Monday, January 23, 2012

Meatless Monday* - The Spice Rack

The other week I caught some of The Splendid Table on public radio. A caller was asking the host, Lynne Rossetto Kasper, how to cook fresh food that was still economical.

Lynne's answer was dear to a green foodie's heart: try the cuisines of other countries, and stick to the "peasant food." If you look up peasant food on Wikipedia, you'll find this definition: dishes specific to a particular culture made from accessible and inexpensive ingredients and usually prepared and spiced to make them more palatable.

Peasant food is usually, in today's parlance, "plant-strong." i.e., if I'm a peasant, I'm not going to be able to afford filet mignon, so I'm going to eat some veg.

Happily, this style of eating is not only easy on the pocketbook, but also easy on the Earth. Diets low in large mammals put less of a strain on the land. And, as the wikipedia article points out, if the spice is right, this kind of eating is also delicious.

But wait, you might be thinking. Spices seem mighty expensive.

That's true. There's an investment in spices, but one jar can last a long time. Here are a few tips for buying spices that will help your wallet and the planet:
  • To find cheaper spices, try ethnic markets. For example, cumin is cheaper if you buy it in a packet labeled comino (which is the Spanish word for cumin.) Why? It probably has to do with racism and imperialism. Or something.
  • "Healthy" markets like Whole Foods usually have spices in bulk. This allows you to buy spices in small amounts. So even if you normally eschew the prices at these stores, they are worth a trip for spices that you don't use often. (This vocabulary moment was brought to you by the letter E and words that rhyme with "bless you".)
  • Organic spices are becoming more available. If you can, buy these. Remember, spices are an investment.
  • When it's an option, buy spices in glass jars rather than plastic. Plastic is a chemical stew that includes petroleum products. Glass takes more energy to produce initially, but I find that glass items find more uses in my home, and I can feel sure that glass is not leeching chemicals into my life. Archer Farms spices (the Target "fancy" brand) come in glass bottles that are super-cute and make adorable bud vases or additions to your next Joseph Cornell rip-off.
So now, I'm sure you're totally convinced that peasant food, deliciously-spiced, is the way to go. But if your typical cuisine is American, with a side of Italian and the occasional taco, what should you buy?

I have three staples in my cooking: Mexican -- which, as Kasper pointed out on The Splendid Table -- is much more vibrant than the Tex-Mex most of us are familiar with -- Indian, and Mediterranean (Italian, Greek, and Middle Eastern). I arrange my spices by these cuisines, rather than alphabetically (or, you know, the alternative, which is NOT organized. NO... that would never be me.) I also tend to cook a lot of Asian food, but those spices tend to be in the fridge, rather than the spice rack. Another post...

Quick curries are one of the staples of my house. There's nothing easier than whipping up a spur-of-the-moment curry, vegetarian or not, and pouring it over some rice. Nothing easier.

Spices in the Indian cupboard:
Curry powder: Really a blend of several spices, including turmeric and pepper.
Garam masala: Another spice blend. This one is peppery and cinnamony. I basically put it in everything.
Turmeric: Turmeric makes things YELLOW! So be careful with it; it can stain. It's also believed to be a magic health herb -- when I'm sick, I sometimes put a teaspoon of turmeric in hot water with a little lemon for a drink that soothes a sore throat and a sicky sad-face.
Other spices: Paprika, ginger, coriander, and saffron (saffron is quite expensive, so if you can't afford it, you can usually go without. But you only use a few threads at a time, so a single jar can go a long way.

Click here to find Indian vegetarian recipes.


No, I don't mean Taco Bell or Taco Time. I mean Mexican food. Most "Mexican" food that Americans are familiar with is actually Tex-Mex. Tex-Mex is delicious in it's own right, but nothing compares with actual Mexican food.

Spices for Mexican cooking:
Cumin (or comino): My friend Kelly says, "you can never have too much comino", and she's from South Texas, so she knows what she's talking about. Lots of people have a strong reaction to comino -- some people say it smells like feet. But have no fear. Cumin tends to be at the heart of a lot of Mexican dishes. It's also featured in Indian cuisine, so it's a good purchase to begin your spice rack. AND it's delicious.
Peppers: I like to have many different pepper-based spices on hand. Cayenne is extremely spicy. Ancho is dried poblano, and it has almost a floral note. Crushed Red Pepper includes some seeds, the hottest part of the pepper. It's especially good in chili and also features in some Italian cooking.

Click here for vegetarian Mexican recipes, and here for one of my all time favorites: Ancho Lentil Tacos from the Post-Punk Kitchen a fusion recipe, as you might imagine.

"Mediterranean" encompasses many cuisines: Italian, Greek, Middle Eastern. And all of them promise wonders for your Meatless Monday.

Spices for your Mediterranean Feast:
Oregano: A staple of Italian cooking
Bay Leaves: Put one or two in your soups or stews to add flavor - but don't eat them. They're sharp!
Rosemary: Yep. They are basically pine needles. Crush them up to add a fragrant bite to your cooking. Delicious when paired with lemon.
Fennel seed: Fennel has a sort of licoricey taste to it, but it's often the "secret" ingredient to Italian favorites
Thyme: Thyme is often used in meats, but for your meatless dishes, it is superb with fresh tomatoes and olive oil.
Other Herbs to have on hand: Garlic and basil are best when fresh, and they are a critical addition to your Mediterranean delights.

Click here for vegetarian Mediterranean recipes.

With a well-stocked spice rack, "eating like a peasant" doesn't have to be a negative.

*Meatless Monday is a movement to spread awareness of the health and environmental benefits plant-strong eating, by encouraging people to eat meatless meals on Mondays.

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