Meet Herb

I didn't do much while I was in Dallas except eat, talk about food, and shop for food. Well, I visited with my friends Brenda Everroad and Jamie Griffin. They were great, took time off from work to show us around and everything.

But you'll read all about that in the TexMex article. What I'd like to do with this month's column is to highlight some spices that are identified with TexMex cuisine. (See how the continuity happens??)

One of the main ingredients going into TexMex in terms of seasonings is Chili. We've covered that spice/herb in this column in the past but we will revisit it this month briefly. In addition, we'll be looking at Cayenne, Cumin, Coriander, and Paprika. Then I'll give you a recipe to make your own chili powder -- unlike what many think, "chili powder" is not a spice in itself but a mixture of spices and herbs.

So get ready to enjoy a taste experience.

    There are probably hundreds of varieties of chile pepper and while they are sometimes as different as night and day, they do have some things in common. They do best in tropical or sub-tropical climates, and grow on bushy shrubs that can be anywhere from one to six feet high. The fruit of the plant which is what becomes the chile, has a smooth, shiny skin and is hollow with several fleshy ribs and a central core with myriad tiny seeds which are usually white.

    After that it's hard to draw any other similarities. They come in all shapes and sizes and even colours. They can be as small as 1/4 inch and as long as a foot, they can be round, sort of square, flattened, or long, narrow and tapering. When unripe the fruit is usually bright green, but when ripened can be anywhere at all in the spectrum. There are the usual red varieties of course, but also yellow, orange, brown, black, purple, white . . . the list is endless.

    As for the kick they pack, well that can vary too. They can range anywhere from refreshingly mild to blow-the-top-of-your-head-off-hot!! If you're looking for a rule of thumb, it's safe to say the following: the smaller, narrower, and darker the chile, the bigger its bite. Also, unripe chiles are less biting than ripe ones.

    Chile is essential in many cuisines and can be found in various forms in most stores and markets. Look for fresh ones ripe and unripe, as well as dried whole chiles, crushed and powdered and various chili based seasonings. Now don't get confused, powdered chile is the result of drying and crushing specific chiles for use in cooking. Cayenne pepper and Paprika are two examples of this, each being then product of a particular species of chili pepper that has been dried and ground. "Chili powder" is actually a mixture of ground chile pepper and other spices and herbs. You can also find pickled chile peppers as well as a large and ever growing variety of chili sauces such as Tabasco and others.

    Use chile in its various forms anywhere that food can use a punch. And remember it specifically for Latin American, Indonesian, South-East Asian, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Middle Eastern and African cooking. And of course, increasingly in North American cuisine. You can't go wrong in adding chile to almost anything you make. It complements all sorts of dishes including meat, fish, poultry, and eggs. Add it to stews, soups and sauces, stir-fry with it and pickle it. Yummmmm!!

Cayenne Pepper and Paprika
    As I said earlier, these are all products of some type of processing of fresh chile peppers. Cayenne peppers are small and slender, sometimes called bird chiles which have been allowed to ripen to a bright red or yellow colour, dried and ground to a fine powder. While cayenne peppers are not as pungent as some other peppers, they are still very hot. As with all spices, buy it in small quantities and store in an airtight container in a cool dry, dark place.

    Paprika is common in Hungarian and Spanish cuisine. It also is a finely ground powder but it is usually a blending of several varieties of pepper depending on the pungency desired. Paprika is available in a variety of grades ranging from extremely mild to some with a bite almost as powerful as cayenne.

Coriander Seed
    Coriander is a part of the parsley family. The plant itself has a strong aroma, but the seeds when dried give off an almost orangey scent. They are almost completely round and have a fresh, mild taste that is just slightly bitter. This is one of the few cases where the taste can improve with storage. Store airtight away from light.
Cumin Seed
    Cumin also comes from a plant that is related to the parsley family. Although it is native to the Middle East, it is now cultivated in most hot climates. The seeds are small, ridged and almost football shaped and are a greenish-brown colour. They have a slightly sweet aroma and a pungent flavour and should be used in moderation. They are available in whole seed or powdered form and yes, should be stored airtight and away from light.

Chili Powder

Dry Chile Mixture -- Chili Powder
If you think you'll use it all at once, then by all means use fresh garlic, but if you intend to make it for storage, please use garlic powder or granules.
  • 3 tsp dried ground chile
  • 2 tsp ground coriander seed
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground cumin seed
  • 1/2 tsp garlic granules or powder OR
  • 5 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
  • 2 tsp dried crushed oregano

Combine all of the ingredients together.

Wet Chili Mixture

Wet Chili Mixture -- Salsa Cruda
This recipe has nothing much to do with the topic of the column this month except that it's great and it uses fresh chiles.
  • 2 tbsp tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
  • 2 tbsp finely chopped onion
  • 1 tbsp chopped fresh coriander
  • 2 tsp chopped fresh chiles
  • sea salt to taste
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp lime juice
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed

I like mine to have some texture, so I just combine all the ingredients, mixing well and use it as is. (It's great on scrambled eggs!!) You can, if you prefer, put it all through a blender to have a smooth consistency. Store it in the fridge if you're not going to use it all right away.

Well, that's it for another month. Lots to experiment with. Enjoy!!