Sunday, November 27, 2011

These are a Few of My Favorite Things: Spices

The weekend after the Thanksgiving holiday, Yahoo posted a list of health benefits that various spices are purported to have. Everything from soothing an upset stomach to boosting metabolism to helping with arthritis. While this may be new news so to speak to some, particularly in this era of pharmaceuticals and treatment of symptoms rather than focusing on well being through food, it is certainly not news to many ancient cultures who long relied on spices for medicinal purposes. Having spent time in Morocco and in spice shops there, and having done quite a bit of research on the topic during my days in graduate school, I have long been an advocate of spices for both their health benefits as well as their culinary benefits. One of my favorite memories of our first trip to Morocco in 2002 was a trip to a spice shop in Fez where the shop keeper spent almost 3 hours with us discussing what each spice did both medicinally and culinarily. It was fascinating. What it taught me most was to not be scared of using spices and using a LOT of them. In my cooking classes I often use spices that are maybe somewhat foreign to people and I am always impressed by the gasps I get from people when I add them. I don't just throw a pinch in, I through a palmful in. So many people are afraid that they will over spice something when in reality, that is almost impossible to do. My rule of thumb is, if you think you are using too much, that's probably just enough. My favorite go to spices, besides Herbes de Provence which is a spice blend from France that I use in many things (thyme, savory, chervil, tarragon, lavendar and often marjoram and rosemary), are cinnamon, Hungarian Paprika (Sweet, Hot and Smoked), freshly ground nutmeg, saffron, ground ginger and cumin. All of these spices are uniquely beneficial to your health and have very specific uses in cooking that people often don't know about. Cinnamon, besides the obvious uses in desserts, is a fabulous addition to savory meat dishes. It is very common in north African and Middle Eastern cuisines to use cinnamon with meat and dried fruit. It is also purported to help with digestion and perhaps even regulate blood sugar. There are a number of different kinds of cinnamon but my personal favorite is the Vietnamese kind. It is pungent, spicy and has a powerful fragrance that makes my mouth water. Most people think paprika is only good for garnishing deviled eggs. However, I beg to differ. It is one of my favorite spices to use for general flavoring of soups, stews and meats. Hungarian paprika is not just one spice but a myriad of different varieties ranging from sweet/mild to smoky/hot. In my humble opinion Hungary produces the best quality paprika in the world, although Spanish paprika is also well known. Hungary has the following classifications for paprika: Kulonleges or unusual paprika which is often sweet and has a very dark red color Csípősmentes Csemege or slightly spicy but still ordinary paprika which is just a little stronger Csemegepaprika which is the most common varietal Csípős Csemege, Pikáns which is the spicy version of this basic paprika Rosza or rose colored paprika which is slightly milder Édesnemes or Sweet paprika which is probably the most exported varietal Feledes or half sweet which is a medium strong paprika Eros which is a strong paprika All of these can be smoked with varying results. Generally, if I am making a soup, I prefer slightly spicy/smoky types of paprika which give soups a great kick. When cooking vegetables or side dishes I use sweet paprika. When doing meats, you can go both ways, just depending upon how spicy you want your meat to be. Beef/pork often benefits from smoky varietals while chicken or fish generally taste better with sweeter varietals. From a health perspective, paprika is very high in vitamin C and research has shown that naturally occuring capsaicin in peppers is actually good for circulation. Nutmeg is one of my secret weapons when it comes to savory items which often comes as a surprise to those in attendance at my cooking classes. Most people perceive nutmeg to be a sweet spice, something used in desserts like pumpkin pie. AND, most people don't realize that the already ground stuff doesn't taste a whole lot like anything. Freshly grated however nutmeg is a revelation. Not a nut in the true sense as the name suggests, nutmeg is actually the seed of a specific kind of evergreen tree. The coating surrounding the seed is peeled away and ground into a spice called mace which is used a lot in Middle Eastern cooking. My favorite application of freshly grated nutmeg is with mushrooms and any green leafy vegetable such as spinach, chard, collard greens or mustard greens. It gives them a brightness of flavor and smell that is unique and really complement both. Therapeutic uses of nutmeg may include pain relief and gastrointestinal discomfort relief. The most expensive commodity by weight on the planet is saffron. This spice is actually the stamen of a specific kind of crocus flower and because these little strands have to be harvested delicately with tweezers by hand it takes an awful lot of effort to create just a small quanitity of the spice for culinary use. Saffron has a delicate floral flavor and it provides food with an incredible yellow/orange color. Perhaps its most famous use is in the traditional Spanish dish Paella. Saffron has no substitute, especially not turmeric, which has a completely different flavor and can be quite aggressive and overpowering. Also, beware of saffron powders. These are often not pure saffron but an imposter that attempts to lure you into thinking you can get the same bang for a lesser buck. I use saffron in soups and stews of all kinds and a little goes a long way so while it seems like you are spending a fortune for a little bottle of it, it will last you quite a while. The myriad of health benefits that saffron has been purported to posess are numerous, including anti-cancer, increased circulation, reduced inflammation, improved eyesight and anti-depression. Another spice that is often associated with sweet dishes is ginger. However in North Africa, the Middle East and in many Asian cultures, ginger in both its dried and fresh form is an essential spice utilized in savory preparations as well. Many soups, stews and even beverages are infused with ginger giving a gentle heat and spicy finish that is incomparable. At the Djemma el Fna food fair in Marrakech, the last stalls on the outskirts of the square were ginger stands, featuring ginger cakes and a ginger beverage designed to aid in digestion, which is one of the greatest health benefits ginger posesses. It can also help with allergies and colds by clearing your sinuses and soothing an aching throat. Really a jack of all trades in the spice world. Finally, cumin is a spice that most people associate with Mexican food and chili, but in actuality, it is very commonly used in North Africa, India and the Middle East. The varietal you find there is often less spicy or smoky and much milder and almost floral in nature. Cumin is often used in conjunction with paprika in flavoring savory soups and stews and is particularly good with meats such as beef and lamb. It is also one of the main ingredients in most curry powders. Cumin is another spice that is used frequently to treat gastrointestinal discomfort. I was told by the woman in the spice shop in Morocco that if I had a stomach ache I should mix a tablespoon of cumin with a little hot water and drink it and it would soothe my stomach better than pepto bismol. By George if it didn't work. I had a little stomach discomfort after a particularly heavy meal and it did the trick within minutes. So as you can see, spices can be both delicious and healthy. Why not incorporate them into your daily routine? The benefits both from a culinary and a health perspective are a win win situation. Make sure you rotate spices reguarly and don't keep them for longer than 6 months to a year. You can obtain high quality spices at a very reasonable price through which is the purveyor I utlize the most. Eat well and feel well.

Friday, November 18, 2011

These are a Few of My Favorite Things: Cheese

And when I say favorite, I mean it's right up there with hummus and bacon for me. I LOVE CHEESE. I could be very happy living the rest of my days with a good brie, a nice creamy goat cheese and a beautiful salty parmesan. Cheese is the perfect food in so many ways. You can eat it straight up, you can cook with it, you can even use it for dessert. And what pairs better with wine?? Recently Jeff, myself and our friend Cathy took a little respite in Chicago and one of the stops on the trip was Bin 36. Bin 36 is a restaurant that specializes in wine and cheese flights. We were determined to experience as many cheeses as possible so we each picked a flight and then we decided on a 4th flight mutually. All told we sampled 19 different cheeses. It was AMAZING. First we did their No Need To Sing The Blues flight, which, as the name suggests, is a selection of 4 blue cheeses. First was a Cambozola from Germany which was like a cross between a brie and a blue cheese. Next, a domestic blue from Wisconson called Blue Paradise which is a double creme blue. Then, the Blue Di Bufalo from Italy which is a harder more crumbly blue. Finally, the Blue Mediterraneo from Sardinia, Italy, which was a sheeps milk blue. All of them were delightful although I must confess that the first one, the blue brie combo, was to die for and my favorite cheese of the night. I could easily polish off an entire truckful of it myself in one sitting. It is really best for a wine pairing but could certainly be used for cooking. A nice cheese and egg souffle comes to mind with a hint of truffle oil. Generally speaking I would say blues pair well with a crisp, acidic white that isn't too oaky but isn't too sweet either. A sauvignon blanc or a pinot grigio would be ideal. For our second flight we went with So You Think You Know Cheddar, which was Jeff's pick as he is a sucker for a good sharp cheddar. None disappointed but for my money it was the most mainstream of the flights. All the cheeses were great but there wasn't anything particularly exotic about any of them. The flight included: Chevre Noir from Canada, which is a goats milk cheddar, perhaps the most unique of the bunch; Mt. Sterling cheddar from Wisconson which was also a goats milk cheddar but not quite as pronounced in terms of its goat flavor; Keen's from the UK which was a classic British cheddar; and the 10 year Hook's cheddar from Wisconson which again was a traditional sharp cheddar akin to what you expect from Wisconson. Cheddars are also good for an appetizer tray but for my money I like them for cooking as they tend to melt well, particularly in a good beer and cheese soup. As far as wines go, I'd say cheddars can go with almost anything. A good oaky chardonnay would probably be my first choice but really the cheddar is quite forgiving in terms of wine pairings. Our third flight was my first choice and a top favorite of our friend Cathy as well. It was called Fat Cats. Again, as the name suggests, these were some of the richer, more fatty cheeses that are definitely more traditionally used on a cheese tray and not for cooking. The Burratta from Puglia, Italy was both our favorites of this flight although it was a close tie between this and the second cheese, the Pierre Robert triple creme from France. Talk about a decadent cheese that practically oozed it was so gooey and rich. Third was the Kunik from NY which was another triple creme but not quite as delicate a flavor as the Pierre Robert. And finally, the Gorgonzola Dolce from Lombardy, Italy, which, like all good gorgonzolas, was perhaps just a little more delicate than a blue cheese and certainly had a more unctuous rich texture. These cheeses in my estimation pair best with a sparkling wine or champagne. The high fat content almost begs for a little bubbly to chase it down. I happened to do a sparkling wine flight that evening to go along with the cheese flights and this was the perfect compliment to all four of the sparkling wines I had on the flight. The final flight of the evening was the Bin 36 Globetrotters, which they consider to be their top of the class cheeses. This flight included an Abbaye de Belloc from the Pyrenees of France, a cheese that is made of sheeps milk and is still made by Benedictine monks. Delightful and delicate, this one topped the list of the globetrotters for me. Barely Buzzed was the second cheese. It hails from Utah and is crusted with coffee grinds and lavendar. Certainly unique but not quite my favorite. It almost masked the flavors of the other cheeses for me. Although I suspect it would be delightful on a salad with some arugula and a blood orange vinaigrette. Next came the Ardrehan from Ireland which was kind of like a soft cheddar. Nice but nothing spectacular. Finally, the classic British Stilton, a legendary blue that is always a pleasure to have. Very strong in the blue category but really a marvelous cheese. All of these seemed to pair with different wines so I can't really offer a good suggestion that works for them all except to say that a mellow white always works, maybe even a dry riesling. The last three cheeses we had weren't actually on the menu. We asked our waiter what he perceived to be the strongest, most aggressive cheeses they had. He explained to us that in his estimation, the strongest smelling cheeses weren't necessarily the strongest tasting cheeses and vice versa. So he brought us 3 he thought illustrated this fact. I wish I had written them down but by this time we had eaten so many it was all kind of a blur. But suffice it to say that all three were delicious and I didn't think any of them were particularly strong smelling or strong tasting. Then again, I have eaten limburger and have spent some time in the fromageries in Paris where you almost have to plug your nose to even walk into the store. All in all, a great experience and for true cheese afficionados. I highly recommend you pay the place a visit. Or, you can simply create your own tasting by purchasing some of these cheeses and hosting your own wine and cheese night. A great resource for cheeses from all over the world is I have often ordered from them and they ship in dry ice packets overnight so you don't have to worry about spoilage.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

These are a few of my favorite things: Prosciutto

I thought it would be fun to start a new topic on my blog and feature a new ingredient each week that are amongst my favorite things in the kitchen both to cook with and to eat. It seems only apropos to begin with one of the most quintessential of all products that seems to find its way into almost every kitchen, the pig. I'm not talking about bacon, which I must confess is one of my guilty pleasures, but I find it to also be a culinary crutch. People add bacon to almost everything because it is guaranteed to make it taste good. I'm talking about its close Italian cousin, prosciutto.

Much more delicate than bacon, Prosciutto is a cured italian ham that comes from the central and northern regions of the country, most famously from Parma, which incidentally is the home to the famous Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Its flavor is slightly salty, gamey and oh so porky. I happen to love it both raw and cooked. It is the perfect addition to an antipasto platter and it can be a marvelous wrapping for vegetables or meats. It also has an amazing flavor and texture when it is allowed to bake in the oven, rendering some of its fat and crisping it up like a potato chip. This as a garnish on a salad or just about anything is as close to heaven as you can get.

When purchasing prosciutto, make sure to get it very thinly sliced and if you can, purchase it with layers of tissue paper between the slices to make it easier to separate. The high fat content sometimes makes the slices stick together and tear. I also prefer italian imported prosciutto to domestically produced ones although some small purveyors are popping up daily that do have a comparable product in terms of delicate flavor and fat content. One of the better domestic varietals is La Quercia which happens to be right in Iowa. They source only sustainable pork and use organic spices and cures wherever possible.

Here are just a couple of my favorite recipes:

Prosciutto Wrapped Artichoke Hearts with Pesto and Balsamic Reduction

Yields: Approx. 12 Servings

1 Batch Homemade Pesto (See recipe below)
2 Cans Artichoke Quarters (Not Marinated)
12 slices Prosciutto
12 balls fresh Mozzarella (Bocconcini, which are the smaller ones or you can slice a larger ball of fresh mozzarella and cut it into 24 pieces)
Balsamic Reduction to garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Slice each piece of prosciutto in half vertically and each bocconcini in half. Wrap a half portion of prosciutto around a piece of mozzarella and a quarter piece of artichoke heart. Place on baking sheet. Continue wrapping all of the artichoke heart pieces and mozzarella until none remain. Bake for approx. 10 minutes or until the mozzarella begins to melt.

To serve, place a dollop of pesto over each wrap and drizzle with balsamic reduction.


2 cups of fresh basil leaves
½ cup of toasted pine nuts
1 Tbl minced garlic
Pinch Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
3 Tbl lemon juice
¼ cup of grated parmesan cheese
¼-1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Combine ingredients in a food processor, except the olive oil. Puree. Begin adding the olive oil slowly so the mix begins to emulsify or becomes thick and creamy. Adjust seasoning to taste.

Prosciutto Wrapped Roasted Asparagus with Hollandaise Sauce and Balsamic Reduction

Yields: Approx. 8 Servings

For the roasted asparagus:

1 lb asparagus, trimmed
2-3 tbl olive oil
Pinch salt and pepper

To trim the asparagus, take on stalk of asparagus and snap the end of it off, allowing it to snap where it naturally wants to separate. Trim remaining asparagus to this same spot. Place asparagus onto a baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Gently toss the asparagus to coat evenly with the oil and seasoning. Place in a single layer on baking sheet and bake in a 350 degree oven for approximately 20 mins or until the asparagus is lightly caramelized and tender. Remove and allow to cool.

For the balsamic reduction:

½ cup balsamic vinegar

Place vinegar into a small saucepan. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Simmer until approximately half the vinegar has evaporated. Remove from heat and allow to cool. This can be stored indefinitely.

For the hollandaise sauce:

3 egg yolks
1 stick unsalted butter, cut into thirds
Pinch salt and pepper
1 Tbl lemon juice
1 Tbl water

Place egg yolks, water, lemon juice, salt and pepper in a food processor and puree until lighter in color and slightly thickened. Melt butter and pour hot butter into egg yolk mixture, while pureeing in food processor until thickened and slightly bubbly.

To Serve:

12 slices of prosciutto, sliced in half vertically
Pinch of Paprika

Wrap 2-3 stalks of asparagus with one half slice of prosciutto until all the asparagus has been used up. Place two asparagus and prosciutto bundles on each plate. Drizzle with the hollandaise sauce. Garnish with a drizzle of the vinegar and a sprinkling of paprika. Serve immediately.