Friday, January 1, 2016

Kitchen Witchcraft- Making my own herb and spice blends

I love having a garden. I love plants of all kinds. Flowers, vegetables, and especially herbs. They are so useful- so much more than just cooking. Beautiful fragrances, healing powers, food for bees and butterflies, herbs are awesome additions to any garden. I have always been an herb gardener, and as much as I love having fresh herbs to cook with all summer long, living in Iowa mean I do have to be practical and dehydrate some for over the cold winter months. Since I had huge herb gardens, I had TUBS of dried herbs to use and share and experiment with.

So I want to talk about herb blends. Too many times we grab a container of an herb bland at the store because it's there, already made, already bottled for us. But is it better? I don't think so. Made in a huge factory with who knows what kind of quality control and mysterious "stuff" in thank you! As a cook, you know which flavors go well together, and it isn't hard to figure out what herbs are in a traditional blend like Fines Herbes, so why not make your own blends? If you are like me and grow your own herbs already, it's basically free!  Another plus- you control exactly what's in it, what isn't and make your own decisions regarding salt, organics, and so on. 

So what is an easy first herb seasoning mix to start with? I love Fines Herbes for so many things. It's a classic French seasoning, and as you know, I am so in love with French flavors- it's a natural place to start. Just five easy-to-grow herbs make up the classic blend and here they are:

1/4 cup parsley
1/4 cup chervil
2 tablespoons thyme leaves
1/4 cup chopped chives
2 tablespoons tarragon

Crumble all the dried herbs together in a bowl. Makes about 1 cup. 

Here at home I make all kinds of blends from meat rubs to my own all-purpose seasoning for veggies and herbs. It's awesome in egg dishes and in a pinch can pass for Italian seasoning.

1/4 cup dried oregano
1/4 cup dried thyme
1/4 cup dried basil
2 tablespoons dried marjoram
1 tablespoon dried sage

Like before, crumble everything into a bowl, jar up and label. 

Spices are a little trickier- not all of them are something you can grow yourself, but many are. Peppers, dried and ground, make paprika and pepper seasonings of all kinds, from mild to roaring hot. Ginger, onion and garlic can also be dried and ground yourself.

Paprika is something I often make myself at home. I never get exactly the same flavor either, which makes it fun! I like to start with a base of red bell pepper or red gypsy pepper, which are mild with zero heat. From there things get really fun. Hatch, Guajillo and Pasilla chilies are great for making your own paprika. Hatch vary greatly in heat too so it's fun to test my finished product. Smoking the peppers beforehand gives you smoked paprika- oh so delicious. When I make my own paprika I don't have to worry about all the chemical anti-caking ingredients and preservatives, or color enhancers. Just peppers. 

Still buying packets of taco seasoning? You don't have to- here is a super quick and delicious taco seasoning you can make yourself, in big batches and store in a jar. Add to taste to meat or seafood for fantastic tacos without all the salt and fillers like cornstarch and flour-

1/4 cup dried minced onion
1/4 cup paprika- mild or hot
3 teaspoons ground cumin
3 teaspoons dried garlic
2 teaspoons crushed red pepper (adjust if you like it mild or hot)
1 teaspoon dried oregano

I dehydrate my own onions and garlic and grind them in a food processor to get garlic powder, and chop onions before drying for onion "flakes"- works great in this recipe. I make multiple batches of this mixture and store in a jar. To use it, I use 3-4 tablespoons and a splash of water when cooking taco meat. 

Italian Seasoning is a classic, and so super easy to mix up. It's pretty universal- parsley, basil, thyme, oregano and marjoram. I grow loads and loads of parsley and, with Mother Nature's cooperation, tons of basil so big batches are the norm around here. 

Chervil, thyme, dill and parsley make a great herb combo for fish and seafood. Thyme has a lemony aroma and bright flavor and we all know dill is made to go with fish! If you have chervil growing, add that as well. You won't be disappointed. This sprinkle is delicious with vegetables too, especially roasted spring asparagus and grilled summer squash. 

What's been missing up to this point? Rosemary. Known for it's piney scent and rich flavor rosemary mixes well with just about any herb but it can overwhelm and over power some of the milder herbs. Pork, lamb and beef take to rosemary beautifully, as does roast poultry. I use my mini food processor to pulverize and break up the dried rosemary- it is VERY difficult to crush with your fingers. Rosemary is one of the herbs in another classic French seasoning- Herbes de Provence. This blend uses a lot of thyme, which is a flavor I just love. I always grow lavender in my herb garden (flowers and leaves are edible) and that is also part of this mixture. You need-

1/4 cup dried thyme
2 tablespoons dried marjoram
1 tablespoon dried savory
1 tablespoon dried rosemary
2 teaspoons dried lavender flowers
1 teaspoon fennel seed 

I make my own meat rub as well. I keep it in a big jar on the counter and use is all the time. It's easy to make, and different every time. I start with a cup or cup and a half of brown sugar and then.......bring on the herbs and spices. I literally stand in front of my spice bookcase (yes, I have a bookcase filled with jars of herbs, spices, dried peppers, tomatoes, onions, and so on) and whatever sounds good gets dumped in the bowl. Dried minced onion, garlic powder, some crumbled herbs, tomato powder*, paprika, until I like what I see and love what I taste.

*Tomato powder is made from the peels of tomatoes I have canned or sliced tomatoes- dehydrated and then ground in the food processor to a powder. It's a great substitute for tomato paste when you need just a smidge- mix enough powder and water to form a paste. It's a great way to add loads of flavor.

Of course, no story about seasoning would be complete without a great big jar of mulling spices. I like to make BIG batches and use it for spiced cider, mulled wine, and more gifts. Sometimes I just heat a little in a small saucepan with just water to perfume the whole house. This makes a big batch so make sure you have some big jars.

3 cups broken/crushed cinnamon sticks
3 cups dried chopped/broken orange peel
1 cup whole allspice
1 cup whole cloves
1/2 cup star anise, broken if you like

I save orange and citrus peel throughout the year and just add to my big jar of dried peel. Just make sure to get as much of the bitter white pith off before you dehydrate the peel. This blend uses a larger quantity of spices- you can get good deals in the bulk section of grocery or specialty store or online from spice shops such as Penzeys. 

Since I'm saving all this money growing my own herbs and making my own mixes, I don't want to spend a bunch on containers to store them in so I save jars. The Chef used to think I was a jar hoarder until he realized that even those teeny tiny anchovy jars make great jars for little gifts. I'm recycling, keeping plastic and glass out of the landfill and have lots of unique sizes and shapes to decorate for gifts and my spice bookcase looks interesting!

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