Terri on Herbes de Province

Terri leads us through complicated flavors!

What’s the first rule of herbes de Provence?

–There’s no such thing as a traditional blend of herbes de Provence.

What’s the second rule of herbes de Provence?

–There’s no such thing as a traditional blend of herbes de Provence.

Herbes de Provence, as a marketed thing, did not exist until the 1970s, and we can thank Julia Child for turning it into a collective noun. Prior to her recipe instruction to add said noun to a chicken sauté, les grand-mères Provençales (Provencal grandmothers, yo) would simply add…herbs. Grown locally. In the proportions they found most pleasing for their palates. The French spice company Ducros (now a part of a giant spice company that shall remain nameless) packaged a medley of herbs for export et voila! Nearly fifty years have passed and we’re still buying it.

Located in the southeastern corner of France, bordering Italy, the southern Alps, and the Mediterranean Sea, Provence is known for food that is not fussy. Provencal cuisine coaxes tons of flavor out of simple ingredients, and the cooks there know how to apply local herbs to their best advantage. Want to sass up your asparagus? Roast it with olive oil and some herbes de Provence and suddenly, your dish is full of Mediterranean vigor. In no particular order, herbes de Provence may consist of thyme, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, basil, chervil, tarragon, lovage, savory, sage, bay leaf and fennel. It may include dried orange rind. Blends packaged for US consumption usually include lavender, but those packaged for consumption elsewhere do not. It seems Americans so closely associate Provence with their lavender fields that we’re not happy without a spike of it in the blend. At least, that’s the official line; I suspect it’s got more to do with offloading agricultural overstock, but that’s my inner cynic speaking. At least the end results are yummy.

Why do we love spice blends? Why do tremendous amounts of spice cabinets contain things like herbes de Provence or Italian seasoning or Chinese five-spice powder? That’s easy. Because…they do a lot of the work for the home cook, and provide a modicum of insight into cultural cuisine for a relatively small cost. We may not know what to do with a whole star anise, but we can experience it in five-spice powder. We may not have a bottle of chervil, lovage, and savory sitting in the spice rack (or growing in the local fields), but we can buy some herbes de Provence and partake in the aromatic flavors that are ubiquitous to the sunny Mediterranean way of life. You may not be in France but with some herbes and the right olive oil, you can imagine what it’s like there thanks to your potatoes.

Because the herb medley is so fluid, it’s impossible to nail down the overall health benefits. If nothing else, many of the herbs listed above—which may or may not be in a blend—have antioxidant properties, so that’s something you can count on. And who isn’t happier, and consequently less stressed out, when they eat food that’s been made delicious by use of a delicious spice blend? Boom, there you have it. Herbes de Provence relieve anxiety. You heard it here first, world. You’re welcome.

The ingredients in herbes de Provence are no secret, so if you have the time and inclination, feel free to mix herbs together in proportions you find most pleasing. It’s what Julia Child did. But if you don’t think you need to reinvent the spice wheel in order to make your dinner sing, get yourself a bottle of les herbes and transport yourself to the rolling hills of southeastern France

Terri on Cardamom!

Ah…  she’s thinking meatballs, I’m thinking sweet buns. Yum any way you try it, but who knew all this? Terri!

In the year 7000 BCE, the city of Jericho had a population of nearly 2,000 people, and they had developed crops of barley and wheat. Beer was still a thousand years away from discovery. The Jiahu people of central China had begun experimenting with a proto-cuneiform, inching the world closer to written language. And in India, cardamom was grown for export, in trade with Babylon.

If you’re counting, that’s 9000 years. Nine. Thousand. Years. 9000! That the words, “Yes, get me some more cardamom, please,” have been coming out of peoples’ mouths. We are more alike than different, even unto our ancients.

Cardamom, a cousin of ginger, is a chameleon. It is at once woodsy, citrusy, smoky, and sweet, and performs with equal vigor in baked sweet goods or in savory meals. I will attest myself that a touch added to my coffee—no more than 1/8 teaspoon—sends said coffee into the metaphorical stratosphere. Yeah… it’s that good.

Curiously, despite being a tropical plant that grows in climates with temperatures that do not descend below 35°F, cardamom has become an integral part of Scandinavian cooking. And by integral, I mean that Sweden consumes more than 18 times as much cardamom as most of the rest of the world, except for India and the Middle East. Norway consumes 30 times as much. Conventional wisdom says the Vikings brought cardamom back to Scandinavia with them after a standard-issue sacking of Constantinople about a thousand years ago, and that’s how the Swedes ended up with their funky citrus-woodsy-sweet meatballs.

With deeper research, academics are now challenging that presumption, stating a lack of evidence that points to Vikings. By 1050CE, according to trade documentation, cardamom had only made it as far north as Germany, and there are no cookbooks or records that show Vikings included cardamom trading as one of their many talents. Thanks to a current, copious application of academic elbow grease, there are more and more food historians that think cardamom did not come to Scandinavia as a happy side effect of a sacking but rather, thanks to the Moors. Established on the Iberian peninsula in the 8th century, Moorish recipes began showing up in Danish cookbooks in the 1200s, two full centuries after the supposed Viking cardamom introduction.

A natural digestive, cardamom has been used historically to alleviate stomach problems. There’s some interesting research that indicates cardamom to be effective in the prevention and treatment of stomach ulcers, primarily by acting as a natural antibiotic to the Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria commonly linked to ulcer formation. Recently, cardamom and cardamom oil have been shown to lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels, which helps improve heart health. It’s been shown to counter the effects of a high-fat diet by preventing the formation of abdominal fat, improve glucose intolerance, and inhibit the inflammation of liver tissue. And! The ancients chewed cardamom seeds for years, both because it’s yummy and because it helps keep gums healthy.

Cardamom delivers organ-friendly overall health benefits, while managing to balance savory-sweet deliciousness. It’s diversity is reflected in its popularity, being much beloved in both India and Scandinavia…and in the rest of the world. While I may not be able to thank my Viking ancestors for furthering cardamom’s global popularity a thousand years ago, I can thank them for their surprising use of it in meatballs.

Terri on Basil… mmmm

Here’s Terri on an herb we love… it always felt so straightforward before this…

Basil has a curiously contradictory folkloric heritage. To the Romanians, the gift (and acceptance!) of a basil sprig indicated an engagement, while Greeks thought basil represented hatred and poverty. In Egypt and Iran, basil was planted or scattered on the graves of the recently departed as a sign of love, while in Crete, basil was thought to represent the devil…but would be kept on the windows to ward him away. In the 16th century in England, it was particularly dangerous business handling basil. It was thought, by at least one person important enough to have his musings preserved, that basil sprigs put under a rock bred scorpions. Even worse, one physician claimed that if one breathed too deeply the scent of a basil plant, scorpions would infest the sniffer’s brain. Scorpions. In the brain. Meanwhile in Africa, basil protected against scorpions.

Editorial note: Basil does not produce scorpions. (Priestess response: Well, that’s a relief!)

This glorious herb has been cultivated for somewhere between 4,000-5,000 years, give or take whose history you decide to follow. It originated on the hills of India, growing wild in the lush heat, and made its way everywhere warm (or could go to seed and have the seeds protected during the winter), relatively quickly, especially for a plant that can’t travel on its own. America as a continent is a late-comer to the basil game, since basil did not reach these shores until the 1600s, when it was brought over with the pilgrims who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Even with 400 years of basil at our fingertips, we still primarily associate this herb with Mediterranean and/or Thai food.

Sweet basil delivers a flavor package that is at once soft, round, pungent, bitter, and delicate. It is also unforgiving in how it should be used; basil ought to be used fresh, and either raw (pesto, salads) or added at the end of the cooking time (pasta, Thai stir fries, everything else it’s cooked with) lest the heat destroy the volatile aromatics that give basil its distinctive flavor. Drying it…honestly, I’ve yet to see the point of dried basil, because to me it tastes like slightly licorice-y paper. And it doesn’t store well. If you wrap plucked leaves in damp (but not wet!) paper towels and put them somewhere cool (but not cold!), you may be able to hang on to the leaves for two days before they reduce themselves to slime. Maybe. Your best bet is to grow a pot on your windowsill. This way fresh basil is always at hand, and you can ward off Satan in the process.

Nutritionally, sweet basil offers a lot to the consumer. Basil is packed with Vitamin K, which is instrumental in protein modification and blood clotting. (Side note: if you are on blood thinners, maybe keep an eye on basil consumption.) Its essential oils have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, which help alleviate symptoms of arthritis and a sour gut. Even John Gerard, an herbalist writing in the 16th century, recognized basil’s ability to calm digestive upset. And it’s a great source of manganese and Vitamin A, which help promote cardiovascular health. As long as you don’t overheat the basil and destroy the essential oils that provide these benefits. See how it all goes together?

Perhaps the complex flavor profile and myriad health benefits contributed to the complicated social history that surrounds this herb. All I know is, when I smell it I get hungry. I’m usually happier having eaten something that’s basilicious, and I’ve never encountered even one scorpion while doing so.

Terri on Saffron

Picture if you will, a field full of crocus…es. Crocii? Crocus flowers.

Now, imagine each one of those flowers has three red stamens, and they are fragrant and pungent and delicious.

Imagine if you don’t harvest those stamens the day the crocus blooms, they will wither and die. And because they stamens are so delicate, they have to be harvested by hand or they could be destroyed.

Imagine it takes 225,000 stamens—or 75,000 flowers—to create one pound of product.

You have just imagined what it takes to harvest saffron, and perhaps have come to a right understanding as to why it costs about $10,000 a pound. The bad news is…seriously, it costs $10,000 a pound. The good news is, a little goes a long way.

Saffron was first cultivated in Iran, or Crete, or possibly, India, or Greece in hummina-hummina BCE; the first depiction of saffron in use in Greece is in Bronze Age work, which dates from 3300-1200 BCE. Saffron was reportedly used by Cleopatra in her bathwater, both for its color (she liked the golden sheen) and for its smell (I love the smell of a $1200 bath in the morning). She would use a quarter cup of it. In the bath. Then again, she was Queen of Egypt.

Most of the time, saffron measurements in recipes are stated in things like “a pinch”, or “three or four threads”, or “1/8 teaspoon”, which still makes anything with saffron slightly more spendy than most other dishes, but decidedly less than $1200. According to aficionados, there’s nothing like it in the world, so the pleasure of saffron is worth the luxe expense. It has been described as many things—musky, herbal, sweet, heady—which culminate in something mysterious and difficult to describe but uniquely glorious. That gloried image is only helped by the way it imparts a golden color to recipes fortunate enough to benefit from the saffron pinch. From dinners to desserts, saffron brings a pungent, heady scent that carries the flavor through your nose, across your palate, and straight to your heart.

That’s not all it does, though. Crocin, one of the primary compounds in saffron, has powerful antioxidant properties which boosts overall cellular health and can help maintain metabolism. Research also indicates that saffron (or saffron extract) taken orally for 6-12 weeks can be an effective antidepressant, perhaps as effective as low-dose prescription drugs. Other compounds have been used to treat PMS and improve memory and learning ability. Not to be outdone by its stamens, a compound in the petal of the actual crocus is being studied for its effectiveness in treating cancer. It’s a plant that keeps on giving.

So yes, it’s expensive. But it is also an unparalleled gift from the earth with benefits that go far beyond the flavor it brings to the table. Try it, and see how you like it. All it takes is a pinch!

Terri on Ancho Chiles! Hot! Hot! Hot!

Hey, buddy, I ancho chili powder. I ain’t nobody’s chili powder.

Because I cayenne-‘t help myself I had to start with a pun and for that, I apologize. I have a problem. I need jalapeño.

Ancho chili powder is the love child of poblano peppers and time. That’s it. Most of us are familiar with poblano peppers, which are named to honor their origination in the Mexican state of Puebla. In their unripened state poblanos are spade-shaped, about the size of a palm, and a deep forest green. They have a little bit of heat (but not a whole lot; on average, a jalapeño is about five times hotter), and are relleno great for stuffing. When poblanos ripen they turn dark red, almost black, and that is when poblanos are harvested for drying. By means of metamorphosis, poblanos turn into ancho peppers.

Anchos—the name simply means “wide”—undergo a change in character and flavor profile as they wizen. The drying process helps intensify the heat of the pepper, hence the dried product, both in whole dried form and pulverized into powder, is spicier than the pepper itself. Drying also teases out richer flavors in the pepper, contributing to anchos being described as sweetly smoky (but they are not smoked, and that’s important to note in pepper prep), with a hint of raisin. The ancho’s complex flavor provides a great base for things like sauces—I’m looking at you, mole—and enchiladas. And, happily, it’s a phenomenal pairing with chocolate, so if you’re looking for a little sweet heat it’s your go-to choice.

Because ancho powder is just ground-up pepper, it carries the same nutritional payload as a pepper. Capsaicin, the compound that gives a pepper its heat, has been shown to inhibit internal inflammation, aiding in the relief of things like arthritis. Spicy peppers can also help control cholesterol and act as an antioxidant, lowering risk of things like strokes and heart attacks. And the vitamin A and beta carotene in peppers shores up the ol’ immune system, the iron in the pepper helps keep red blood cells healthy, and there’s always a little boost of fiber (a little? One measly tablespoon of ancho powder has 4 grams of fiber, or 15% of the recommended daily allowance) to keep…other things…moving along.

Don’t confuse ancho chili powder with a standard chili powder, which can be a combination of available chili powders on hand (much like canned pumpkin can be any kind of bright orange squash, but I digress). If you want to bring a little spicy-sweet raisiny-ish powdered love to your dinner table, make sure it says “ancho”. Rub it on steaks. Roast some carrots in it. Turkey chili? Yes, please! But most of all, enjoy it!