Herbs and Spices

June 24, 2011

I used to think that I wasn’t missing that much by using dried herbs and pre-ground spices.  The extra effort to wash and chop fresh herbs and grinding whole spices just didn’t seem worth it.  But I have found out that it is definitely worth a few extra minutes.  My first hint that maybe I was missing something was when I decided I’d try chopping fresh garlic cloves instead of using pre-crushed jarlic (our term for, what else – garlic in a jar) in a dish I made fairly regularly.  The difference was pretty obvious.   Fine, fine, garlic is neither an herb nor a spice, but you get my point.  Then I started using ‘fresh’ herbs from the store once in a while.  But how fresh can something packaged in a little plastic box transported from who knows where really be?  Definitely an improvement over dried, but not as good as either buying a whole bunch of cilantro or parsley at the store, or even better, at the Farmers’ Market.  In many cases, to me the dried herb doesn’t even seem like it came from the same plant as the fresh stuff.

Some of my favorite, yet simplest dishes showcase fresh herbs.  Last summer, I frequently stopped at Munson Farms’ produce stand on my way home from work, bought several ripe tomatoes and a bag of basil, and used them for insalata caprese (tomato mozzarella salad).  With just picked, non-refrigerated, only locally transported tomatoes, this salad is phenomenal.  And few things could be as easy and quick to make.  For the mozzarella, we like to use the little balls packed in water, which you can find in the deli cheese section in local supermarkets, because you don’t even have to do any slicing with those.  We use a fairly sparse amount of mozzarella compared to what you get in restaurants, because we find that the tomatoes are really the star in this salad.  Heirloom tomatoes are best, but any good, fresh ripe tomatoes will do.

Insalata Caprese

2-3 thinly sliced ripe tomatoes
1-2 handfuls of fresh basil, chopped
desired amount of mozzarella (we use about 2 oz.)
1 T extra virgin olive oil
1-2 tsp balsamic vinegar
dried red pepper flakes
sea salt
freshly ground pepper

Layer the tomatoes in a large shallow bowl, add the mozzarella and basil. Toss with the olive oil to coat the tomatoes.  Add vinegar, shake or two (or eight – however hot you want it) of red pepper flakes, and a bit of salt and pepper.  Toss again, and adjust spices as desired.

Isalata Caprese with two types of tomatoes, before tossing

Spices are another magical ingredient when you put a little more effort.  Even after I started using fresh herbs, I still didn’t grind my own spices.  But then I bought a cookbook by Top Chef Masters winner, Marcus Samuelsson.  I was drawn to his recipe for berbere, a spice blend native to Ethiopia and Eritrea.  Even better, it called for fenugreek seeds, which I had bought for one recipe and now had an ample supply of, and no idea what to do with them. After reading about how Chef Samuelsson encourages grinding fresh spices rather than using pre-ground, I decided I’d give it a try.  If you don’t have a spice grinder, an old coffee grinder will work .  Holding the lid closed securely, and giving the grinder a few shakes while pushing the on button will ensure that you get everything fairly evenly ground.   I like to use a bit less cardamom than the recipe calls for, and given the amount of chili powder and paprika in the recipe, I do use pre-ground spice for those two ingredients.  I usually use ancho chili with some chipotle, or whatever other kind of dried chili powder I’m in the mood for.  I haven’t done full serrano, because while I like a lot of spice, I haven’t been quite brave enough to use that much.  I suggest starting with something slightly milder and putting in half the amount, and then going hotter if it doesn’t smell too hot for you.  For paprika, I usually both standard paprika, and a wonderful smoked paprika that I found at Savory Spice Shop in Boulder.  I can’t even begin to describe the warm, rich, complex smell of the berbere after it is mixed together.  And it’s a gorgeous color as well.


Our favorite thing to do with the berbere is to coat boneless, skinless chicken thighs with it, and grill the chicken.  Just the extra bit of fat in thighs versus breasts combines with the richness of the spices for a result that nearly brought me to tears the first time I tried it.  And, you can make the spice up ahead of time, and keep it in the refrigerator for up to three months.  Just take the amount you need out and then coat the chicken in a separate bowl so that you don’t risk salmonella contamination in the remainder of the berbere.

Grilled berbere chicken with Israeli couscous and sauteed rainbow chard with turkey bacon

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