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Spices and Their Contribution to Global Cuisine         
Spices and extra virgin olive oil share powerful culinary bonds. They allow cooks to kick up the flavor of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. They add richness without the use of butter, say, or heavy cream. And they define global cuisines and flavors.Spices courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

"What makes each country food taste unique? What gives it life?" chef Ana Sortun asks in her book Spice (Regan Books, 2006). "In the Arabic foods around the Mediterranean and Middle East, the answer is spice." 

Sortun, whose Cambridge, Mass.-based restaurant Oleana serves Arabic-influenced foods of the Mediterranean and Turkey, says extra virgin olive oil, in turn, "gives subtle fruit flavors and aroma, silky texture or 'good' fat to any preparation."

Spices, like olive oil, are plant-based. They typically come from the seeds, berries, bark, or roots of plants. They range from peppercorns and fennel seeds, to cumin seeds, turmeric, paprika, and saffron.

They are key ingredients in the cooking of Indian, China, the Middle East, North Africa, and Latin America.  Cardamom, for example, gives Arabic coffee its unique flavor. Turmeric delivers a beautiful golden color to Indian dals and curries.

Europeans and the rest of us turn regularly to the spice cupboard, too. Saffron is a key ingredient in Spain's paella.  Hungarians have embraced paprika with a bear hug, using it in dishes such as goulash.
Saffron courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
"There can be no argument that the culinary world would be a dull place today had we not been introduced to the magical transformative properties of spice," Australian food writer Jane Lawson writes in her book The Spice Bible (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2008).

Lawson adds that spices "have been utilized for centuries as preservatives, colorants, and therapeutics."

Recent scientific research indicates spices may be good for you. For example: Studies suggest curcumin, which gives turmeric and curry powders their yellow color, may reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.

Following are spice tips from Lawson and EatingWell magazine:

Shopping: For the best flavor, buy whole spices whenever possible in small quantities. Grind them in a spice grinder, coffee grinder, or mortar and pestle as you need them.Souce Bazaar, Instanbul, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Storage: Place spices in an air-tight jar in a cool and dry place. Avoid storing them above a stove.

Testing for freshness: Give spices a quick sniff. Alternatively, certain spices emit a discernible aroma if you rub them between your fingers and release the volatile oils. If there's no aroma, the spice is well past its prime.

Be ruthless: If the spices in your pantry are beyond their best-by date, toss them and replace them with new ones.  

Online sources: Penzeys Spices; Amazon.com; Kalustyan's;  The Spice House
 Our Favorite Spice-Infused Recipes  

Courtesy of Marie Simmons

 

Vegetable Paella 

Marie Simmons Vegetable Paella


















Recipe credit: Fresh & Fast Vegetarian (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)

Reprinted with permission from the publisher


Coconut-Vegetable Curry with Cashews

Marie Simmons Coconut-Vegetable Curry


















Recipe credit: Fresh & Fast Vegetarian (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)

Reprinted with permission from the publisher


Additional Recipes


Seafood Paella
Seafood Paella - Jane Lawson



















Recipe credit: The Spice Bible: Essential Information and More Than 250 Recipes Using Spices, Spice Mixes, and Spice Pastes (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2008), by Jane Lawson

Reprinted with permission from the publisher


Tuna Skewers with Chermoula

Tuna Skewers with Chermoula-Lawson























Recipe credit: The Spice Bible: Essential Information and More Than 250 Recipes Using Spices, Spice Mixes, and Spice Pastes (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2008), by Jane Lawson

Reprinted with permission from the publisher


Roasted Crispy Duck with Tomato-Sesame Jam
Roasted Crispy Duck with Tomato-Sesame Jam - Ana Sortun




















Recipe credit:Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean 

(Regan Books, 2006), by Ana Sortun

Reprinted with permission from the author

 Q&A with Our Featured Culinary Professional   

Marie Simmons

Cookbook author, writer, teacher 

Northern California
Marie Simmons has created thousands of recipes. She'll first ponder the main ingredient, perhaps inspired by a walk in a farmer's market. By the time Simmons walks into the kitchen, she's on a mission. "I've already thought
Marie Simmons

"Pure, clean, fresh food is key. It's also the key to good health."

about how the particular food or recipe could be cooked, seasoned, etc.," she says. "Once I touch the food the ideas just seem to flow."


Simmons has put her skills to good use. The James Beard award-winning author has just published Fresh & Fast Vegetarian (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011). It's not her first cookbook. It's No. 23.  When she's not whipping up recipes or writing a cookbook, Simmons might be writing an article for a food magazine, or teaching a cooking class in Mexico. 

How did you become interested in cooking?

From when I was a child I loved to hang out in the kitchen. I grew up in an Italian family surrounded by good cooks. My nana (grandmother) was especially nurturing and was my true mentor. Most of my childhood memories are associated with food preparation and the taste of nana's dishes, especially ricotta-filled ravioli. They were light as a feather and soft as a pillow. I've never been able to replicate them.

How do you develop recipes so quickly?

I've thought about this a lot. I think it is inherited intuition. I also have what I call a taste memory. For instance, I can taste a food and sometimes, not always, identify a seasoning and immediately begin to plot and plan how I could reproduce a similar taste in my home kitchen. When I am writing I can hear the voices of my nana and my mother explaining tastes and cooking methods to me.

How have your cooking influences changed?
Marie Simmons Teaching

  "Today, we're fortunate that we can buy - either locally or online - all sorts of interesting spices."



At first my cooking was greatly influenced by the Italian pantry. But as I traveled the world and tasted other cuisines I began to expand my repertoire. Today, we're fortunate that we can buy - either locally or online - all sorts of interesting spices. I explore spice catalogs and spice selections in markets for familiar or new spices to try. I have a feel for what things go together and what won't.

What are your go-to flavors?

My basic three flavors in many recipes are olive oil, lemon juice or another acid - vinegar, tomato, tomato paste, or lime - and salt, including coarse salt, soy or tamari, or anchovy. Most often, if a recipe tastes "blah" it needs a hit of acid. A squirt of lemon juice can be transforming. I've been working with these notions for so long that they are second nature to me. I almost follow them without even thinking about it.

What's the philosophy behind your cooking?

Simplicity. I like recipes to be relatively easy. But I also want to use primarily fresh ingredients. Because I am a cook, and not a trained chef, I think of what the average cook would like to prepare and eat on a daily basis. Pure, clean, fresh food is key. It's also the key to good health. My great grandmother had a saying that my mother always repeated: "I'd rather spend money on good food than on the doctor." I still live by those words.

How do you like to cook with California Olive Ranch extra virgin olive oil?
Marie Simmons Food

  "Cooking for yourself and/or your family is the single greatest gift you can give."



I use California Olive Ranch in everything! I sauté in it, use it for salad dressing, stir fry in it, use it for pesto, drizzle it over steamed veggies, baked potatoes, corn on the cob. It's my "go-to fat."

What advice would you give home cooks?

Keep it simple. Relax and enjoy the process. Cook often and you'll find, like anything else, practice makes perfect. Always taste before serving, even if you're following a recipe. Add a little more olive oil, a squirt of lemon juice, a shower of fresh chopped herbs, and a pinch of salt to help bring up the flavors in a dish.

Try new things when you're relaxed and happy in the kitchen. And remember: Cooking for yourself and/or your family is the single greatest gift you can give.

 Thank You

Stay Healthy in 2011 with California Olive Ranch!


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