Month: February 2014

HERBS and SPICES: Substitution or Omission

A. wanted to make the Fish in Coconut Sauce recipe from my last blog, but didn’t have any coriander powder. She wanted to know if she could substitute it with another spice.

A specific spice, like coriander, cannot be substituted with just another spice. Each spice has its own unique medicinal property – be it preservative, astringent, digestive, or antibacterial, as well as its own aroma. When the spices are combined, the aromatics act as flavor enhancers and work together to add depth to a dish.

However, note that a recipe will sometimes specifically label a spice as optional. This “optional” spice is used in negligible amounts and does not affect the overall flavor of that dish, in which case it can be omitted from the recipe. Alternatively, you can swap spices as long as you stay within the same family of spices. For example, if the recipe asks for black mustard seeds (available in ethnic stores), you can replace them with yellow mustard seeds (found in all grocery stores). They might lack the piquancy of the black mustard seeds, but they are in the same family of flavors. Cassia bark is cheaper than its distant relative, cinnamon, but it is coarser and less aromatic. Similarly, green chilies can be replaced by jalapeno, serrano, or scotch bonnet – depending on your tolerance for heat!

A spice can be a bark (cinnamon), the stigmas of a flower (saffron), a bud (pepper) a fruit (nutmeg), a seed (mustard), or an underground stem or rhizome (ginger). Herbs are the leaves and young stems of a plant, and in some cases, the leaves (coriander/cilantro) grow on a spice plant.

The use of spices and herbs started out in culinary history to flavor and preserve food at its optimum best at a time when refrigeration was uncommon. Spices and herbs continue to offer health benefits, keep food pathogens in check, and add zest to everyday foods. Herbs, like spices, were added to a dish because of their medicinal properties and fragrance. Tried and tested herb and meat combination such as rosemary and lamb, sage and sausage, or veal, basil and tomatoes have been passed down through the ages. As herbs are usually added toward the end of cooking, there is a little more flexibility with substituting herbs. However, it is important to choose similar flavors. Both rosemary and oregano have strong flavors, and work well with the equally bold flavors of meat or poultry. Chives are in the onion family and can replace leeks in egg dishes. Marjoram is a relative of oregano, and can replace oregano for milder flavored tomato-based sauces. Both rosemary and sage have a minty flavor, and can be used interchangeably with poultry dishes. If the herbs are added to a dish during cooking or are part of a marinade, stick to the recommended herbs in the recipe. Flat-leaf parsley and thyme can stand up to heat, and some herbs like bay leaf and sage develop spicier or deeper tones as they dry, so substituting a herb could result in unexpected outcomes.

Some common spice and herb mixes include Indian (garam masala, panch phoron, kaala masala, goda masala), Chinese (five-spice powder), Mexican chili powder, Ethiopian (bebere), Italian herbs, French (quatre-épices, herbes de provence, boquet garni), as well as mixed (pudding) spice, pumpkin pie spice mix, and mulling spices.

To summarize my answer to A.: Generally, omission is better than substitution. But, when whole spices can be purchased inexpensively and stored for long periods, and fresh herbs can be grown on a windowsill, why not use the originals?!


Memories of Flavors

My grandmother, a wonderful cook, discouraged my mother to enter the kitchen, just as my mother did to me, and I to A. and N., so that each of us could study, have a career, and not be tied to the kitchen. Yet, we all found our way into the kitchen to experiment with cooking and develop our own flavors.

Today, as I remember my grandmother on the anniversary of her death, I remember her fish curry; the aromatic, creamy coconut sauce stirs up memories of lingering over discussions of the merits of river versus deep-sea fish. I have tweaked the recipe to use fish available locally. I made my fish curry with branzini, but the recipe works with any firm white fish (such as cod) or shrimp.

In the spirit of memories, I also remembered my friend’s Italian mother, whose recipe for meatballs I followed last week. As earthy smells of basil and tomatoes wafted in her NYC kitchen, the apartment echoed with her family’s conversations about the dinner we had just shared. A. has tweaked the all-beef meatball recipe and made her own with a combination of ground beef, veal, and pork.

We develop tastes to suit our tongues and noses, as well as through the memories that they evoke. In my experience, a dish you make repeatedly is the one that uses the simplest ingredients to capture memorable flavors. Have fun creating new memories!

Fish in Coconut Sauce

Fish (cod, branzini) or Shrimp – 1lb, washed

Onions – 1, peeled and chopped

Ginger – 2-inch, peeled and sliced

Garlic cloves, – 4, peeled and sliced

Tomatoes – 2 quartered

Serrano chilies/jalapeno – 3, chopped

Oil – 4 tbsp

Coriander powder – 1 tsp

Turmeric powder – ¼ tsp

Salt and pepper – 1 tsp

Coconut milk – ½ can

  • Heat the oil in a large pan or skillet.
  • Add the onions to the hot oil. Stir-fry until it browns.
  • Add the ginger, garlic, and chilies. Stir-fry until the garlic turns light brown.
  • Add the spice powders and stir-fry for a minute.
  • Add the tomatoes and once it softens, lower the heat.
  • Add the coconut milk plus a ½ can of water and
  • Lay the fish or shrimp on top of this creamy mixture.
  • Cook for about four minutes for the shrimp, and about 8 minutes for the fish.Image


Valentine’s Day is stressful for those who are in a relationship (the expectation of perfect romantic gestures – the card, the dinner, the flowers), as well as for those who are not in one (being subjected to the giddiness to all of the above!). But, the most important relationship that one has, lest we forget, is the one we have with ourselves.  Treat yourself kindly and cook yourself the best meal on Friday. Here is wishing you a Happy Valentine’s Day.

Scallops are decadent and easy to cook – a treat for yourself or one to impress your friends. Fresh scallops are in season right through to March. Flash-frozen scallops are just as good and are available year round – and they may be cheaper than the fresh alternative.

Scallops are sustainable seafood rich in Vitamin B12, magnesium and potassium, and are one way to get recommended Omega-3s. I usually sear scallops in olive oil, but if you are treating yourself at home, use a combination of butter and olive oil. Note that searing is a technique which simply means cooking at high temperature so that a crust forms on the surface of the food.

Serve scallops with a green salad, topped with dried cranberries, walnuts, goat cheese and beets. Alternatively, serve with steamed or sautéed vegetables.

Seared Scallops

4-5 per plate

  • Rinse the scallops in a colander. Fresh scallops may have some sand stuck to them.
  • Season with salt and pepper; adjust the salt if using salted butter.
  • Heat the pan until it becomes hot. Add just enough olive oil/butter mixture to lightly coat the pan.
  • Once the oil starts smoking, place a single layer of scallops into the hot oil. Leave them to cook for two minutes.
  • Turn the scallops over and sear for another two minutes.
  • Remove immediately and plate.


Underappreciated Winter Vegetables

A recent Downton Abbey episode mentions vichyssoise, a leek and potato soup that is served cold and was made famous in 1917 by a French chef at New York’s Ritz-Carlton. Beetroots, leeks and Brussels sprouts, it seems, have shed their boring image and resurfaced as healthy and easy-to-prepare vegetables. Thank goodness for that!  I have roasted beets and broiled Brussels sprouts for the past few months – easy ways to incorporate vegetables as part of the main meal or as a side dish.

Beets: Cut the leafy stalks to about 3-inches above the root and discard or use the stalks to make vegetable stock. Rinse the root and remove any grit attached to it. Place the beet on aluminum foil. Roast or bake at 350°F for one to two hours depending on the size of the beets. The beet is cooked when a fork goes through it easily. Peel the skin off. Roasted beets can be eaten on their own, with goat cheese, or can serve as a nutritious pop of color in a green salad.

Brussels sprouts: Remove one or two of the outer layers. Using a paring knife, slice the sprouts thinly. Mix with 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil, salt, and pepper. Spread the sprouts on an aluminum foil and broil on high for 2-4 minutes. Remove from the oven and carefully flip over the sliced sprouts. Put them back in the oven to broil for another minute or two. Some of the leaves will be crispier than others, which adds a nice crunch when they are tossed and mixed together.

Leeks: A. stated that I omitted to mention the easy way to clean leeks. At Thanksgiving, her aunt had shown us how to do so – with a far easier way than what I had been doing for years! Leeks often have mud and grit, acquired during their growth, embedded between the outer dark-green leaves.

  • After trimming the roots near the white base, remove any outer leaves that are damaged or tough.
  • Use a sharp knife to cut a slit through the interwoven leaves as shown in the video. Hold the leek under the faucet and let the water run through the slit, slightly fanning the leaves out so the dirt washes away.

Leeks are members of the onion family, but instead of the growing into a tight bulb like the onion, the leek bulb grows into a long, elongated shaft of interwoven leaves. The usable part above the roots is the white base, the inner light-green leaves, and the outer, dark-green ones.

Leeks can replace onion or garlic in a stir-fry dish or omelet. Alternatively, pair with sliced potatoes, Swiss cheese, cream, and chopped chives and bake for 45 minutes at 350°F.

Eat Local

There are opportunities to eat locally no matter where you are. My recent trip to Kerala reminded me of this fact, inspiring me to immediately visit the local farmers’ market upon my return to the U.S. There were plenty of vegetables, meats, cheese, honey and jams at my local market. Support your local farmers, butchers, fishmongers, as the food is sourced locally and you get to eat what is in season and at its optimal best.

Traveling down Highway NH47 in Kerala, India, every curve in the road unfolds with yet another mobile feast. Bananas and plantains, in all its abundance of color and variety, are displayed on roadside carts; a large, freshly caught fish was strung up on a tree (this was a new sight for me), or tiny sardines just picked out of fishing nets; long achinga beans, tied in bundles, hang like washing on coir ropes, while pumpkins and melons are strewn on coir mats. En route, we stopped for some watermelons, pineapples, and coconut. I also bought fresh fish and shrimp to take home.

Upon my return to North America and its frigid temperatures, I was inspired to scour the markets for seasonal produce. Apples were plentiful as were root vegetables like potatoes and parsnips, also leeks, pumpkins, and squashes. There is a sense of community at such places, and there are interesting people who inspire you to try new vegetables and share a story or a recipe.

Leek and Potato Soup
Leeks – 4, thinly sliced
Potatoes – 3, peeled and diced
Chicken stock – 2 pints
Olive oil – 3 tablespoons
Butter –1 tablespoon
Salt and pepper – to taste
Cooked bacon, chopped parsley, cream (optional)

Heat the oil and butter together in a medium to large pan.
Once butter is melted, add the leeks and cook, stirring it gently, for about five minutes.
Add the potatoes, stock, salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer and cover the pan.  Cook for about 35-40 minutes, until the potatoes are soft.
You can serve the soup as it is, but I prefer to blend until smooth in a food processor.
For a richer, creamier soup, add the cream. Top with cooked bacon and or parsley.
Serves 4-6