Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Lost Herb

I’ve been to five grocery stores this week looking for savory; summer savory preferably.  Even though it’s winter in this hemisphere now, you would still think some enterprising spice company would have dried and bottled some of the summer harvest to sell now, and hey, dry the winter now to sell in the summer. The summer harvest is a more delicate spice that falls on the flavor scale somewhere in the neighborhood of peppery thyme dancing around the edge of oregano and marjoram. The winter is a stronger taste so I just use a bit less of it, but it’s still a smell I could roll around in.

I have friends who season with salt and pepper. The end. It’s the way their mother’s cooked and it’s never occurred to them that the hundreds of other containers in the spice isle might hold something they could add to their food when they cook. Little do they know that their husbands, craving “something more”, sneak off to little lunch joints and regularly order spicy food dishes to add a some variety to their boring food lives back home.

My Dad, a 1st generation American with Italian parents right off the boat, literally, used to groan and grumble when we had to go to my maternal grandmother’s home for a Sunday dinner. My Mom’s mother, a stoic Czech, never embraced the sensual art of cooking. I swear, she thought that spices were somehow directly connected to overt sexuality and using these outrageous flavors on your food was akin to doing a pole dance in a Catholic church. 

On those dreaded Sundays when we would forgo my Italian grandmother’s phenomenal table laden with heavenly food fragrances to head to the other grandmother’s home, there were stalling and delay tactics afoot. We would pile into our car in the Chicago suburbs and drive down to Roscoeville in the city where my grandmother had been cooking the chicken for at least three hours. This wasn’t a turkey mind you, but a regular whole roaster that began, like all chicken, with the potential for deliciousness, but after hours of submitting to the heat of an oven, had given up and just lay there drying to a stringy mess. Her vegetables, boiled, had also been roiling away on the stove for “a while” rendering them to a paste and slime consistency. Where my Mom couldn’t hear, my Dad would whisper, “This chicken tastes like my arm is asleep”, and  I would be reduced to giggling into my cloth napkin.

On the way home, he would swing the car into an Italian beef sandwich shop and pick up a bag full of the fragrant sandwiches, extra cups of au jus gravy and giardiniera and we would dig in picnic style back at the kitchen table at home. Mom would feign upset and then dig in with the rest of us traitors.   

I’m a spice freak. I have cabinets full of different spices and I’m not afraid to use them! Like the savory I went in search of this week. I finally found one store that carried the dried herb and then, surprisingly, I found bundles of fresh savory at my local Meijer store in the section with the plastic boxes of fresh herbs. I bought a couple boxes and I’m drying them out so I’ll have them when I want them. I went on this quest because my daughter has recently moved to the Detroit area and on a visit home, asked if I could fix her up a few bottles of some of my spice mixes for her kitchen.

She was looking in particular for a mix I call Summer Field. It’s a delicious green and fragrant blend of dill, chive and savory. I mix it to my own taste, close to equal proportions of each though I go a bit heavier on the savory.  I use a little of this spice blend in fat free sour cream for an amazing dip for carrots and other cut veggies. I also use a pinch in Egg Beater omelets with some kosher salt, fresh cracked pepper, low fat Lorraine Swiss cheese and some slices of Portobello mushrooms. Shitakes are better as they add a smoky flavor to the dish, but if you can’t find them, go with the Portobello. Summer Field is a great add in to home made vegetable soup and if you make your own herb breads, throw in a tablespoon along with some dried onion flakes and you’ll have killer bread for ham sandwiches!

Don’t be a sleeping arm chicken cooker. Get in that spice isle and play! If you don’t know what the spices taste or smell like, start in the vegetable section at the best grocery store you have. Pick up the bundles of each herb and give them a smell. Bring a little notebook and write down what you discover. Make it like a wine tasting and notice the undertones of the herbs. Is it lemony, peppery, minty, sweet or bitter? If you’re on the Internet to read a blog, then you can Google search the interesting herbs and find out how they’re commonly used. Depending on where they are from originally, you’ll find a way to use the flavor in ethnic cooking or how to adapt it to your own favorite dishes.

Sorry Grandma, but I have to go with Dad on this topic. I’ve grown up to be a wild and out of control spice woman and I’m proud of it.

While you’re on your spice sojourn, pick up a few blood oranges in the fruit section! They’re in season right now and if you haven’t discovered these yet, you’re in for a treat. The beautiful merlot wine color of the juice is a sweet treat and squeezing a blood orange into a salad dressing makes for a surprising flavor fest. Get a packet of Good Seasonings, Zesty Italian Dressing mix, cut up a small shallot into tiny dice and add 1 tsp. to the mix along with the juice of 1 small blood orange,  light oil and red wine vinegar, you have a sparkling salad! Don’t throw the meat of the orange away after juicing. Pull off the peel and chop up the orange into little bits and throw it into the salad as well. Go crazy! Add some almond slices and a few of those raspberries you were eyeing at the store. There you go. Now you’re on the crazy spice train too. It’s like a Flamenco dance on your tongue. Ole!