by Tara Davis
You know those metal games and puzzles you can find at roadside stops, and on the tables of some restaurants or bars? The ones you can usually take apart pretty easily, but often have a hard time reassembling? Sometimes life is like that. Identifying pieces and parts, handling and manipulating, examining and recognizing are different from construction and usage.
So it is, in turn, with food. Countless are the times someone has contacted me saying, “I have (fill in the ingredient). What can I do with it?” But even more often, I am asked by people how to know which seasonings and spices work together, especially when incorporating the less familiar. How does one know if thyme works well with sweet potatoes or whether garlic is what was missing from the salad dressing? Whether sugar is necessary in the marinara or why cheese and fish may be frowned upon as a combination?
Is Worcestershire needed, or just a pinch of salt? It can be easy to pinpoint whether or not a dish contains garlic or cilantro, but in what quantities? Can something be substituted? It is, indeed, a puzzlement, trying to put it all together.
As with most of life, the only way to know definitively is through trial and error.
Fresh herbs have never failed to play nicely for me. In anything.
I like to mix pinches of dried spices together and then taste the combination to see if it works before committing to a large batch. Mix, adjust and give it a shot. Be bold! (Except with iodized table salt. Be shy with that).
Another decent, though not hard and fast rule is, if things smell good together, they are likely to taste good together. Also, when in doubt, add a small amount. You can always add more if desired.
A good approach often just requires a little attention to balance. Cayenne can balance fattiness. Cinnamon will bring out sweetness. Paprika can add depth. Parsley, even dried, offers brightness and freshness.
Next time you find yourself in the spice aisle or fresh herb section somewhere, I encourage you to get something you haven’t tried, or maybe haven’t even heard of, and have some fun finding a way to use it! It’s food, not rocket science- if you don’t love it, you’ll have learned. But if you do… oh, if you do!
A few of my favorite things for you- happy cooking!
Fresh herbs: choose one bunch each of 2-5 different fresh herbs and seasonings. My picks are garlic, basil, parsley, rosemary and sage. Finely mince all (4 cloves garlic). Add 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar, 1 cup oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Use as a salad or steak dressing, sandwich spread or chicken or fish marinade.
Dried herbs: mix 1/2 cup each dried ginger, garlic, onion, paprika, 1/4 cup each dried mustard allspice, white pepper, dill. Add salt to taste. Store up to 3 months. Use in soups, casseroles, rice and pasta sauces, or as a rub for beans or roasted or grilled proteins.
Additions to old familiars: add fresh or dried lavender to your lemonade. Add dehydrated lemon peels to your salad dressings, or a little crystallized ginger to your chocolate cookies. Grate a cinnamon stick over your red wine.
The less familiar: Slice and grill or pan brown eggplant. Serve with a mixture of 3 tbsp tahini, 1 tbsp dried grape leaves, 1 clove garlic, 1/4 diced white onion, 1/4 cup plain yogurt and 1/2 cup olive oil (the best you can find).
Substitutions: instead of cayenne, mix up your gumbo spice with some jalapeno powder. Try soy sauce instead of Worcestershire, or a pinch of cumin instead of smoked paprika. Honey and agave are great ways to take the edge off acidic dishes or to glaze sweet ones. There are no rules! Stir things up, and eat them!