Jeanette - Off The Cuff

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Blogger at: and -- My name is Jeanette, and I was born in Sweden, but unlike the famous Muppet, I am not a professional Swedish Chef. I actually studied design and photography. I also was a freelance indie-rock critic for several magazines from 1998-2005, and had an in-house PR company for a while. Cooking is in my DNA--my dad's brother was a chef and their father was a pastry chef, my mom's mother was a caterer, who published a cookbook of traditional Finnish breads and pastries when she was 92. Everyone else in my family loves to cook, and we're not afraid to experiment. I have a yen for interior design and remodeling.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Note About Spices and Seasonings

I wanted to take this opportunity to mention that knowing the proper balance in seasoning your dishes is the difference between simply following a recipe versus cooking with a gut instinct (ha ha!) for a true "off the cuff" cooking experience.  Some recipes you should probably not mess around with too much (for instance, due to the scientific nature of baking, cookies, pastries and breads are left best unaltered.)  But with herbs, spices and seasonings, there is an acquired learning curve that will eventually take a novice chef up to a more instinctual level.  So I'm going to give a few points here to ponder if you are just learning to cook.   It took me a while to master some of these myself, so don't be discouraged if you have to approach these suggestions with some trepidation. 

Don't be afraid to keep a spoon next to whatever you're making (On that topic, don't stick your spoon into the food, so you don't 'double-dip.'  Instead, use your stirring spoon or spatula to drizzle or dollop the food onto the spoon so you  have repeated taste-tests as you go along.)

A good way to learn a little bit about the key flavor notes in each spice is to just put a tiny bit on your tongue, the way you would with wine tasting, or anything else, and think about your initial impression and any lingering after taste -- think about whether it's tangy, tart, spicy, sweet, smokey, savory, woodsy, etc.  For instance, ground coriander (which is the seed that grows cilantro herbs) has a distinct citrus-like tinge to it.  Learning these key flavor notes is part of constructing a flavor palette, just like knowing which colors mix together helps you make a painting.

Some spices can be far too overpowering, and should just be left to a dash or pinch.  The obvious ones in this category are cayennes, chili peppers, and the like.  You can always add a dash more to an individual serving, but it's pretty difficult to reduce the heat factor in an overly spicy recipe.

Similar spices like ginger, and paprika which have both a smoldering spicy effect, and a slight sweetness can definitely also be overdone.  Start sparingly with paprika or ginger, unless you're also balancing it with a sweetener like brown sugar, or molasses or honey to neutralize the "burn."  Even then, be very cautious.  In a dish like teriyaki, you want the ginger flavor to compliment the tang of the rice vinegar or mirin, saltiness of the soy sauce, and the sweetness of honey or brown sugar.

Nutmeg is one that tends toward being bitter in large doses, so don't adjust that one too far from the suggested amount.

Cinnamon is pretty tough to overdo;  as a rule of thumb, I don't do more than double the suggested amount.  But I love cinnamon, so if I'm making applesauce or a peach crumble or pumpkin pancakes, I may put anywhere from one to two teaspoons of cinnamon in the mix. Once you go beyond a tablespoon, though, it gets pretty strong (of course, dependent on the entire amount of your final dish.)  While similar, be cautious with cloves, and all-spice, because they have a bit more of an astringent tendency in larger doses.

Because of its almost licorice-like flavor, and sharp notes, fresh basil goes a long, long way.  Oregano, Thyme and Marjoram are similar-- their flavorful and savory leaves are delicious in soups, pastas, and chili, and  if you add the fresh herbs last to make sure they don't overcook into a hot dish and lose their flavor and color, you'll get the best results. Mince it up with scissors into a small bowl, or  chop on a cutting board with a sharp knife.

Sage, on the other hand, and Rosemary can also tend toward a bitter aftertaste if used too intensely.  Use them sparingly and taste your dish as you go along, adding a pinch more if needed.  (You can always leave the sprig of rosemary whole, and remove it from whatever sauce, or stew you are making if the flavor starts to get too pungent.)

Curry is not "a" spice, rather it is any number of amalgams of other spices (usually chili peppers, turmeric, cloves, cinnamon, and other seasonings) and curry becomes more and more spicy the more you add it to your meal.  Most curried dishes are balanced with sweet and savory components like meats, almonds, raisins, apples, cucumbers, etc.  Thus, they can be experimented with to your liking.

*This list will be edited and amended from time to time and re-posted as needed with updates.*

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