A Brief History Of Herbs and Spices

Shortly after the first caveman burnt meat in the fire and realized it was pretty good, the next one thought, “What will make this taste better? How about some of that green thing?”

We don’t have records of the first herbs used to flavor food, but there is no denying that herbs and spices have been used since before recorded history to flavor food, help preserve it, and to heal.

You may not think of it much nowadays, with everything in neat little jars in the store and on your counter, but every spice and herb we use has a long history behind it.  These days we use spices from all over the world, but there was a time when everything had to be carried by hand or horseback or boat from where it grew.  The history of spice is, in a way, also the history of civilization.

Basil –  Basil is probably native to India, where it has been cultivated for over 5000 years. Early travelers brought it to Ancient Greece and later Italy. The common Italian variety is Genovese, or sweet basil, but Thai basil is more commonly used in Asian cuisine.  In most areas it is an annual, but given a warm welcoming environment it will behave like any perennial.  Prune any developing flowerbuds to encourage continued leaf development.  Fresh basil is used in cooked foods and salads, but loses its flavor quickly when cooked.

Garlic – Garlic is a plant in the allium family like onions, leeks , chives and shallots.  Garlic grows as a bulb, which contains many cloves.  Most recipes use the cloves of garlic, chopped or minced fresh. Garlic is pretty widespread and used all across the world, and has been for thousands of years. Fresh garlic greens taste pretty much like green onion greens, with a slight taste of garlic.  Garlic has been used medicinally, including as an antiseptic during World War I and II.  Concentrated garlic juice was also used as glue for artisan’s gilding manuscripts during the medieval period.

Onions – Onions are another allium and also widespread in cultivation and use. Onions are baked, fried, grilled, pickled, sauteed , dried and eaten fresh. Onions grow in many regions, but some varieties take longer than others to mature, so do better in area with longer growing seasons.  Onion greens can be eaten fresh or dried.

Saffron –  A native of southwest Asia, the saffron crocus flower bears up to four flowers. In the heart of each flower the thin red threadlike stigma is the saffron. This tiny filament adds immense flavor and brilliant yellow color to dishes.  Saffron is one of the most expensive spices commonly used, in the Unites States saffron whole prices run from $500 to $1000 dollars a pound.  Thankfully you only need a tiny amount for any given dish. My itty bitty jar has lasted for over 10 years.

Cumin –  If you open a jar of cumin and sniff you will immediately think of Mexican food.  The signature flavor of cumin is in many Mexican dishes as well as traditional Indian cuisine. The plant is native to the east Mediterranean through to South Asia.  The seeds are ground and dried for use in cooking.  Historically there are records as far back as the New Kingdoms in Egypt.

Peppercorns – Black pepper is native to India. It has been cultivated and trade for thousands of years.  The path of the spice trade ran from India to Ancient Greece and Rome as well as many other countries.  Black peppers are the dried unripe berries of the vine.   White and red peppers are from the same plant, but are the ripe or undried versions of the same fruit. Pepper is so commonly used in western cuisine that pepper shakers and grinders are on almost every dinner table.

Vanilla – Vanilla is so common as a flavoring for sweet pasties and desserts that it is easy to forget that it is a relative newcomer to western cuisine.   This orchid from Mexico and Central America was brought to Europe int he 1500’s but proved hard to cultivate in other regions until the method of hand pollination was discovered in in the 1840’s. Vanillas is the second most expense spice, due to the difficulties in cultivation. However the bean and extract are used worldwide.

Cacao Chocolate – Another newcomer to western Cuisine, the beans of the cocoa plant are beloved by many in its more familiar, ground and sweetened form, chocolate.   The Mayans and Incans used the dried cacao beans straight up in drinks and foods.  The Europeans added milk, and sugar to form the basis of the chocolate we know today.

As people traded spices and herbs back adn forth, sailed for months to buy cargo, and carried their prizes back home they also carried  recipes, stories and culture from one end of the world to the other. Form the ancient Egyptian, trading to India, to the Spanish bringing New World Vanilla and Cacao back to the kingdoms of Europe, spice and herbs have always gone hand in hand with civilization.

 – Lyrra Madril

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Introduction to Cooking Part 1 – Pancakes

Except for certain lucky people with a live in chef, almost everyone needs to know how to cook at least a little.  I was lucky that I learned a lot about cooking from my sister as a child, however not everyone has family to pass these skills along.  Plus of course, experience counts for a lot.

If you never delved into cooking when you are young, chance is that you left college and arrived at your first place of your own with absolutely no idea what you were doing. Unfortunately box mixes and fast food only takes you so far!  A diet made that way is going to be not very healthy and rather expensive.

So I decided I’m going to show you a few simple things to make, to help in your goal of not starving!

Today I’m going to talk a bit about pancakes.  You have eaten them at least once in your life .. those flat, golden brown discs served at breakfast time usually slathered with butter and syrup?  Well there are a lot more variations than that out there and bonus, pancakes are super easy to make.

The History

Pan-cakes, griddle cakes, crepes and flapjacks are some of the oldest foods known to man. Why? well .. they are pretty simple and flexible. In a pinch you can cook them caveman style, on a  hot rock.  When mankind first started eating grains, it was a fast step to taking ground grains, mixing them with a bit of water or milk, and frying them in some sort of grease.

Different cultures make their pancakes different ways. The European crepe is made with a thin runny batter, which cooks into a large thin flexible pancake ideal for stuffing with fruit, cheese or Nutella.  American flapjacks use baking powder to make them fluffy and have much thicker batter. These sweetened fluffy pancakes are usually smaller and thicker, ranging from the usual saucer size to the irresistible inch across ‘silver dollar’ pancakes.

In other parts of the world pan cakes are used like any other bread and served with savory dishes like the pancakes with sliced duck (or the American Chinese dish Mu Shu Pork).  In Russia they are stuffed with soft cheese and called blintz.  No matter how you eat your pancakes almost everyone agrees they should be hot!

The Chemistry

Pancakes come down to at least three main ingredients.  The starch, usually some sort of flour ranging from ground white wheat flour, to ground spelt, oat, rice or even coconut.  A fluid such as milk, water, or coconut milk is used to moisten the starch. The proteins in milk help bind the dough together, but if you are lactose intolerant use water and egg instead (I’ve had good results with coconut milk too).  And finally the batter or dough is fried in some sort of fat, usually oil or butter.

Without a leavener (something to make it fluffy) your pancake will be thinner and stiffer.  American pancakes and some crepes use baking powder to fluff them up more. As the batter heats up the heat starts a chemical reaction which makes bubbles in the batter. This fluffs everything up nicely.

The other three most common ingredients are egg, which adds protein to bind the ingredients together more strongly, salt and sweetener.  The sweetener is just there because well .. its sweet! Salt is there because surprisingly enough, it makes sweet things taste sweeter and enhances other flavors.

So what is in that box mix anyway? Well everything I mentioned above … flour, dry milk powder, baking soda, salt, maybe some spices and of course all those yummy six syllable chemicals.  They must be super expensive, since one box of mix is usually as much if not more than one bag of flour (which can make upwards of 25 pancakes, usually at least four times as much as that box).

Dietary Issues

As you can guess pancakes are full of carbohydrates, since they are mainly starch.  If carbs are an issue for you, you can swap out white flour for whole wheat, or oat flour. Your pancakes will be slightly different but still just as good.  Pillsbury makes a gluten free baking mix that makes excellent pancakes when swapped for the regular flour.  You can also swap around the starches or fats to accommodate gluten free or vegan diets.   Fill your low carb pancakes with sliced fresh fruit, a dribble of agave syrup or honey and all will be fine in pancakeland.

What you need to make this recipe

Frying pan or skillet – You need a flat, smooth, preferably non stick surface to cook your pancakes on. You probably have one already.  Just make sure to leave plenty of space for your pancakes and a little over so you can get under the edge with a spatula. If your pan is old or scratched up, you will need more fat to make sure nothing sticks

A spatula – It looks like a large flat spoon or paddle. Its purpose in life? to help you flip things over.

A measuring Cup – A measuring cup is exactly what it sounds like. This is a large cup, usually made of Pyrex, a heat safe glass, with markings on the side to help you measure things. I usually have several, but try to get one that measure at least two cups.  Smaller means you have to measure more times, and bigger cups are less precise for smaller amounts.

Measuring Spoons –  Same thing but smaller. Measuring spoons are little bitty scoops to help you measure out specific amounts of ingredients. These usually come in tablespoon, teaspoon, half teaspoon and quarter teaspoon sizes.

A whisk  and a big spoon – Whisks are those things made of a bunch of wires looped together with a handle. With a whisk you can quickly blend liquid ingredients together. Don’t have a whisk? mix your thicker batters with a large spoon.

A container – I usually mix my pancakes up in a big 2 quart mixing bowl .. that is to say, a bowl big enough to fit all your ingredients.  Not sure your bowl is big enough? measure out the same cup amounts as your recipe in water and check if that fits in your bowl.   You need space for your ingredients and a bit more for when they slop around as you mix.

The Most Basic Pancake Recipe Ever 1111
Makes about 4 to 6 pancakes

1 cup flour
1 cup milk
1 egg
1 teaspoon baking soda

Optional
2 tablespoon sugar or honey
1 teaspoon granulated table salt

cooking spray, olive oil spray or 1 tsp of butter to grease the pan

  1.  Measure your flour, baking soda, sugar (if using) and salt (if using) into your big bowl.  Use your whisk to mix all the dry ingredients together.
  2. Break your egg into the measuring cup. Why? well if you get shell in there its much easier to get it out, and if you have a bad egg, you won’t contaminate your other ingredients. Use your whisk to beat the egg. I usually beat it for at least 20 strokes, to make sure the white and yolk are well mixed up. Why the measuring cup? well its dirty anyway, and why use another bowl.
  3.  Measure your other wet ingredients into the measuring cup, that is the honey if using and the milk.  Mix well with your whisk.
  4. Pour your wet mix into your dry mix in the big bowl. Use your big spoon to mix them well. If you are using a wheat flour the batter will get thick and sticky. This is because the liquid is activating the gluten in the wheat. Your whisk may not do well here, so if you need to just switch to a spoon.
  5. Your batter is ready when it is well mixed, and still fluid enough to drip off your spoon. Too sticky? add a little bit more milk or water. Too runny? wait 5 minutes or add a little bit more flour.  Your local humidity changes day to day, so your recipe can change too if the ingredients are very dry or moist.
  6. Put your skillet on your stove and turn on the burner. I never turn my electric stove burner up above half way. Your stove may be different.  Until you know your stove really well, always be careful.  When in doubt, turn down the temperature. It will just take a little longer.
  7.  Grease your pan. I usually drop a small bit of butter in the middle and swish it around with the spatula. You want it to melt, but not turn brown or black. If it turns black, wipe it out with paper towel, turn down the heat and try again. If using a cooking spray it should go on but not sizzle.
  8. Using your spoon measure out about one quarter of a cup of pancake batter, you should have a circle about three to four inches across.  This does not have to be precise.  Once you see how big it gets, you can adjust the size of the next one.
  9. Watch the pancake. After a minute you will start to see bubbles forming and popping. This means your baking soda is doing its job and making the pancake nice and fluffy.  When the bubbles have slowed down and the outer edge of the pancake looks dry it is probably time to turn it over.
  10. Slide the spatula gently under the edge of the pancake. If all went well, you used enough grease so it didn’t stick, and the pancake is cooked enough on that side so it comes loose easily. If it tears, take out the spatula and wait for another minute or so for it to cook more and then try it again.  If it is stuck like glue, scrape it out, clean the pan and try again with more butter/spray.
  11. If all went well you have flipped your pancake over. Give it about two to three minutes on the other side and then use the spatula to slide it to a plate. Both sides should be dry to the touch, not sticky at all and some or all of it should be golden brown. Black is not a good color here.
  12. Finish up the rest of your pancake batter the same way. Stack the pancakes on top of each other to keep warm.

Serve your pancakes with honey, sliced fresh fruit, Nutella, or whatever else makes you happy.

If you have extra pancakes put them in a ziplok bag, squish out the air, and put it in the freezer.  They are easy to defrost in your skillet, toaster oven or microwave. Try to use them before a month or so. Make a big batch on the weekend and have breakfast to go all week long!

Variation – Crepes

3/4 cup flour
1 cup milk
2 eggs

Optional
2 tablespoon sugar or honey
1 teaspoon granulated table salt

cooking spray, olive oil spray or 1 tsp of butter to grease the pan

Mix these the same way as above.  However since crepe batter is much runnier than American pancakes, use a ladle or coffee cup to scoop it into your well greased pan.  Turn the pan to spread the batter evenly across the whole bottom of the drying pan.  After a minute, it will look dry on top.

Gently turn it with your spatula. Be careful, crepes are large and thin and super easy to tear. Give it another minute and then fill and serve.  Crepes are usually served folded or rolled around a filling such as chopped ham and cheese, sliced fresh fruit and whipped cream, Nutella, or sugar sprinkled with lemon juice.   If you want to impress your date, practice making these, crepes make an awesome dessert and look much fancier than they actually are!

After you have made pancakes a few times you can start messing around with other recipes or playing with amounts in your recipe to make your perfect pancake.  There are loads of variations out there … gluten free, vegan, chocolate, oatmeal, pumpkin spice.. pretty much everything.  Try small batches for new recipes and when you have a good one keep it in a recipe box for later.

 – Lyrra Madril

 

 

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