The Contented Vegan The Contented Vegan Newsletter
August 2021 Newsletter

by Peggy Brusseau

Hello from London!

I offer a slightly longer newsletter this month, focussing on dried herbs and spices. This very brief discussion is inspired by a question from Linlee, ‘I cook for one. I don’t know how to manage my spices and herbs. I often use an item for a recipe, then it will languish unused after that.’

I think most of us, on occasion, have found packets of unlabelled and vaguely mud-coloured herbs and spices tucked in the back of a cupboard! It is easy to keep thinking we’ll use them soon. Here is a short appreciation and a few ideas to make best use of what you buy.

Herbs and spices are added to food to help preserve it and to provide flavour and aroma. Because they are derived from plants, they tend to be rich in phytochemicals (such as antioxidants) and supply varying amounts of minerals and vitamins, too. Spices and herbs have a long history of both medicinal and culinary use. History also tells that they have inspired wars, fusion cuisines, research expeditions, trade routes and even investment trends. For most of us, though, it is enough to discover which of them we like and how to buy, store and use them!

Fresh or Dried?

Dried herbs and spices are available all year round. Fresh herbs and spices are almost a different product (and a different newsletter) and are used in a way that is distinct from the dried product. Use them freely when you can find them fresh, remembering that they will be seasonal.

Tips for Buying Dried Herbs and Spices
  Buy small quantities of the very best you can find. This is so that, when you use them, they are as flavoursome and aromatic as possible. Time, light, moisture and air can all degrade their qualities and therefore your enjoyment of them.
  Dried herbs should have a strong colour, depending on the type of herb, and a definite scent. Herbs without scent are often lacking colour and, vice versa, anaemic looking herbs often have no scent.
  Spices that are sold as ‘ground’ should, like herbs, be colourful and aromatic. These properties are difficult or impossible to test unless you buy some. Another reason to buy in small amounts.
  Buy spices in their whole form, if possible. Whole spices retain a little more of their potency and keep it for longer, too. You can grind them yourself just before you need them (see below).
  Best buys are from grocers who supply for ethnic or world cuisines; artisan producers; fair trade producers; or suppliers to naturopaths or medical herbalists.
  Check the date of production marked on the label (near the ‘best before’ date) and buy the most recently packaged. Even high-quality dried herbs and spices lose some of their vibrancy over time.
  Dried herbs and spices are often sold in foil packets or tiny cellophane envelopes within a small metal or cardboard box. These are sometimes called ‘refill’ packages and are a useful starting point.
  Some suppliers sell their products in clear glass jars. Though lovely, these allow light to reach the spices or herbs. Unfortunately, light acts powerfully to degrade the quality of the product.
Tips for Storing Dried Herbs and Spices
  Ideally, herbs and spices should be stored in ceramic, metal or dark glass containers (I use old Marmite jars). This is to keep the spices and herbs out of the light. If you already have a special set of clear glass storage jars, you can reduce the effect of light by wrapping a large label around each jar or by storing such containers in a dark cupboard.
  All storage containers should have an airtight lid. This will keep moisture out and the distinctive aromas and essential flavours, in.
  Ensure your herbs and spices are clearly labelled: what they are and, ideally, when and where you bought them. This will make it really easy to keep a high-quality supply.
  Use dried herbs and spices within 3 months of purchase, if you can (but a maximum of 6 months). That way, you get the best flavour and aroma they offer and little if any waste. Again, this is made easier if you buy in small quantities.
  Whole spices keep their strong flavours for up to 1 year if properly stored in dark, dry, cool conditions. Think of seeds, such as fennel, cumin and mustard; or the spice ‘fruits’ such as allspice, nutmeg and mace. These store so well because they have not yet been ground.
Tips for Using Dried Herbs and Spices
  To avoid introducing moisture or contaminants, scoop a herb or spice out of its container using dry, clean utensils. Similarly, if you normally measure herbs and spices into the lid of their container, make sure you do this away from a steaming pan to prevent moisture entering the container. In any case, wipe the lid dry before you close it again.
  Use a mortar and pestle or an electric mill to grind whole spices just before use. Grind several together if you are making a mixture. The aroma and unique texture of freshly-ground herbs and spices is wonderful: well worth the extra few minutes of preparation time.
  Many cuisines have ‘household’ spice mixtures; often these include herbs, too. Mixtures can be made in small batches and stored for short periods for your convenience. Recipes for such mixtures can be adjusted to suit your personal or household taste. Some you might wish to try are baharat, garam masala or the mixtures used to create dishes from Cajun, Thai or Mexican cuisines.
  Flavours, aromas and many phytochemicals are ‘carried’ in a plant’s natural fats and oils. You need only a tiny bit of cooking oil to help transport these qualities into the dishes you make.
  Add dried spices to the saute stage of your preparation. Add dried herbs later, toward the end of a saute stage or after a boiling stage. Cover the pan briefly after adding them.
  Create a mixture or two using the herbs and spices that are still in your cupboard 3 months after purchase and include them in home-made breads, cakes or cookies. A middle eastern household mixture called za’atar is baked onto flatbread or served as a dip beside fresh bread and olive oil.
  Older herbs and spices can be combined, folded into an unsealed envelope and placed as a scented ‘pot pourri’ in a drawer or cupboard. Add a few drops of an essential oil, if you wish.
Become Your Own Expert

I’ve saved the most important suggestion til the end! Adopt an enquiring, adventurous approach to using dried spices and herbs. It is great to use them in specific recipes, but you can learn a lot by using them without a recipe, too.

To become familiar with the distinct flavour and effect of each one, add a small amount of a single herb or spice to a simple dish such as steamed rice, stewed fruit or sauteed vegetables.

Initially, you could find a herb and spice chart or book that will guide you how to use each one and with what foods. Use small amounts at first so you don’t overwhelm other flavours, then follow your own instincts and taste buds. When you are ready, try some combinations, such as the household blends mentioned above.

Treat yourself to one new herb or spice every 3-4 weeks, giving yourself time to explore the effects of each, whether alone or in combination. Gradually, you will develop an appreciation of their unique qualities, a clear sense of which you like and a real flair for using them.

When you allow yourself the creative freedom to experiment, you start to get a feeling for these wonderful, health-giving ingredients. Some of them ‘bring together’ the various flavours included in a dish; others provide exquisite contrasting flavours. A few need time for their qualities to disperse within a dish; others are instantly impressive. All of them have the potential to transform a meal from ‘okay’ to ‘delicious’ in a matter of seconds.

Have Fun!
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Peggy Brusseau
The Contented Vegan