Spices favour digestion enhance the taste of food and add a different touch to ordinary dishes. Just a pinch of these “magic powders and herbs” and our table is transformed into a magic carpet that transports us to distant horizons. But beyond the sensory pleasures, it is their nutritional and medicinal contribution that is so important for human beings.
The knowledge of spices is one of the oldest acquisitions of mankind. If we look at a nineteenth-century cookbook or an old herbarium from the Middle Ages, we can see that our ancestors knew much more than we do, partly because they used them as food preservatives. Much of the culinary and medicinal traditions of that time have been lost. Today we use very few spices in our kitchens in the western world, despite the pleasure and well-being they can bring us.
Mini Guide to Aromatic Herbs and Spices
Today I’m offering you a mini guide to using spices and aromatic herbs that I hope will serve you as a quick reference, and enable you to take advantage of those condiments that many of us have lying forgotten in our pantries, allowing us to experience new flavours, smells and colours.
Basil: With a refreshing flavour and aroma, it harmonizes very well with other aromatic herbs of the Mediterranean cuisine. It is used fresh to season tomato or pesto sauce, scrambled eggs, mixed salads and pasta. Its dried leaves go very well in meat and fish stews, with roasts and consommé.
Saffron: Usually the strands of dried and roasted flowers are used. It can also be used in powder form. It is an expensive spice and provides an intense, slightly iodized taste, it has an intense yellow and orange colour which adds colour to the dishes it’s added to. It is used essentially in rice dishes and our world-famous paella. Also, in risotto a la Milanese, soups such as bouillabaisse, and lamb and rabbit stews.
Cloves: it can be used whole or ground, in small quantities because of its intense flavour. Whole it is often used when roasting pork or ham, in stews, marinades and pickles. In powdered form however it is widely used in breads, biscuits, Arabic desserts. Incidentally, it is one of the spices used in the famous Worcestershire sauce recipe.
Cinnamon: It is used whole, in sticks or in powder. Its sweet and mild flavour is especially used in desserts such as Torrijas, custards, rice pudding. But it is also delicious in oriental dishes and in meats and stews.
Chives: Its leaves are used either fresh, dried or frozen. It is characterized by a mild onion flavour and is used in salads, scrambled eggs, cheese sauces, butters and flavoured oils. It is important to eat it fresh and not cooked so that it does not lose its crunchy texture and flavour.
Cumin: Whole or ground seeds are used in small quantities because of its intense flavour and aroma. It is perfect with pork and lamb, pulses and rice. It can be used to prepare both sweet and savoury dishes. Ideal for seasoning salads, creamy cheeses and fruit pies.
Bay leaves: a spice with a pungent aroma, it is considered one of the most important spices in our Mediterranean cuisine. It is used in dishes such as stews, fish soups, the cooking of shellfish, game, pickles, pulses and vegetables.
Nutmeg: It has a sweet, fragrant and soft aroma. It can be used either whole or ground in cooking in both savoury and sweet dishes. It is widely used in mashed potatoes, curry sauce, creamy vegetable soups or bechamel sauce, used for example in croquettes or in dishes such as eggs with bechamel. It goes well with roast meats. In confectionery it is used in fruit pies.
Parsley: It’s delicate and slightly sweet taste make it the most used herb in cooking, both fresh and dry. It is used in virtually all dishes of Mediterranean origin. Essential in mashes, marinades, bread crumb coatings, vinaigrettes, sauces, tortillas, stews, salads and sautés. It is an aromatic herb that can be frozen.
Pepper: Both the whole peppercorns or the ground spice are used and there are four varieties: white, black, green and pink. It is a magnificent flavour enhancer and for this reason it is widely used in chocolate preparations. It has a spicy flavour and is used with meat and fish dishes, pickles, cold cuts and game stews.
Paprika: It is a ground powder which can be sweet or spicy. It comes from dried red peppers and has a smoky aroma. It is used in rice dishes, potatoes, stews, sauces and sautés.
Rosemary: Fresh or dried leaves are used, either whole or chopped. It has a strong, astringent aroma and is used in meat stews and roasts, oils, cheeses and for marinating game meats and lamb, especially in dishes which have a large amount of fat for its astringent properties.
Cayenne pepper: Cayenne pepper is a fruit that can be consumed dried whole or in powder. It should be used in small quantities and with great caution as it is not recommended if you have gastritis or gastroduodenal ulcers. It is used in soups, creamy soups, sauces, dressings, and with roasts, poultry, fish, vegetables and rice.
Thyme: Its chopped leaves are used either fresh or dried. It can be used with game meats and barbecued meats, in cold meats and in pickles. Ideal for flavouring cheeses. It is great when used in fatty dishes to enhance their flavour and to aid the subsequent digestion.
Here, I have shared with you a small guide to some of the most used spices and herbs in our Spanish and Mediterranean cuisine although we could go on and on talking about many more. I am very fond of seasoning and each of the spices and herbs that I have told you about deserves an article for itself. But that will be another time. For the time being enjoy these, with their flavours, smells and colours.