Gastronomy


Cooking With Spices: Tips And Recipes

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Learn how fistfuls, chunks, bunches, splashes, sprigs, and a little of this or a pinch of that creates delicious meals such as curry chicken, clams, rice pilaf and more.


For those of us who love to cook, precise instructions on quantities are not always followed and dishes turn out great just because, with little knowledge, some ingredients are thrown in the pot with the sole purpose of using up the whole package.

Photo: Miss J. / 123RF Stock Photo.

When I started to share recipes with friends the quantities I described were: fistfuls, chunks, splashes, sprigs and a little bit of this, a pinch of that; not very helpful to someone trying to follow a recipe. After all, how much is a bunch? Is it loose leaves or a group of stems, are they chopped or sliced? To me it makes sense: a bunch of basil is either a bag from the market or a few sprigs from the garden and it won’t affect the outcome of the dish, as long as “a bunch” is proportionate to the rest of the ingredients. A sprig of mint can be as little as four leaves or as many as twenty; it just depends on the size of the plant. And a cut of meat is whatever size is sold in the market; half a pound more or less will just yield more or less.

So yes, exact measurements are helpful when you try a new recipe, and essential in baking: I want to know exactly what it is supposed to taste and look like, but after that, an extra drop of this, a dash of that and that bit of mustard, is what makes any recipe, yours.

Practicality plays a big part in my kitchen: if carrots are sold in a 4 pound bag, following a recipe that uses 3 and a half pounds, is just wasteful. Those left over carrots are not enough as a side dish for dinner and will probably rot in the bottom of the fridge, so I use the whole bag. And if a chicken dish calls for three breasts but they are sold in pairs, I can assure you that my dish will have two or four breasts; I will adjust the rest of the ingredients, more or less. Often, a little more is better than a little less; flavor and taste is what I aim for. And be generous with the spices that you like, they are the essence of the dish.

I have tried to apply the same principles in baking and, unfortunately it doesn’t work. If a recipe calls for one cup of flour, one cup it is. That incredibly long list of ingredients is there for a reason and skipping that pinch of cream of tartar or adding three eggs instead of four will not yield desirable results. You can play with the flavorings: vanilla, cinnamon, star anise and lemon juice, but even then, you do have to be careful. Unlike with savory dishes, with sweet ones it is best to follow instructions.

When cooking large quantities, it is essential to be generous with spices, herbs and seasonings. It is better to have to “mild” a dish by adding sour cream or yogurt than to see everyone at the table maniacally adding salt and pepper to something you are serving. Good French restaurants never put salt and pepper on the table as it is assumed that the food is perfect. And not that that is my ideal, I do put salt and pepper on the table, but I would take great insult if someone asks for ketchup.

Bushel of Clams

If you don’t like so much garlic, make it with less and if white wine is not your ideal, chicken broth or coconut milk will work just as well. Just make sure you rinse the clams at least twice in plenty of cold water to remove as much sand as possible and that you cook them in a large enough lidded pan for the clams to lay in one layer.

Ingredients [Serves 8]
10 lbs. (2 baskets) clams or mussels
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 white onion, diced
8 or 10 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
1 bottle of white wine
1 cup parsley, finely chopped
4 tablespoons hot pepper flakes
Salt and pepper

Pick a basket of clams and clean them in two changes of cold water, scrubbing them with a rough brush, if needed. In a large sauté pan, add a little olive oil, peeled garlic and the chopped onion; sauté until soft. Add a bottle of white wine, a large bunch of finely chopped parsley, a fistful of red pepper flakes and season with salt and pepper. Bring the sauce to a boil and then lower the flame to medium. Throw in the clams, shake the pan and cover. Let it cook for four minutes or until the clams open. Serve in soup bowls, ladling the sauce on top but avoiding the bottom of the pan as it might still have sand.

Curried Chunks of Chicken

Perfect course for a buffet or when feeding a crowd: a fork is all you need to eat with as all the chopping is done in the kitchen. Just make sure the chunks are all more or less the same size, for even cooking. Use as much ginger, turmeric, curry and coriander as you like, and let your taste guide the amount of spices. And when I know my friends can take the heat, I have added chili powder to make it even spicier. Serve the Curried Chicken with raita, rice pilaf and mango chutney on the side.

Ingredients [Serves 8]
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 white onions, diced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons sliced ginger
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon turmeric
½ tablespoon chili powder
5 breasts of chicken cut into one-inch pieces
2 cans coconut milk
Salt and pepper

Calculate one large chicken breast for two people and chop it into even chunks. (for 8 people use five breasts, half a breast each, one for the pot). In a large sauté pan, heat a little olive oil and sauté two chopped onions with the garlic and the ginger until soft. Add the spices, curry, turmeric, chili pepper powder and cardamom and stir until the spices release their aroma. Add the chicken pieces and sauté until cooked throughout. Add one or two cans of coconut milk (depending on the amount of chicken) and simmer until it all bubbles and some of the coconut milk evaporates; about ten minutes. Taste to adjust seasonings and season with salt and pepper. Serve hot with rice pilaf, raita and mango chutney.

Raita

Ingredients
1 large container plain whole milk yogurt
2 cucumbers, peeled and diced
The juice of one lemon

Mix the yogurt with the cucumbers and the juice of one lemon. Place in the fridge for about two hours for the flavors to meld. Serve cold.

A Fistful of Rice Pilaf

Ingredients [Serves 8]
1 cup pine nuts
2 cups Jasmine or Basmati Rice
1 cup white raisins

In a frying pan, sauté the pine nuts for about two minutes until they release their aroma and become a little golden; set aside. In a saucepan add one tablespoon of olive oil and heat. Add the rice and stir to coat well. Add 5 ½ cups of water, bring to a boil and cover. Lower the flame and cook, at a simmer, for twenty minutes, until the rice is tender. Fluff with a fork, add the raisins and the roasted pine nuts. Mix well, season with salt and serve hot.

Olive Oil Pound Cake

The pound cake is made using cups as measurement, something I can do without much trouble. It is an easy to remember recipe as it uses flour, sugar and olive oil in equal portions, adding four eggs to make a flavorful batter that, with lemon peel and its juice, makes an intense pound cake, also perfect for tomorrow’s breakfast. This basic olive oil pound cake allows for additions like raisins, pine nuts, and chopped dried fruit. And even in an inspirational moment, I have substituted the lemon flavor for oranges and its essence for delicious results. I serve slices of the pound cake topped with warm berry salad. Add a dollop of whipped cream on top, if you happen to have it at hand and you wish to finish the bottle.

Ingredients [Serves 8]

1 cup flour
1 cup white sugar
1 cup olive oil (preferably Arbequina)
2 lemons
Pinch of salt
4 eggs

Turn the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a pound cake mold. Grate the peel of one lemon finely, make two peels of the other lemon with a vegetable peeler and juice both. In a saucepan, place the olive oil and the two peels of lemon; heat until the peel begins to brown around the edges, remove from the heat to cool slightly. In a large mixing bowl and using an electric mixer, cream until light and fluffy, the eggs and the sugar. Incorporate the flour, pinch of salt, grated lemon and lemon juice. Add the olive oil, stirring until all mixed well; pour into a greased pound cake mold. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes, until the cake has risen, the top is golden and a skewer inserted in the thickest part comes out clean. Un-mold and cool. To serve, slice into one-inch thick slices, adding fruit salad and whipped cream on the side.

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