Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Spice of Life

I've heard it said that 'you eat with your eyes first'.  This is, I suppose, intended to explain the importance of presentation and the visual appeal of food.  Admittedly, this is a very important factor in food preparation and consumption but not the first.  I haven't heard it said elsewhere but it makes sense to me that, in reality, 'you eat with your nose first', which describes the pre-prandial allurement of foods as they are being prepared and cooked.  In fact, the sense of smell is key to the proper enjoyment of food throughout the dining experience, more than many people realize. 

Said Harold McGee in his classic and oft-referenced kitchen tome:

The function of herbs and spices is to add flavor to our foods.  Flavor is a composite quality, a combination of sensations from the taste buds in the mouth and the odor receptors in the upper reaches of our nose.  And these sensations are chemical in nature: we taste tastes and smell odors when our receptors are triggered by specific chemicals in foods.  There are only a handful of different tastes-sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savory or umami.  while there are many thousands of different odors.  It's odor molecules that make an apple "taste" like an apple, not like a pear or a radish.  So most of what we experience as flavor is odor, or aroma.  Herbs and spices heighten flavor by adding their characteristic aroma molecules.  (The exceptions to this rule are pungent spices and herbs, which stimulate and irritate nerves in the mouth). 

(McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. New York: Scribner, 2004. p. 387). 

So it is that the sense of taste, as it functions on the tongue, can be likened to a compass, which can point you in the right direction with your choices of North, South, East and West or, in this case, salty, sweet, sour or bitter (the whole umami concept is still being debated and I personally don't buy it).  Taste receptors in your mouth can also detect relative differences between simultaneously experienced stimuli so that northwest could be a composite salty and sweet taste and so forth.  Now, these odor receptors in the nasal passages are finely tuned to other stimuli, which make the sense of smell function more like a GPS.  Turn right in  250 feet and you arrive at your destination. These precise directions may be likened to impressions of  taste that could be described as nutty, grassy, rich, fruity, woodsy, light, fresh, herbaceous, briny, smokey, caseous, citrusy (which is different from just the sweet and sour components of citrus fruit) and so forth and make it possible to identify vanilla, cinnamon, cilantro and distinguish one fruit from others.

Years ago, my kitchen spice rack contained the usual dried herbs that most people (myself included) did not know how to use and a bit of this and that for other spices and seasonings such as your basic table salt, black pepper (already ground), lemon pepper, seasoning salt, red pepper flakes, cinnamon and nutmeg.  A current inventory would reveal a more interesting and varied collection and, you'll have to take my word for this part, a better understanding of when and how to use them.  Off the top of my head the list now looks something like this:

- Kosher salt
- Sea salt
- Whole black peppercorns
- Mixed peppercorns
- Whole coriander
- Red pepper flakes
- Seasoning Salt
- Granulated garlic
- Minced onion
- Garlic salt
- Cayenne
- Chipotle powder
- Sal Limon
- Paprika
- Smoked Paprika
- Whole allspice
- Ground Allspice
- Tumeric
- Curry
- Old Bay
- Cinnamon
- Nutmeg
- Ground mustard
- Chili powder
- Cumin seed
- Ground cumin
- Dried sage
- Dried rosemary
- Dried tarragon

Though not specifically classified as herbs or spices, I employ our friends minced garlic, brown sugar and raw sugar and the like to many spice rubs, marinades, sauces and so forth.  We still love good old iodized salt and it should be noted that other specialty salts like kosher salt do not contain iodine and so could leave a gaping hole in your nutritional profile if used exclusively.  One thing that will never be found in our spice cupboard is ground black pepper.  If I could put fresh herbs in our cupboard, I would but, since we cannot, we have a great outdoor extension of our flavor-enhancing stores in a couple of spots in backyard garden areas.  These include:

- Sweet basil
- Spicy basil
- Oregano
- Mint (spearmint, though we like peppermint too)
- Chives
- Dill
- Cilantro
- Sage

This list is by no means comprehensive.  As a basic rule of thumb, when substituting dried herbs for fresh, use about 1/3 of the amount called for. Also, if using fresh herbs, do not add until near the very end of the cooking process or reserve them for use as a a garnish or to finish a dish since many of the fresh, herbaceous and volatile flavor compounds can be altered or destroyed by prolonged (or even brief) exposure to heat.

Now, flick through your favorite cook books, make a  list of commonly called for herbs and spices, as well as a couple of the  obscure ones, and go shopping.  When skillfully employed, herbs and spices will greatly enhance your cooking and eating experience and, furthermore, most (with the exception of high-sodium, store-bought seasonings) do so without really altering the fat, sodium or calorie profile of your dishes.