ingredient is added, and still another after the next few.If in doubt about the amounts, use less salt and then add more later if you feel it is needed. We use coarse (or kosher) salt because we find it less salty per teaspoon than table salt. If you're using table salt, use only half the amount. However, we do use the finer-grain salt in baking.PEPPERIt was an amazing revelation to us that black peppercorns come from berries that are green and then dried in the sun, while white peppercorns come from berries that have ripened to red, and the skin and fleshy part are then removed. And both are from the same plant.White peppercorns give milder flavor and are generally used for light-colored dishes. Green peppercorns come in various forms--dried so that they can be ground just like black pepper, or water-packed so that they can be easily mashed.We have used several different kinds of pepper in this book, all of them freshly ground with a mill that can be adjusted from very fine to very coarse. If you don't already have one, we recommend buying a really good pepper mill.OLIVE OIL AND BUTTERWhen butter is called for, we always use sweet butter, not salted. And the olive oil we use for both salads and cooking is extra-virgin (see page 181).STOCKSome cooks who are purists prefer to make their own stock, but when a recipe calls for vegetable, chicken, or beef stock, we think that canned or frozen is a great time saver and quite acceptable. Commercial fish stock is only available frozen in specialty shops.THE FLAVOR BOOSTERS: HERBS AND SPICESWe believe culinary herbs and spices can not only redefine food flavors but can provide startling and unusual accents to almost any recipe. A simple change in seasoning can create an entirely new and unusual dish.The ancient Romans were familiar with the range of spices. In fact, the Roman chef Apicius, who was cooking and writing at the dawn of the Christian era, was using cloves, pepper, nutmeg, lovage, aniseed, and coriander in his recipes. The barbarian Goths used spices (probably dried berries) in their religious rites, and the Egyptians were quite familiar with herbal treatments in medicine as well as using spices for both food preparation and embalming.The earliest use of culinary herbs and spices was mostly directed toward disguising the flavor of decaying foods. Then, after the discovery of air drying and salting to preserve foods, as well as the leap forward of refrigeration, chefs began to move away from camouflage and began to discover that herbs and spices could alter, improve, and expand the taste of many of their dishes.Herbs are the leafy parts of bushes or plants, all grown in the temperate zones of the world, whereas spices are the dried parts of tropical plants and trees--roots, berries, bark--all grown in the Far East, with the exception of allspice, a product of the New World.Until about fifty or sixty years ago, almost every home kitchen boasted a mortar and pestle with which to grind whole spices. In some places such as India we still find them today, but not in the United States and Canada where by and large they have disappeared. Fresh herbs and spices began to be used again in the late forties, after World War II, and within the last fifteen or twenty years just about everyone seems to be using the fresh culinary herbs that are available almost everywhere.The spice shelf, too, has been undergoing a minor revolution, with the tastes of the home chef becoming more and more sophisticated. People are traveling more extensively and discovering new taste sensations. The interest in fresh foods, nutrition, and organic farming has grown steadily as well, and possibly the most exciting development has been the growth of Chinese, Thai, Greek, French, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Ethiopian restaurants from coast to coast, introducing us to new flavors.Throughout this book we have used fresh herbs and spices as flavor enhancers.
How to Use Fresh Herbs
For the truest and best flavors we much prefer to use fresh herbs where possible. We are convinced that some herbs are decidedly better only when used fresh rather than dried--basil, parsley, chives, chervil, borage, and cilantro, for example. On the other hand, if some fresh herbs are not available in the marketplace at a given time, then dried herbs and spices may be used. When choosing fresh herbs, it is best to select just one for the dominant flavor, adding other milder herbs in smaller amounts. Dried herbs have a more intense flavor than fresh, so the rule is to use one tablespoon of fresh to one teaspoon of dried. Taste as you go. Use your seasoning sparingly at first. You can always add more later on. For hot foods, sprinkle the fresh herbs on at the last minute since the heat of the food helps release their flavor. Also, the vivid green colors of the herbs will be maintained. For cold dishes, add the fresh herbs a few hours before serving or even the night before if possible so that their flavors permeate the dish completely. Set some of the fresh herbs aside to sprinkle over the top of the completed dish. You'll be pleasantly surprised at how a few pinches of chopped parsley can add sparkle to a bubbling brown stew or how a few sprigs of fresh rosemary can add a decorative touch. Mince the larger herbs very finely to release their fullest flavor. Even as you mince, you'll begin to discover the aroma. For the smaller herbs such as thyme and French tarragon, strip the tiny leaves from the tough stems. For delicate, wispy herbs such as chives, dill, chervil, and fennel leaves, use a pair of scissors to snip them into the recipe ingredients or salad. If you have room in your refrigerator, a good way to keep culinary herbs fresh is to place the stems in a glass of water, cover loosely with a plastic bag, and place the glass on the top shelf. Or store the herbs in a tightly closed, flat plastic container on the bottom shelf; each herb should be wrapped separately in a plastic bag so that the flavors are not exchanged.Dried Herbs and Savory Spices: How to Buy Them and How to Use Them Replace ground herbs and spices once a year or at least every two years. If you're in doubt, smell them. If the scent is just a memory or they smell and look like tea, they've lost their vitality and it's time to replace them. Keep dried herbs and spices in a cool, dry, dark place, tightly sealed. When you need a particular herb or spice, open the jar, take what you need, and reseal the jar at once. They will keep well in a freezer, but if they're hidden away, you'll probably forget to use them. Some dried herbs can be bought with their whole leaves more or less intact, such as Greek oregano and mint. They last longer this way, and when you want to use them, you can easily crush them between your fingers to release the flavor before adding them to the dish. The flavor of whole dried spices (cloves, nutmeg, peppercorns, and coriander) is more pronounced, and they keep longer than the ground or powdered form. If you're using whole spices, grind them just before using them. The finer the grind, the richer the flavor. When using whole spices, place them in a little cheesecloth sack before dropping them into the pot. That way they are easily retrieved when the dish is done, and your teeth are safe from a wayward peppercorn.
A Word About Commercial Blends
Aside from the vast array of pure dried herbs and spices now on the shelves of supermarkets and specialty stores, there are a great many commercial blends available. Many of these have become basic standbys: poultry seasoning, herbs de Provence, pumpkin pie spice, five-spice powder, curry powders, and crab boil, to name just a few. The best advice we can give you is that when you decide to use one of these products, read the label carefully.Some commercially prepared herb and spice salts may contain MSG, monosodium glutamate, which is to be avoided by people who are highly allergic to it. Other blends vary depending upon the manufacturer, and we have found some with the same generic name varying considerably. For example, serious Indian cooks resent the designation of "curry powder" since their spice blends of curry are as personal as fingerprints. Every Indian cook's treasured family recipe can combine as many as twenty different spices, usually including turmeric, ginger, fenugreek seed, cumin, mustard seed, red and black peppers, and, occasionally, cinnamon and cloves. The spices are usually lightly toasted first to bring out their flavors, and then they are freshly ground.GINGER ROOTAlthough ginger is not an herb or spice, we use it frequently in our recipes as an important flavor booster. Technically, fresh ginger is a rhizome and has its own roots, very much like a tuberous begonia. It has an intense, tongue-tingling quality that adds zip to many foods and beverages. It is available in many forms, each one with different properties.MATURE GINGER: The skin (usually peeled before using in a recipe) is creamy tan in color, with a slight sheen, and is firm and smooth in texture. Grating mature ginger results in a fibrous mass. Therefore, chop it finely with a knife or in a small food processor after peeling. To keep it fresh, wrap it in a paper towel or aluminum foil and keep in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator.YOUNG GINGER: Paler, cream colored, and with a lavender blush, the sheer skin does not need peeling. It is much milder in flavor and more delicate in texture than the mature ginger. It can be used in greater quantities because of its delicacy, can be grated or finely chopped, and can be kept fresh in the same way as the mature ginger (above). It can generally be found in Asian markets.POWDERED GINGER: Ginger root is usually dried in the sun before being ground into a powder. It is used primarily in baked goods and desserts.PICKLED GINGER: Used in Japanese cuisine and known as "gari," it is prepared from freshly peeled ginger and cut into thin shavings or sometimes thin julienne. Pickled ginger is steeped in a bath made from rice vinegar, sugar, salt, and sometimes coloring agents. Most commonly it is served with sushi and sashimi.STEM GINGER IN SUGAR SYRUP: Sometimes called preserved ginger, young ginger is cut into various shapes and sizes, cooked, and then marinated in sugar syrup.CRYSTALLIZED GINGER: Prepared as ginger in syrup and then drained and coated with granulated sugar, crystallized ginger is eaten out of hand as candy. We find it addictive. Cut into tiny pieces, it is added to cakes, tarts, and other sweets, creating new realms of tingling bursts of flavor.LEMONGRASSIt resembles clipped beach grass with a fat bulb at one end or a 24-inch atrophied scallion and is a common ingredient in the cuisines of Southeast Asia. The flavor of lemongrass is similar to that of lemon or lemon verbena, yet it has its very own unique and haunting piquancy.The technique for using lemongrass as well as the end results are very different from lemon juice. Lemon juice can curdle a cream sauce and after long cooking the lemon taste becomes invisible, so we usually add it toward the end in most recipes. Lemongrass, on the other hand, results in a noticeable but more subtle infusion when it is cooked, so we add it at the start. It will not curdle cream sauces.SHOP SMARTBuy lemongrass that is heavy and green, with a fat bulb and not dried out. Wrap it in plastic and refrigerate. It will keep for about two weeks. Allow one or two fat stalks per dish.Notes for the Cook
ON LEMONGRASS ... If the lemongrass is to be removed from the dish after it infuses its flavor, as in some soups, sauces, rice, pasta, or vegetables, do the following: Remove the tough outer layers until the pale core is revealed. Cut these outer leaves into long pieces and bruise them to release some of their flavor. Then add them to the dish. Remove and discard the leaves after cooking, just as you would a bay leaf. If the lemongrass is to be eaten as part of the dish, use the pale, more tender inner core and bulb with their slightly fibrous texture. They do not soften after cooking, so cut them into two- or three-inch pieces and crush them with a mallet or the side of a heavy knife in order to release their volatile oils. Then finely mince them by using a mini-chop or spice grinder.Copyright © 2000 by Symbiosis, Inc. Mel and Sheryl London have written ten cookbooks and have won or been nominated for numerous awards, including the James Beard Cookbook Award in 1994 for A Seafood Celebration. They create and test their recipes in New York and Fire Island.