Cooking with Herbs and Spices

There are roughly 75 herbs and spices in use around the world today. Some, like asafoedita and mahlab, are unfamiliar to most Arizonan cooks. Others, though seldom used, are gaining importance among cooks who savor the exotic flavors of foreign foods.

Spices. Spice over Wood. Herbs. Curry, Saffron, turmeric, cinnam

More common spices, about 35 in number, include such kitchen staples as sage, cinnamon, oregano, rosemary, turmeric, and -of course- salt and pepper. Most of us don’t have room for 35 little bottles or jars, or the time to sort through them. Even when they are cleverly displayed on tiered Lazy Susans – those circular, spinning trays – it can be almost impossible for busy cooks to find a single, needed spice.


To help busy moms (and dads) get dinner on the table before the kids start chewing on the furniture, we here at Fill Your Plate have compiled a list of spices according to use. That is, what goes with chicken or fish, and what makes mouths water over that platter of steamed veggies. Moms who have the time and courage to bake deserve a medal of honor, not more advice!


Let’s start with beef. Number 2 on the list of Arizona agriculture’s top 16 commodities, prime beef has loads of flavor. Even so, it can benefit from a dash of rosemary or thyme when grilling or simmering. Don’t have either of those? Try sage, an interesting flavor for beef, and one adopted from Thanksgiving stuffing recipes. The brave might even want to try Chinese five spice, blended with water or red wine and brushed over the tops of steaks or ribs. Traditionalists, on the other hand, likely prefer minced garlic, and sometimes that is all a cut of Arizona-raised beef needs.


Second on the list of meats would be pork, slightly lower in price than beef in most locations, and with a more subtle flavor. Don’t be afraid to add a little dry mustard glaze, or rub in some fresh sage leaves. Dried fennel is for those who dare to try, though thyme is enough for most of us (and what so many of us lack!)


Last on the list of traditional meats would be chicken. Affordable, low in cholesterol, and a favorite with the younger set, chicken’s mild flavor goes well with a number of ordinary spices (thyme, sage, marjoram, even just salt and pepper), but also benefits from a few more exotic selections. Try chili powder or a basting sauce of canned chiles you made yourself from Arizona farmers’ markets produce last summer! Southwestern Arizona chiles grow to perfection under the hot sun and fine soil of the Sonoran Desert region (in and around Yuma County), and are available from July through September.


You can also drizzle a lemon-garlic-ginger sauce over rotisserie chicken or broiled breasts; the lemon and garlic are available at local farmers’ markets right now! If you show no fear, you might even get your offspring to eat chicken baked with tarragon and soy, but only a late-night adult supper (i.e., you, your SO, and a bottle of Arizona wine) will accommodate dukkah chicken.


For a very special treat, consider buying some Arizona-grown lamb. This hard-to-get protein food is high in nutrition, low in fat, and mild enough to please the fussiest eater – or stomach. Americans typically think of lamb in curry, that spicy sweet Indian dish. If you are inspired to think beyond the typical, try zaatar. Serve with a hot, fresh (from the bakery) loaf of “Eesh baladi” or any crusty flatbread.


Salt Water Fish, though probably not a staple in Arizona, because it comes from far away, is another meat option and can be found in almost any supermarket. Tilapia, a fresh water fish, are often raised here in aquaponic farms and have a pleasant, mild flavor. Both varieties of fish can be seasoned with tarragon, chervil, lemon, or cilantro, all in a lemon-butter sauce. The lemons are delightfully local.


Lastly, those all-important vegetables. From potatoes (thyme, parsley, even pesto) to parsnips (oregano, rosemary, and garlic), a pinch of spice creates an aroma that makes even ordinary veggies hard to resist. When it comes to salad, a red wine vinegar with olive oil and infused with herbs de Provence is a taste experience that may please even young taste buds.


Be creative! It’s food, the stuff of life. If your first attempt doesn’t turn out, rest assured your local farmers and ranchers will make more!


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