Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Cheap Bastid: Let's Get Spicy

Over the weekend, I did a couple of dinners which would have been really nice to write about today. But. But, I didn’t take any pictures of them.

Both of them owed their special taste to spice blends. And I love playing around with blending different combinations of spices. Like pretty much everything I cook though, I’m getting more and more simplistic and minimalistic. But I still thought that today would be a good day to talk about how spices are a minimal investment which can make a big difference.

I just cleared out the spice cupboard and count 30 different spices that I have on hand. Now there are a few that aren’t used that often like File or Curry but they’re nice to have. Plus, I have a half dozen different peppers (in addition to black). I’ve got pasilla, chipotle, cayenne, green, habanero and chili flakes (not to mention sriachi, habernero and jalapeno sauces). We like things with just a bit of kick to them!

So I just “consulted” the cookbook I wrote for my kids 2 Christmases ago. There’s a section on “Kitchen Basics” where I list the spices needed in setting up a kitchen. There are 15 of them. Here they are:

Spices (*= must have)
Salt* Coarse Black Pepper* (not fine)
Garlic Powder* Onion powder*
Ground Oregano* Paprika
Cumin Basil
Cayenne* Ancho chili powder
Chipotle chili powder Ground Mustard
Ground Ginger All spice

Notice that there are only a half dozen “must haves” and you can do quite a bit with them. But if you want to get more creative, you’ll have to add to the selection.

I have 2 spice blends that I’m never without. I always keep a batch on hand. One is really basic and the other is really well known. I’m going to give you the recipes and bear in mind that the “quantities” are “parts” so that no matter how much or little you’re making you can keep the proportion. Plus, customize these to your own taste!

Basic Spice Blend
1 Kosher salt
1 Coarsely ground black pepper
1 coarse garlic

That’s it. It’s that simple and that basic. Use it on all manner of different things that you’re cooking—especially on the grill! And if it’s “too” much anything, just change the “formula” a bit. (1/3 of the blend as salt can be a bit much for a lot of folks—including me).

Emeril’s Essence (yep, that Emeril)
6 parts Paprika
2 parts Salt
2 parts Pepper
2 parts Garlic Powder
1 part Onion Powder
1 part Cumin
1 part Ground Oregano
1 part Ground Thyme
1 part Cayenne or Chipotle

I use these 2 spice blends all the time. And I do variations on them. Here’s an example: Friday night I grilled a couple of 1 ¼” boneless loin chops. All I did to season them was 1) a thin skim of oil on each side, 2) a light sprinkling of the “Basic Blend” and 3) a small pinch on each side of the chop of thyme and rosemary. Plus, I did some summer squash "planks" seasoned with "Essence" and we had a great meal. It smelled great and tasted even better.

Saturday night I did a Tri-tip on the grill. I used a blend that I call “Sweet Heat”.
Sweet Heat
3 parts Paprika
1 part salt
1 part chipotle/cayenne
1 part garlic
2 parts sugar
1 part cumin

I put really heavy coating on the meat and rubbed it in. Then I seared it on the grill (about 3-4 minutes per side on a hot grill). I removed the meat, set the grill for indirect (turned off one of the burners), wrapped the meat in foil, put it down on the cool half of the grill and left it alone for about 40-45 minutes. It came out tasty, juicy and tender and I served it with fresh, homemade Chimichurri. We’re having left-overs tonight--tri-tip sandwiches with horseradish and cheddar cheese on French rolls (4 for $1 at the dollar store). We’re having left-overs tonight.

There’s a couple of things I have discovered in seasoning food. One is that probably our favorite spices are garlic followed by cumin. Another is that there is such a thing as too much oregano (one night I got carried away and made green mud instead of red spaghetti sauce). And yes, there is such a thing as “too hot”—and our tolerance of “spicy heat” is pretty high. And, it’s really hard to get a good “lemon pepper”—it’s even hard when you make it yourself.

Now there are some who will argue that you should use fresh herbs. And I don't disagree with that--fresh thyme is better than dried for example. But it's also a lot pricier. And this is for those of us on a tight budget who want some flavor and panache. I can normally get about 80% of the flavor for about half the cost and I'll take that deal (most of the time).

So, have fun. Here’s a way to build flavor without building cost. Experiment. And, oh yes, one last little secret—write down the spice blends you create so you can remember it if you want to make it again.

That’s the Cheap Bastid way. Eat good! Eat Cheap! Be grateful!

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