Monday, February 23, 2009

Eat in, Spice up and Save Money

(ARA) - With more and more of us cooking for ourselves to save money, it makes sense to assemble an assortment of basic herbs and spices. It's an easy, economical way to add fun to your cooking and flavor to your food.

Before we get started, you may need to freshen up your spice rack and now is the perfect time to reorganize and restock. Bottled herbs and spices have a long shelf life, but after they’ve been unsealed, they lose their robust flavor and color intensity-- usually within a year, even if they’re kept in a closed-door pantry. Bulk herbs and spices also have a similar flavor and color timeline.

Perhaps you’re setting up your seasoning supplies for the first time. In any case, just a few common spices will enhance almost any dish you make. “Simple dishes become deliciously elegant when paired with the right herbs and spices,” says Kendall McFarland, product development manager and food specialist at Frontier Natural Products Co-op. But which spices should you choose as basic staples for your kitchen?

The spices you’ll reach for the most will depend on your personal preferences, of course. To discover your favorites, you may want to buy from bulk bins, so you can experiment with small quantities. Combine herbs and spices to complement each other and perk up the flavor of other ingredients. Most spices and seasonings are available in organic versions -- use them to boost the flavor of your meals. Always start with a light touch -- your seasonings should accent dishes, not dominate them.

"The question of which herbs and spices are the best to keep on hand has as many different answers as there are cooks," says McFarland. But there are some constants. Here are her recommendations for eight herbs and spices no kitchen should be without:

* Garlic is compatible with virtually every savory food and is available in a number of convenient dried forms. Just the aroma of garlic can speed guests to your table. Use it in tomato-based dishes, dressings, sausage and spice blends. Or sprinkle it on buttered bread before broiling.

* Onion seasons cuisines world-wide. The many varieties play various roles -- primary ingredient, vegetable accompaniment, or seasoning. The earthy aroma and taste of onion comes in several convenient dried forms. Use onions in casseroles, soups, sauces, vegetable dishes, relishes, breads and stuffing.

* Paprika is a sweet and sassy relative of the chili pepper. It’s used to add warm, natural color and mildly spicy flavor to soups, grains, and a variety of hors d’oeuvres. A shake or two livens up cheeses and garlic bread. Try it in spreads, salads, egg dishes, marinades and smoked foods.

* Parsley leaf brightens up soups, dressings, salads, casseroles, and stuffing -- any dish that might gain from fresh green color and clean, vegetable taste. It’s especially good with fish, egg and grain dishes.

* Cinnamon wins the spice world's popularity contest. Use it to add depth of flavor to sweet and savory dishes alike. It's a key baking ingredient and vegetables -- especially carrots, spinach and onions -- are enhanced by cinnamon's pungent sweetness.

* Basil has a warm, sweet, mild mint/peppery flavor that is delicious with vegetables, especially tomatoes. Add to soups and stews, sauces and dressings. Basil pairs well with many other seasonings.

* Oregano has a strong personality, but it partners well with other seasonings. Use in any tomato sauce, and on baked chicken and fish. Earthy and pungent, it has a special affinity for basil. Team them up in vegetable, cheese, pasta and tomato dishes, and especially pizza.

* Rosemary adds texture and taste to meats, marinades, dressings and casseroles. Potato salad is lost without it. Try this distinct, pungent taste in egg salad and stir fries, too. It even enhances soups.

McFarland recommends this simple recipe that uses a few of these basic seasonings to make ordinary pasta special:

Penne with Tomato and Herbs

Preparation time: 10 minutes. Cooking time: 40 minutes

16 oz. penne pasta, cooked al dente
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 large organic onion, finely chopped
2 teaspoons organic garlic flakes
1 28-oz. can chopped organic tomatoes, with liquid
2 teaspoons dried organic basil
1 teaspoon dried organic oregano
2 tablespoons dried organic parsley
Freshly grated organic parmesan cheese -- optional

In large non-stick skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic, tomatoes, basil, oregano, and parsley and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the herbs have plumped and the flavors have blended nicely, about 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Toss pasta with the hot sauce to re-warm, and serve immediately. Pass cheese separately.

For more on cooking with basic spices, visit

Courtesy of ARAcontent

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