Saturday, May 7, 2011

A Spicy Story

My family's generations of cooks, both good and bad. From left to right: my mom, great grandma, my son, grandma, and me. I only remember one time visiting my great grandma and eating at her house. If there were other times, I've obviously wiped them frrom my mind. What I do recall is tasteless food and an old lady who was grumpy about everything. My grandma was a fun person; she just couldn't cook. Mom was the best cook I ever knew and taught me how to set a proper table and prepare a well-balanced meal that was all hot at the same time. To this day, my son is nearly a better cook than I am, except that he enjoys it and I don't.

 I don't know who taught my mom to cook but it certainly wasn't her mother. Don't get me wrong. My sisters and I adored our maternal grandparents, spending every minute we could at their house during holidays and summer vacations. I never quite figured out how they raised four girls on what grandma knew how to cook but since they all turned out fine and lived long lives, I'm guessing it was sufficient for a good start in life.

I wouldn't say grandma's food was bad. It was bland. I wouldn't say it was undercooked. It was shoe leather. I wouldn't say the vegetables were too crispy. They were soggy to the point of being  unrecognizable. It took me years to figure out why grandma's food was eaten only to keep a body alive while mom's offerings got scarfed down with great speed and often argued over. You know, just in case one of we three siblings had snuck in an extra piece of her breaded eggplant or corn on the cob dripping with real butter. (No margarine in those days.)

As I remember, it was along about junior high when it dawned on me why grandma's food was only utilitarian while mom's was a feast. Grandma used salt and pepper and a lot of lard for frying. Mom mostly roasted or braised, and her culinary productions were always covered with so many herbs and spices that the cans they came from took up two shelves in her cupboard. Not skinny shelves either. Double deep ones that held a plethora of offerings stretching into the cupboard's dark corners. Grandma's kitchen smelled of hot grease; mom's kitchen scented the whole house, enticing our senses with expectations of what was to come. None of us ever cared if the pork roast was covered with rosemary, sage, and thyme. Nor did we say anything about the garden carrots flecked with ginger-butter. Or the swiss chard, wilted to perfection and sprinkled with a bit of salty vinegar. We just smacked out lips and ate it all.

Thank God I learned to cook like mom. As a new bride, I tossed the usual spices into my cart.   Cinnamon, nutmeg, oregano, thyme, and basil. Overtime I added marjoram, celery seed, cumin, and dill. As my recipe file grew bigger, I purchased cayenne pepper, ginger, and paprika. By the time I'd been married 50 years, I owned close to 100 herbs and spices. The ones I used the most were in regular size bottles; the least in small ones. Along the way, I've made some errors. I have at least 3 cans of poultry seasoning. I generally use it only at Thanksgiving and never seem to remember if I still have any in the cupboard so I toss another one in my basket. I've been thinking about selling the unopened ones on E-Bay or Craigslist but never remember to advertise them.

While I've always considered herbs and spices mandatory in cooking, I never fully appreciated their use until a few days after returning home from this last hospital stay where my doctor had informed me that if I were ever to be rid of the intestinal disease I'd fought for so many years, I needed to eat vegan. With considerable doubt and trepidation, I embarked on tofu. Now pardon me if you love the stuff, but I considered it one step up from what goes in the garbage. It took me weeks to discover that tofu is only edible, and actually enjoyable, if it's dusted, covered, marinated, or breaded in all those tiny seeds and powders sitting in my cupboard. They have given me a whole new outlook on the culinary world.

Now-a-days, I can go to any country I choose and feast like a native. I can eat in Spain or Africa or Korea or Thailand or Greece or anywhere else I imagine. Cut up some tofu, stir fry some vegetables from the region, make a simple sauce with the spices from that country and serve it over rice or noodles or pasta. Slice a fresh pineapple or pears or kiwi, add fresh-grated nutmeg to soy yogurt along with a dash of fresh lemon and a bit of soy milk, pour it over the fruit and enjoy the bright, clean taste reminiscent of the Hawaiian Islands. (I can't take credit for that one; I was served it when Jim and I vacationed in Hawaii one summer.)

So let the adventure begin. Use the spices already on your shelves. If they're too old, use more than the recipe calls for and freshen them up by toasting them in a small dry pan for a few minutes. Then rub them between your palms to release their fragrance. New spices are best, but I won't toss any that are still usable. Too costly. If you want new ones, buy them on sale or do what I do and send for them. I'll tell you about that at the end of this blog. In the meantime, gather your cans and jars around the stove or where you cook and refresh your memory on what you already have. Light ruins spices, so mine are kept in the dark--but I know where each one is because I took time to write a big adhesive label and plop it atop each  jar. Then I separated the savory from the sweet. No more turning dozens of crowded jars to see what's inside. Hallalujah! I'm finally organized. Let the vegan feasts begin.

How fun would it be to find spices displayed as above and just purchase a palm-ful lof this and a fist-full of that? The spices would be truly fresh but wouldn't be so plentiful that I had to toss them before I used them up. I can imagine the scented air all around them. The smokiness of cumin, the intrigue of cinnamon, the smell of licorice coming from the anise. Perhaps I'd just take my choices home and use them as air freshners. If all you've ever purchased is grocery store products, you don't really know what fresh out of the garden herbs and spices smell or taste like.

For many years I searched for a way to buy herbs and spices that were better than those sold at my supermarket. Those bottles and cans have been sitting in a warehouse for a long time, maybe even years. Then one day the mailman delivered a spice catalogue from Penzeys. The prices were so much lower than the store, I just had to give them a try. I've been a happy camper ever since. If you're interested in truly amazing herbs and spices to flavor your once-a-week vegan meals or every regular meal you cook, check them out. You can also shop online, which is what I do, at Yes, you will pay shipping, but the products are so inexpensive, you'll still save money. Besides, every order brings a free bottle of spice--whatever they think you might like to try.

In lieu of a vegan recipe, I thought you, dear reader, might like some insight into making your once-a-week vegan experience something to remember and want to eat again. For me, if the food doesn't taste good, with real depth of flavor, I won't eat it. I can't be the only one who feels like that.

Copyright 2011 by Sandra L Keith, All rights reserved

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