Spice Blends: A Go-To Ingredient

Patti Cook, BA, MS, Ed.D., Culinary Grad and B & P Student

When people find out that I’m a culinary grad, some ask me if I have any “go-to” ingredients. Of course, I’m happy to give my opinion and share that I absolutely rely on many go-to ingredients. My number one is spice blends; I am a total cheering fan who can gaze, drool and admire the spice section of the grocery store like some Jersey girls might flock to a Bruce Springsteen concert. So, not surprisingly, while in the culinary program, I loved the World Flavors unit about salt, spices and herbs. Properly using spice blends can turn a regular recipe into a special recipe. Spices, including the tried-and-true salt and pepper, are the key to almost all great cooking.

Although most people think of using spices in food, spices were highly valued as an essential ingredient in incense, embalming preservatives, ointments, perfumes, antidotes against poison, cosmetics and medicines since at least 2500 B.C.  They’re referred to often in the Bible. Spices were highly valuable articles of exchange, since they both enhanced the flavor of food and aided in its preservation.

Spices are technically defined as various aromatic vegetable productions that are used to season and flavor food in the cooking process. Essentially, I think of spices as the dried parts of plants while herbs are the fresh leafy parts. Most culinarians agree that it is difficult to determine exactly where a spice ends and an herb begins, because culinary herbs are really one group of spices.

In small and large ways, spices enrich or pleasantly alter the quality and taste of food. The grocery and natural-foods stores are overflowing with different spices as well as spice blends. Spice blends are just that: a blend of various spices.  The variety of flavors is endless. Chili powder, seasoned salts and Italian seasoning are common examples. Look for local producers in large natural-foods stores in your area. I’m lucky to have a terrific one just down the road: Teeny Tiny Spice Company of Vermont makes some of the most amazing blends I’ve ever cooked with. One of my favorites is Montreal Seasoning.

Montreal Steak Spice or Seasoning is a blend based on the pickling dry-rub that was used in the traditionally prepared Montreal smoked meat. It’s most often used to flavor grilled steak, although it’s great in just about everything, including meatballs, other meats, stews, potatoes or vegetables. One of my tastiest and easiest dinners is tofu and vegetables that I rub with olive oil and then sprinkle with Montreal Seasoning and cook on the grill. It’s perfection: a delicious healthy dinner with zing and very few dishes to wash. The effort is small and the flavor and pleasure are big.

From my kitchen seat, spice blends bring new life to the old adage that “variety is the spice of life.” My suggestion is to go ogle the spice aisle and bring home a couple blends that can become your go-to ingredient to add in whatever dish you’re cooking.

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