Friday, September 27, 2013

Spicing things up

What would cooking be without herbs and spices ? Even your bare bones salt and pepper do so much to add flavor to food. I cannot imagine cooking without access to my BOOKCASE of herbs and spices, seasoning blends, herb mixtures and different salts. I grow my own herbs  all summer and inside in the fall as long as I can keep them alive. My dehydrator is my friend (yes.......I KNOW fresh is best, but this is Iowa, RURAL Iowa at that- not a lot of affordable fresh herbs out here).

I am often asked what my favorite herb or spice is. That's a tough one. I CAN tell you which one I hate. There are two actually- cilantro and cinnamon. Cilantro because of it's soapy "lawn grass" taste- I'm trying to acquire the taste-time will tell, and cinnamon, because of a looooong ago very bad Firewater experience. Just the smell...... I'm shuddering in disgust just thinking about it.

Anyway- favorites. I posed this question on the Rockin' the Kitchen Facebook page today and got a fairly good convo going. Garlic, salt and pepper were overwhelming faves, followed by crushed red pepper flakes. Yes, technically garlic and red pepper aren't herbs or spices but for the sake of this story, we are counting them as such. Seasoned salts, flavored salts and even Good Seasons salad dressing mix made the list. Basil and rosemary also got a nod. My personal favorite herbs are the Italian family herbs- basil, parsley, oregano, and the French style- chervil, thyme, chives. Spices- I would definitely go with nutmeg and cloves. Love their aromatic properties.

Picking fresh herbs to go with dinner- oregano and thyme.

But besides adding just good flavor and color to our food, herbs and spices have a TON of beneficial properties as well. For example, garlic is well known to have cardiac benefits and lots of vitamin C (maybe you didn't know THAT little factoid). But what else is good for us? My dreaded enemy cinnamon has been shown to help regulate blood sugar levels. It also has calming effects, stimulates circulation, may ease arthritis symptoms and muscle cramps. Rosemary contains compounds that help get rid of food-borne bacteria in meat (I never roast anything without rosemary!!) New research is finding rosemary may also help improve brain function and memory. Who knew the little herb that to me smells like a pine tree might one day provide a solution to Alzheimer's?  I just love it's earthy fragrance. I love to touch the plant and smell it on my skin. Ahhhhhhh.......

Fresh chives in a pot- easy to clip off just what you need.

If you've read more than three entries on this blog you know we are serious chileheads in this household, so it's no surprise to me that cayenne peppers (as well as other peppers) have a lot of health benefits. Capsaicin, the compound in peppers that carries the heat, is used in pain relief creams because of it's warming properties. Peppers also raise your metabolism and might even aid in fat burning- all the more reason to eat peppers !!

Red basil. Same great taste just a prettier leaf.

One of the yuckies for me is cilantro. I am just not a fan. I'm trying to be. I'm getting better. Latin American food often is accented with cilantro and many Asian dishes contain a lot of it. If I plan on continuing to eat and explore these cuisines, I'm going to have to get used to it, right ? And I might even try harder now that I know it may help relieve anxiety and stress- and who doesn't have THAT in their lives? I know I sure do. Rumor has it, it also helps lower cholesterol. That's a pretty impressive resume for an herb I need to learn to embrace.

Rosemary happily grows with flowers.

Cumin and turmeric are two spices I used a lot this canning season- in pickles and tomato jam. Good thing too !! Cumin boosts your immune system and turmeric eases depression. It's bright yellow color is loaded with antioxidants, and we all know what that means- loaded with cancer fighting compounds. Plus it makes Bread and Butter Pickles look so amazingly beautiful in their jars. Cumin is one of the best smells ever- it's like tacos in a spice jar.

Thyme adds a fragrant, lemony touch to foods.

And finally......fennel. What an interesting plant fennel is. Pretty much the whole plant is edible-  the bulb is delicious sliced raw into salads and slaws, or tossed in sautes, the fronds make excellent fresh herb use and in salads, and of course, sausage wouldn't be sausage without those wonderful seeds. Because most of the plant is edible, it's a great source of fiber, and lots of vitamin C.  You bean lovers might want to keep this in mind too- it helps relieve gas in the intestinal tract, which is a BIG PLUS !!!

While there is no recipe this time, I hope you guys learned at least one new thing about herbs and spices. And..... I hope you will get out the spices and herbs and experiment with flavors and combos, make your own seasoning blends and meat rubs. Have fun playing with your food!

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