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I was just on youtube having followed a link to the teaser for “Baking a Fool of Myself”, a new cooking show by Vancouver pot activist Watermelon. It looks cute, her Mom’s cameos promise to be entertaining, and I would like to know where I can get a globe like the one featured in the closing montage. Because my geography needs work.
However, today’s blog is not about that kind of herb.
Every cook at some time experiences the epiphany brought on by discovering quality seasonings.
Most of us start off with a sad collection of dried, flavourless powders and flakes ranging from grey-green to grey-brown, bagged sometime in 1983, and we wonder why our food tastes lifeless. We think back to history class where we learned about how the spice trade shaped modern civilization and think to ourselves “Why would anybody venture across the cruel oceans for the contents of my spice cupboard?”
All humans may be created equal, but not so all cumin.
Somewhere along the way I learned a thing or two that helped my cooking immensely. I know I’m mostly preaching to the converted here, so feel free to skip these if they bore you.
1) Very few dried herbs are a decent substitute for fresh. Bay leaves, sage and oregano are on the good list, though of course fresh sage leaves are indispensable for some applications. Almost everything else becomes a shadow of its former glory once desiccated.
foodsubs.com has a comprehensive list of herbs and substitutions that can be handy when a fresh herb is unavailable. I know fresh herbs can be expensive. If you can grow some, do! It’s very satisfying.
2) Buy whole seeds! Ground spices lose their flavour rapidly. One of the biggest revolutions in my cooking was learning to toast and grind my own spices. It takes a little longer but the results are beyond compare.
3) Buy decent spices and store them well. Okay, I’m not an expert on the first half of that. It’s all trial and error for me. But I can say that the best spices I’ve ever used were the ones given to me as a gift from the Vij’s curry kit. They come in an airtight tin. The dear friends who bought them for me had been previously gifted the same kit (not the same exact kit – this wasn’t re-gifting). One day they accidentally left the tin ever-so-slightly ajar, and spent the next week wondering who in their building was cooking curry every night. These suckers are potent.
Keep your dried seasonings in airtight containers away from light and heat. Replenish them periodically, because they do degrade.
I can probably count on one hand the number of recipes I’ve made more than once in the last 6 years. This one has been repeated about four times, which tells you how much I adore it. Even when you execute it badly, as I did this time, the results are wonderful. It’s a great example of how good handling of spices can really make a dish shine.
This recipe was inspired by an Epicurious recipe first published in Bon Appétit.
Spice-crusted Ahi Tuna with Lemon Aïoli
1 tsp fennel seeds
1/2 tsp coriander seeds
1/2 tsp peppercorns
pinch kosher salt
2 Tbsp mayo (light is fine)
Juice from 1/2 lemon (generous 1 Tbsp)
1 small clove garlic, minced
2 ahi tuna steaks (about 150g each)
Combine first three ingredients in a small skillet and toast over medium heat, shaking frequently, until fragrant and just turning colour. Cool, grind in a spice grinder, transfer to a small bowl and add the salt.
Whisk together mayo, lemon juice and minced garlic. Set aside.
Rinse tuna steaks and pat dry. Brush with oil and coat liberally with spice mixture. Heat and oil a skillet on high heat. Sear tuna until it’s cooked to your liking.
Drizzle with aïoli and serve.
I’ve been on a small fish kick lately for both sustainability and health reasons, but seriously, yum. This is a wonderful way to enjoy one of the large fish, and a delightful way to appreciate the beauty of spices.
If foods are the canvas of our diets, then seasonings surely are the paints. Why not try a new colour this week? Maybe your kitchen isn’t yet acquainted with Kaffir lime leaves, or Asafetida, or Juniper berries. See what kind of adventure your taste buds have been missing.
I didn’t have nachos tonight in preparation for National Nacho Day. I had pizza. Crappy pizza too. Stupid excessively overpriced crappy pizza. This is what happened…
The past two nights, G has stayed up late and has been energetic and lots of fun so I planned on that tonight. I planned on picking him up from daycare and we would go shopping to pick up the stuff for the Best Nachos Ever and it would be loads of fun. Like this!
I forgot though. Yesterday we went to one of the mass inoculation clinics and he got shot up with seasonal flu vaccine and H1N1 vaccine … and then he woke up at 5 this morning with a fever and cranky. So when I picked him up from daycare, it was a lot more like this …
Suffice to say, we did not make it to the grocery store and I did not make nachos. Instead, I ordered this crappy-ass pizza from this crazy place that charged me $3.00 to put less than an ounce of feta on my small pizza! But I digress …
Since my child has yet again prevented me from being able to provide you with delicious photographs of delicious food, the least I can do is provide you with my Philosophy of Nachos and some delicious recipes.
Here’s my Philosophy of Nachos:
Nachos are all about the layers, the cheese and the salsa. Well, nachos ARE cheese on top of tortilla chips. Otherwise, they’re just tortilla chips. So really, the tortilla chips are conduits. Conduits for yummy ooey gooey melted cheese and tart juicy salsa. Of course, you should also put other toppings on your nachos to make it really spectacular which is what I almost always do. But the key is the layers. To build a really good plate of nachos, you have to layer your nachos, cheese, toppings like you are building a really complex lasagna, or playing Tetris or something like that.
You start with a nice deep casserole dish, or even better, a deep cast iron frying pan. Spread a two chip thick layer of tortilla chips across the bottom. Use good chips. You’re making nachos here – there is no “diet-friendly” here – nachos are about excess! Skip the baked tortilla chips and go straight to the good ol’deep-fried corn tortilla chips. Don’t buy unsalted chips either. You’d just be cheating yourself.
Evenly sprinkle a layer (silly aside here – I just accidentally typed “lawyer” not “layer” – I have work on the brain) of grated “cheese” (explained below) and a layer of “toppings” (also explained below), followed by another two chip thick layer of chips, another layer of cheese, another layer of toppings and so on until you have filled the casserole dish. Finish by topping the last layer of toppings with a layer of cheese. Bake in a 350 degree oven until all the cheese is thoroughly melted. It can’t be a little bit melted. It has to be bubbling-boiling-oil-separating-from-the-milk solids melted. Take it out of the oven and then eat your nachos by dipping them in a variety of “delicious dips” (explained below) and sour cream before carefully putting them in your mouth trying not to burn your tongue on the melted cheese. Drink beer with your nachos. Or maybe a Margarita if you want to pretend you are on a tropical holiday somewhere lounging on the beach …
“Cheese” – should be a mixture of cheese. Not just any old cheese. Mix monterey jack (preferably with jalapenos or habaneros in it) and extra old cheddar. That’s the best combo.
“Toppings” - this is where things can get crazy. Skip the canned black olives (eeewwwww!!!) and go for any combination (or all) of the following:
1. The Fresh Veggie Topping: Finely chopped bell peppers of every hue (red, green, yellow, orange), tomatoes (use Romas – they’re less juicy so they won’t make your chips soggy), sweet onion (stay away from yellow and purple – too strong!).
2. The Taco Sunday Veggie Topping: Saute onions, mushrooms and diced red peppers until tender but still crunchy. Add black beans, corn and spices. ”Spices?” Spices. Specifically, toasted ground cumin, chili powder, toasted ground coriander, cayenne, salt and lime juice. Yes, I consider citrus a spice. Cook long enough to meld all the flavours, but remember that your veggies will be cooking in the oven while the cheese is melting so don’t go overboard or you’ll end up with mush.
3. The Taco Sunday Meat Topping: Brown extra lean ground beef or bison meat. Properly lean meat will actually require some oil in the pan and there won’t be anything to drain off. Add spices and a slurry. Spices are pretty much the same as for the Veggie Topping, but don’t put lime in it unless you really, really like citrus. Make a slurry with some corn starch and some water, or if you want to stick with our family’s Taco Sunday tradition, use beer. Mix the spices with the slurry, slop it onto the meat and cook on med-low heat until it thickens. You can do the same thing with chicken instead but it’s best to rub spices on the chicken, grill it, shred it and then simmer it in the spicy slurry. If you use chicken, definitely use the lime.
4. The Taco Sunday Extra Best Special Topping: Chorizo and lime. That’s it. Just chorizo (really good quality of course) sauteed with some fresh lime juice squeezed on it.
5. The Gotta Have Something Pickled Topping: pickled jalapenos, banana pepper rings, green chiles, olives (again, let me reiterate, not the canned ones! eeeeeewwwwww!), etc.
“Delicious Dips” - there’s a variety here. It’s all about salsa fresca – which just means “fresh sauce” which doesn’t really tell you much about what you’re eating except that it’s “fresh”. No, that doesn’t mean it’s going to pinch you in the butt when you walk by. It means fresh raw ingredients. The best salsa is made with the best produce, so if you’re gonna make it, splurge on the high quality produce and buy local whenever you can – it almost always tastes better.
Because I am blessed to live in the heart of farm market country, I rarely eat store bought salsa. Salsa fresca is easy to make and delicious to eat so why would I? First, make your base. What you do is you finely mince a mid-size clove of garlic and put it in a bowl. Add about a quarter of a sweet onion finely diced, a couple of handfuls of fresh cilantro leaves, a pinch of cayenne and some fresh squeezed citrus (you pick lemon or lime – depends on what else you’re putting in the salsa). Amounts are not specific (if you have a problem with that, please go re-read my profile – you can’t say you weren’t warned). Point is to have a light touch with the onion, heavy touch with the cilantro, cayenne to taste. I almost always include a fresh hot pepper, like a jalapeno or serrano or habanero, in my base, but it’s optional. Not everyone likes the really spicy stuff.
For tomato salsa, add to the base some fresh finely diced tomatoes. Use good flavorful tomatoes like Super Sweets or Romas. Not cardboardy flavourless beefsteaks. You might as well buy something in a jar if you’re gonna do that.
For tomatillo salsa, skip the citrus and add a bunch of finely diced tomatillos and some avocado. Tomatillos are very acidic so you don’t need citrus, unless you feel like having a perma-pucker while you eat.
For fruit salsa, add a finely diced fruit, like a papaya, mango or pineapple (or all of them mixed together). These are tropical fruits which is a deviation from the fresh local produce refrain. It’s the exception to the rule. You could, in fact, make a salsa using fruits local to BC and it would still be delicious. Peach salsa, for instance. Or apples. Or … you get the point.
That’s about it for salsa fresca. I am not going to talk about guacamole here. Why? Because I know there is a guacamole day coming up someday and I wouldn’t want to steal it’s thunder. Plus, I think this is my longest post yet and I’m concerned I have lost your attention by now.
I am SO going to make nachos this weekend!
I was fortunate to take a trip to Morocco last spring, and ever since then I have an interest in recapturing the aromas and flavors which were taught to me in a cooking class in the Marrakesh medina and which would sweep you away every night in the open air market. Spices are used extensively in Moroccan food, and many are home grown, including mint, olives, oranges and lemons, and saffron.
My sister referred me to Moroccan Scallops with Green Grapes and Lemon Relish, which uses many of the common Moroccan spices include karfa (cinnamon), kamoun (cumin), kharkoum (turmeric), skingbir (ginger), libzar (pepper), tahmira (paprika), maadnous (parsley), and mint. But not everything has to be from that part of the world – I was lucky to find some beautiful Qualicum Bay scallops and substituted local purple coronation grapes for the green grapes called for in the recipe.
A word about the scallops (it’s their “day” after all!): did you know that they have dozens of blue eyes? Strange, but true. Hope that little revelation didn’t turn you off scallops, because *dam* this recipe is tasty. Don’t let the scallops cook too long, and don’t skip the step of making salted lemon rind, as it really makes the relish.