Secrets of a Primal Cook: Herbs and Spices

One of the things we hope to do with this site is provide others with some insight and ideas on how to successfully follow the Primal or Paleo lifestyle, at least in terms of cooking.  All too often, we hear things like, “Meat and veggies every night is boring,” or, “I can’t live without <insert Neolithic food here>.”  Well, we’re here to help you get past that and come up with your own responses to those statements.  Because, frankly, they are excuses, and you know what they say about excuses…

So, in the spirit of helping you avoid some of the troubles and mishaps we’ve encountered along the way, we plan on running a few different features along with the basics of providing recipes.  One of those features will be Secrets of a Primal Cook – aimed at passing on some little tidbit of wisdom.  Some may simply be a couple of links to other reading that we’ve made good use of, some may be “how-to” pieces on things like not cutting the end of your thumb off when chopping garlic (that is, when I feel confident I’ve mastered that skill myself), and some will be like today’s piece – advice on the basic essentials you need to be successful as a Primal Cook.

Herbs and Spices

“But I don’t like spicy food…”  That’s not what we’re talking about (although, yes, you do need spices to make spicy food).  We’re talking about the basics of making something bland into something with dimension, interest, and flavor.  Ever take a chicken breast and simply boil it until cooked?  Not much to it, is there?  You may as well grab a hunk of tofu or maybe just chew on a piece of notebook paper for the same effect (although neither will provide you with the nutrition your body needs).  If your idea of a Primal dinner is a boiled chicken breast and plain steamed broccoli, it’s no wonder you’re whining that meat and veggies every night is boring.  What is the first thing you reach for on the table when you’ve got that piece of boiled chicken sitting there?  Salt and pepper?  Guess what, you’ve just used spices.  And no one got hurt.

In the war on boredom in the Primal kitchen, however, your arsenal needs to consist of much more than simply salt and pepper.  In fact, I think your most fundamental weapon against food boredom is a varied and fully stocked herb and spice collection.

Now, having a good assortment of herbs and spices (I’ll use both terms interchangeably from here out) is a start, but you also need to use them.  And you need to learn when and where to use different ones.  That comes with a little research, a little understanding, and a whole lot of practice (I’d still consider even myself novice at this last item).  You can get to know individual spices by taking off the lid, closing your eyes, and taking a whiff of the scent (scent has a lot to do with the actual flavor of a meal).  My daughter thinks it’s cool that I can identify just about every spice in that rack above blindfolded.  Just don’t bury your nose in the jar and sniff like you’re trying to stop a runny nose – you’re going to be sorry if you do.  Most spices contain some pretty volatile and potent essential oils (remember the hot pepper warning from the other day) that will wreak havoc on your nasal passages in high dosages.  Been there, learned that lesson the hard way…

You’ve also got to spend a little time getting to know which spices complement each other, and which complement different foods.  Again, this is a matter of research and experience, but it isn’t that tough to figure out.  One good way is to start out with some blends of spices that you find you like – perhaps you love a particular Herbs de Provence on your rack of lamb, or you’ve always used the same “Italian Seasoning” with your marinara sauce – and try to dissect the individual scents and flavors that are in there (it helps to buy blends that actually list their ingredients rather than stating “spices”), then come up with your own proportions.  Another is to look at a type of cuisine you enjoy, and find out what sort of spices are used often in that style of cooking.  Wikipedia is your friend.  So is Google.  Use them. 

And experiment.  A lot.  Use small amounts (most spices are best in small doses).  Add a little, give it a chance to incorporate into the food, and give it a taste.  If you have a hard time committing things to memory, keep a journal and write down what you do.  Take notes right on the page if you’re using a printed recipe.  Split a dish into a couple of different “versions” and try something different with each one.  Common sense says that making prime rib for 30 of your closest family on Christmas dinner may not be the best time for experimenting, but don’t worry about messing up with your day-to-day meals.  The worst that can happen – so long as you add in small doses, test as you go, and take mental or written notes – is that you decide this particular “experiment” is not worth making again.  So relax, and see what you discover.  And by all means, share it with others.

Unfortunately, spices can be expensive.  I might have needed a second mortgage to have stocked my spice rack at once.  So unless you just hit the PowerBall, I wouldn’t recommend running down to the grocery store and buying one of everything in a Spice Island jar.  (And if you did, why not share one of each with me!)  Start with a good set of basics and add to it a little at a time.  If you’re buying a certain spice for the first time, buy the smallest size you can get – but at least double what you need for the recipe you’re making (so you have enough left to make it again).  If you find that it is gone quickly, buy a larger size next time.  If you find you’re going through something like a gymnast uses chalk, then perhaps start looking at bulk or online ordering (and maybe revisit the paragraph about experimenting with some new ideas).  If you’ve got a knack for it, consider growing some of your own and then drying and storing it (or using it fresh – but that’s a topic for another day).  Also make sure that as you notice one getting low (around 1/3 or so left in the jar), you pick up a replacement so you aren’t stuck in the middle of a recipe with too little to finish – a good practice for everything in your pantry really.

So, what are my “go to” spices – the basics I would pick up if starting over?  Good question.  I would have a hard time not answering “ALL of them!”  But if I had to narrow it down to a “starter set,” most of them are on my top shelf in the rack.

  • Sea Salt (has essential minerals not found in your generic table salt – you can even get “fancy” and look for different varieties from different seas, all of which will have varied flavors)
  • Coarse Black Pepper (don’t stop with black though – white, red, and green peppercorns all have distinct flavors too, and blends of them are great!)
  • Costco’s Kirkland Signature Organic No-Salt Spice Blend (I use this like most people use salt)
  • Oregano (for too many things to list)
  • Thyme (for too many things to list)
  • Rosemary (for too many things to list)
  • Garlic Powder (for when I’m lazy)
  • Chili Powder (for basic southwest heat and flavor)
  • Cumin (essential Mexican spice)
  • Turmeric (essential curry spice)
  • Cinnamon (you’d be surprised what this can do!)
  • Vanilla (REAL vanilla extract)

Of course, that would only last me a couple of days before I’d have to make a trip to the spice aisle for something more obscure.

Discussion Topic: What are your “go to” spices, and why?  Post to the comments – let’s get some feedback started!

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6 responses to “Secrets of a Primal Cook: Herbs and Spices

  1. All those bags of dried chili in grocery store – I use about six different ones, all the time. Some sweet, some really hot. Have a coffee grinder dedicated to spices. Some are better seeded first, all are easy, and fresh ground has ++flavor.

  2. Dill is surprisingly good in many dishes you wouldn’t expect & easy to grow or pick up in the Fall at the farmers market by the bundle!

  3. I’ve often thought about picking up some of those dried chilis – I was always worried things would end up too spicy for the kids if I want all-out with them. I’m going to have to give it a try though, because I’m sure there’s plenty of variation beyond the basic “chili powder” in my cabinet!

  4. Thanks Mom! Dill is a good one, and admittedly underutilized in my kitchen (especially the seeds). I do use the dill leaves often in fish dishes, but remember that fresh dill seeds were always a favorite to just pick a few and nibble on when I was a kid!

  5. I don’t have necessarily a go-to spice to suggest, but a method of buying. Find a store with bulk spice bins and buy from there. The spices are almost always cheaper and you can buy smaller quantities. This becomes important when you’re trying to decide if you like a new spice. Just buy a tablespoon or two, try it, then you can always buy more.
    And it can be a great gift idea. For a friend who was not very into spicing her meals, I bought what I considered 10 ‘normal’ useful spices, about a 1/4 cup each and gave them to her as a set. It MIGHT have cost me $5 total. Now she regularly buys some of these spices because they aren’t as scary to her any more now that she had someone to encourage her to try them.

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