Spice up your winter



Try creating your own mix of these popular blends:

■ Herb de Provence — Equal parts savory, marjoram, rosemary, thyme and oregano (lavender and ground fennel seed are optional).

■ Basic Taco Seasoning — 1 tablespoon chili powder, 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin, 1/4 teaspoons each of garlic powder, onion powder, red pepper flakes and dried oregano. If you want it sweeter you can add a pinch of sugar; smokier, add in some ground chipotle; more heat, add some ground cayenne.

■ Cajun Spice Blend — 2 tablespoons paprika, 1/2 teaspoon of garlic powder, onion powder, black pepper and cayenne, plus desired amounts of thyme, oregano or basil.

I grew up in Northern California, the Bay Area to be precise, where snow was just a dream.

We had to drive miles to get a glimpse of snow-capped mountains and sometimes even got a chance to touch it. I have lived in Colorado now almost as long as I did in California and the novelty of snow is still thrilling.

As the snow piles up outside, I truly cannot get enough of its splendor. That said, it is still cold, and as I get older my winter delight comes more from cuddling up with a cup of hot soup, sitting by the window admiring the white wonderland from the warmth of the indoors.

Because it is so cold outside, I don’t feel guilty about tackling inside household tasks that will soon be neglected when the freeze thaws and the yard awakens from hibernation calling my name.

So, now is the right time to hunker down, wait out the cold, and get busy organizing your kitchen cabinets and, in particular, ridding the pantry of ancient herbs and spices.

Just as most households have an annual routine of changing the batteries in the smoke detectors come daylight savings time or cleaning the window blinds in the spring (OK, you got me, I don’t do that) organizing, replenishing and refreshing your herb and spice pantry should make the calendar each year.

Are you hoarding ancient herbs? Don’t deny it. You are not the only one who cannot recall when you last needed a 1/4 of a teaspoon of that special spice only to discover that you spent $6.00 on it and have not used it since.

Have you fallen victim to clever advertising and spontaneously purchased Bubba’s Best Blend this or that? I have gotten better at this over the years, but I still often find evidence of this behavior in my pantry.

I confess, I don’t normally check the expiration dates on the spices I purchase and even if I did I don’t know if it would do me much good. I purchase my herbs and spices in bulk and refill small labeled jars as needed.

The best scenario would be to label all jars with the purchase dates to simplify this system, however even as type A as I can be, I have my limits. (Although, this may be a great task to delegate to my minions).

Generally speaking, all pre-ground herbs, spices and blends that are 1 year old or older should be replaced. Ideally, replacing them more often would be better, however this is tough on anyone’s food budget.

Keep in mind that dried herbs and spices that are past their expiration date are not harmful by any means, they just lack the luster they once had. They still may be used, but time is their enemy and you will notice a decrease in their value and overall taste.

Whole herbs, spices and seeds will last about twice as long as pre-ground as their oils have not yet been exposed to the air allowing for oxidation. Be sure to store your herbs and spices in jars with lids and in an area where there is minimal temperature variations and limited exposure to light.

The purchase of herbs and spices really should be dictated by the routine in your kitchen. We have all fallen victim to the “buy more, save more” mentality at the grocery store when comparing ounce per ounce pricing. We discuss this concept all the time at home with elementary kids.

But in this situation, the better deal may not be the best option relative to your cooking habits. Unless you have a pretty good idea that you will consume one pound of chili powder in six months, I would advise you to spend a little more and purchase a little less to ensure freshness.

You will find that purchasing herbs more frequently can ensure quality ingredients, which in the end can make all the difference.

When available, opt to purchase spices in their whole form and grind them at home. I bought a small coffee grinder for less than $15 and only use it for herbs and spices. A mortar and pestle also can be used but are a bit more labor intensive.

If you are a fan, like me, of online ordering for spices and want to get that special deal, seek out friends or family to share in the purchasing to bring the cost down while still focusing on quality.

Another way to ensure freshness, quality and to save money is to make your own blends. By making your own spice/herb mixes you can make as much or as little as you need at a fraction of the cost of getting a pre-made blend.

Blends are expensive and many have MSG, anti-caking agents, preservatives, corn syrup solids, sugar and/or salt, all of which we don’t need. Chances are you probably have enough herbs or spices in your pantry to create a suitable substitution that will give you more control over the sugar and salt ratio.

Take the popular French herb blend, Herb de Provence, for example. This blend is composed of savory, marjoram, rosemary, thyme, oregano and occasionally, but not traditionally, lavender and/or fennel. Most of these herbs can be found in pantries across America, allowing for a simple substitution.

Whenever I make a quick blend, I always leave the salt out. This allows me better control over the amount of salt in the dish, taking in to account that other ingredients may contribute sodium.

When using dried herbs and spices I find they are best added in the beginning of a recipe as this allows time for them to rehydrate and the concentrated flavors to release. If I have fresh herbs on hand I use them at the end of a recipe for a burst of fresh flavor and visible garnish.

When making homemade blends you are limited only by your imagination. Be bold and creative and your taste buds will surely reward you.

Suzanne Hanzl is a personal chef, culinary instructor and owner of Tourné Cooking School, tournecooking.com. Email her at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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