So I was talking to a good friend yesterday, and we were talking about making food from scratch at home, healthy eating, cutting out crap, not buying processed stuff… you know all that stuff that I could literally talk for HOURS about. Poor Jo, in hindsight, I probably chew her ears off, but it really does get me so excited! Good health can be such a massive and confusing thing these days when there are a million an one “health-foods” and “new big diets” out there, and new ones being created every day. But the truth as I see it is that it just doesn’t have to be that hard. Just start with the basics of real food, simple food, and homemade food. Honestly you will be amazed at the health benefits of JUST doing that.
Anyway we were talking about making things at home and using spices and flavorings etc in place of pre-made spice mixes and pasta sauce flavorings and all that. Using single spices and making up my own flavors is something I do every single day, partly maybe because I am a chef and I love to do it, but mostly because it is something I was brought up doing. It is not because I am clever, it is just that I know no different. It is what my mum did, probably because it is what her mum did, and so it goes on.
So today I thought I would share with you the basic seasonings and flavorings that I most often have in my cupboard and a couple of easy combinations or ways to use them. This may or may not be helpful to anyone, but I hope that it is, and if you have any favorite combinations you love, please feel free to comment and share them.
Man where do I start…… firstly there are hundreds of spices out there you could have but you don’t really need that many to make a huge range of flavorful dishes.
Salt – of course! most pre-made spices mixes you get, one of the first ingredients will be salt. Obviously it is super important, not only to add “saltiness” but it enhances the natural flavors of the food you are cooking with. I like to use Himalayan pink salt, or a nice Celtic Sea Salt or even Marlborough Sea Salt. I just avoid the standard iodized table salt, yes iodine is an important nutrient and something we need but you can get it from much more natural food sources than processed fortified table salt.
Pepper – also obvious, freshly cracked or pre-ground, either way throw a bit of it in everything 😉
Ground Coriander, Ground Cumin, Smoked Paprika, Ground Turmeric, Curry Powder, Cinnamon, Dried Mixed Herbs – These would be my go too herbs and spices that I have in the cupboard pretty much at all times. I also like to have some nutmeg, dried thyme, dried oregano and ground ginger, oh and Bay Leaves. 🙂 I like to buy them all regularly in small amounts so that they stay fresh and flavorful. If you are just starting out mixing your own spices and have a cupboardful of old spices, I strongly recommend you cringe slightly and chuck the lot. Start over fresh, and know that what you are cooking with actually tastes like it should. This collection of spices can be mixed in loads of different ways and be the base of all sorts of different culturally inspired dishes. I will go into a few of my favourite combinations later on.
Fresh Herbs – If you have them, experiment with them in everything. You wont get it wrong too often as they are pretty forgiving.
Lemons / Apple Cider Vinegar / Balsamic Vinegar – To get a well balanced flavor you need, salty, spice, sweet and SOUR. That is where these guys come in sauces, soups, stews, stirfrys, roast veges….. they all benefit hugely on the wow factor with a dash of sour. Just start with a little and add more or balance it with sweet as you need to.
On that note, something I don’t have in my picture is anything sweet. I often add a tiny sprinkle of sugar, or some honey or maple syrup in my savory cooking. Don’t add too much because it is easy to get too much sugar in our diet anyway with out adding it to savory food, and you don’t want you taste buds to begin expecting sweet everywhere they go. However, sugar has the magical ability of taking a flavor combination from, “OK, it tastes nice but mostly at the back of my mouth” to “WOW full on flavor hit the moment it touches your tongue”.
Remember it like this… Salt/Spice/Food, this gives the base flavor. Sour rounds it out and makes it full in your mouth and Sweet brings it forward to the tip of your tongue.
Garlic – and fresh ginger actually. Just two great ingredients to have in your stash and throw into everything.
Tamari or Soy Sauce – This is an essential I use all the time. It is a perfectly rounded ready to go “salty/umami” flavor that just boosts everything. If you make a soup and it just needs a little something else but adding salt isn’t doing it, add soy sauce. Or gravy and it just needs a bit more body, add soy sauce. Or stirfry vegetables, finish with just a drizzle of soy sauce and splash of lemon juice and you will be away laughing. My only major point with soy sauce is this, ONLY USE NATURALLY FERMENTED SOY SAUCE! Seriously it is readily available, a little more expensive but not too bad, just read the label. If it is naturally fermented it will say on the label. The other stuff they sell as soy sauce, is nothing more than a toxic by-product they are trying to pass off as food! And that is no exaggeration! Here is a link of a post I worte awhile ago on the topic, if you are interested in further reading. https://healthconsciousscrooge.wordpress.com/2015/09/19/soy-sauce-and-the-sour-dough/
Fish Sauce – This is one I use a bit but I know takes a bit of getting used too. It adds amazing depth to any asian inspired dish but it STINKS to high heaven and I totally get it if you can’t go there yet. 🙂
Worcestershire Sauce – I love this stuff, it is a classic old flavor and gives great body and oomph to any more traditional English style stews and brews.
Well that is about it with the basic ingredients, now for the fun part of combinations. Man, again, where do I start??????
Lets say a Basic tomato based sauce that might go on pasta or in nachoes or a stew etc… I would use salt, pepper,cumin, coriander, some herbs, fresh or dried maybe thyme, oregano or rosemary and some balsamic vinegar, a little sprinkle of sugar and maybe some chilli if you like it hot. Easy, just start with even amounts of each spice and then taste. A general rule of thumb for a dish like this would be 1 tsp of each spice per 500g of meat or tomato or whatever your sauce base is.
For a more Spanish inspired dish, I would suggest salt, pepper, PAPRIKA (lots), garlic,coriander, a little cumin, herbs and lemon juice.
For a Moroccan Inspired goulash, try turmeric, cumin, coriander and a dash of cinnamon. Cinnamon is amazing added sparingly to savory dishes and it is best used with a little something sweet, add a dash of honey or a handful of sultanas to make the flavor pop.
Super simple Asian inspired sauce, for stirfries or coconut curries etc etc ( and on a side note, I like to mix this combo into a pre-made sauce and then pour over vegetables etc) Try soy sauce, fish sauce, honey and lime juice
For a basic Indian inspired curry either with a tomato or a coconut cream base try curry powder, coriander,little cumin, dash of cinnamon and a bay leaf
For a lighter Thai inspired curry in a coconut cream base, try crushed garlic, ginger, tiny dash of curry powder, fish sauce and lemon or lime juice. You can of course use curry paste, but this is what I would do if I had none in the fridge
For a really Traditional English inspired stew, try salt, pepper (lots), garlic, onion, mixed herbs and Worcestershire sauce.
The thing with seasoning is that it really does change “seasonally”. In the winter I always use more hearty spices like cumin and coriander and balsamic vinegar, in the summer I lean more towards simple flavors like fresh herbs, olive oil and lemon juice. It is as it should be and when you are making your flavors from scratch you have the freedom to explore that seasonality.
I could probably go on, but that is the basic flavor combinations that I fall back on time and time again. Just be brave, give it a go. Sometimes you will get it SO right and sometimes it will just be SO wrong, but it doesn’t matter. It’s all a learning game. I said to Matthias the other day, “Did you realize when you married me that you were marrying into a life time of having to eat food experiments?” 🙂 He said he did and he wasn’t worried, (good answer).