Spice it up!

In this months' installment of All About Homes, I am going to take my gadget article a little off roading.  But, hey, being in Alberta, I think everyone is pretty used to that.

I am going to talk about spices and dried herbs. Spices are generally the seeds, root, fruit or bark of a plant.  Herbs are generally the leaves and sometimes stems of a plant.

There are three main topics that I am continually asked about: 1) how to know if your spices are fresh; 2) how to properly store them; and 3) how to use them.

So here it goes:

1)  When purchasing spices, I would recommend purchasing whole spices whenever possible.  The shelf life for whole spices is generally 1 to 4 years. I keep an inexpensive coffee grinder in my cupboard and use it  for grinding whole spices as I need them.  Ground spices can stay fresh for up to 1 year.  Once a spice is ground, oils that are essential to flavor and aroma are released, as they dissipate the spice becomes less potent.  The shelf life for dried herbs is 6 months, but may be longer. Keep in mind that spice blends will age differently, as they have a combination of many spices that can go stale at different times. The only real way to test if a spice or a dried herb is fresh is to place a little pinch in the palm of your hand and gently rub.  If it smells aromatic, it is still fresh. Seeds, such as poppy, nigella (not to be confused with Nutella, which, incidentally, has no shelf life at my house, but I digress), and sesame seeds should be kept in the refrigerator as these can go rancid due to their oil content.

2)  When storing spices, you should remember to avoid these 4 things, air, light, humidity and heat.  I would recommend NOT storing your spices on a rack near the stove and oven as the temperature and humidity change often when cooking and this will cause your spices to deteriorate more rapidly.  Also, it is important to remember to not shake a spice container over a steaming pot, as this can introduce heat and humidity into the jar.  I would recommend that you store your spices in a cool, dark place, such as a cabinet door, a pantry or in a drawer.

3)  When using spices and dried herbs, it is a good rule of thumb to keep like spices from a particular ethnic region together in a recipe.  For example, mix spices with a Mexican flare in a nice pot of chili; cilantro, chili powder, garlic powder, cumin, coriander, etc. and Italian spices, like basil, oregano, Italian parsley and marjoram into a nice marinara sauce.  These are just guidelines for beginners.  Remember, also to measure your spices into a small dish before you introduce them into your recipe.  I cannot tell you how many times I have broken my own rule and poured right from the container into the pot and dumped the entire contents, ruining my recipe.

As cooking shows and interest in International food are becoming more and more popular, unique and interesting spices are becoming more readily available in area grocery stores.  My favorite place to purchase fresh spices is Silk Road Spice Merchant in Calgary.  They have an amazing selection of spices, broken down by region and their staff is extremely knowledgeable and helpful.  You can order online at www.silkroadspices.ca, or visit them at 1403A - 9th Ave. SE, Calgary, AB T2G 0T4, 403-261-1955.

Don't be afraid to experiment.  Throw a little fennel pollen on your salmon before you barbecue it or add a little sumac and pinenuts to update Lebanese inspired lamb kabobs!  Remember to be creative and spice it up!