Jun 2, 2009

Making Your Own Herb Blends & Spice Mixes

I've always grown (and dried) my own herbs. Whether it be pots inside the house, pots outside the house, in the veggie garden and this year, I planted an herb garden bed to keep them all together and in "one centralized area" LOL. I guess I should be doing a post about planting and growing herbs first, but there's a method to my madness and I'll explain that in a sec. However, if you're interested in growing herbs you can check out the bakespace forums of the herb chart that I posted recently.

If you cook, you probably already know by now that all of your spices and dried herbs in your cabinet only have a shelf life of no more than a year. Sometimes only 6 months, depending on the type of herb and spice, packaging, storage conditions etc. (if you didn't know that, go through your spice rack now and TCB) What I like to do is a rotation system so that I have fresh herbs and spices or fresh DRIED herbs at any given time. So here's how it works for me:

My Rotation System

Summer- Of course, I use fresh herbs in the summer while they're growing in my gardens.
Fall- Then at the end of summer or at harvest time, I dry them in my handy dandy food dehydrator and use them to fill up the individual containers or bottles in my spice rack.
Winter- Now in the winter months, sometimes I have to buy more to replenish my supply. When I do, I transfer them to my spice rack containers and save the bottles.
Spring- At the beginning of spring (it's already sprung) I plant my annual herbs, tend to the perennial ones.
The Here and Now- Now, at the end of spring, I'll make up big batches (8-16 oz really) of spice and herb blends. This helps to use up all of the almost-out-of-date spices/herbs AND make room for the new dried herbs that will be coming in a couple of months.

In addition, the end of spring is a perfect time to do this because grilling and smoking season is just around the corner. (actually, it's HERE! Yippie!) It's much easier for me to have my favorite blends already mixed up and ready to go. Besides, it's seriously a pain, not to mention cumbersome and messy, to try to get out all of my spices for those steaks & chicken on the grill, while blending margaritas with my inebriated girlfriends at the same time. ;)

My Two Favorite Personal Blends:

The first one, I've named "D.D's House Seasoning", because really I use this one the most. It goes with EVERYTHING. I use it on steaks, roasts, chicken, turkey breasts, and pork or as a dry rub for bbq. It can even be used with vegetables and even french fries! Sometimes I'll throw in some cumin or chili powder and use it for tacos, fajitas or quesadillas. I like to use sea salt, but mine is usually coarse so I'll grind it along with the paprika (because it's usually clumpy) and the pepper (because my pepper mill doesn't get it fine enough). You can use a mortar and pestle, or a spice grinder, just as long as you get all of the ingredients the same size and weight. This will keep them evenly distributed throughout. If you don't use sea salt, you can substitute it by swapping out garlic salt for the garlic powder. It's all good!

D.D's House Seasoning

Fills an 8 oz spice jar

4 Tbsp Garlic Powder
2 Tbsp Celery Salt (or ground celery seed)
2 Tbsp Smoked Paprika
1 1/2 Tbsp Accent (MSG)
1 1/2 Tbsp Onion Powder
2 Tbsp Coarse Sea Salt
1 Tbsp Freshly Ground Black Pepper

Put the paprika, sea salt and pepper into a spice grinder or use a mortar and pestle. Grind only until they are the size of fine table salt. Add into a bowl with the other ingredients and stir. Using a funnel, pour into a clean glass or plastic spice bottle that has a tight fitting shaker style lid. Store in a cool/dry place. To use on meats, rub a bit of olive or vegetable oil, then sprinkle on the spice mix. You can also use this as a dry rub and refrigerate the meat for up to 8 hours before grilling or smoking. Enjoy!

This next one is my go to basic herb blend, "D.D's Poultry Seasoning". I use this one for more delicate meats such as chicken, turkey, and fish. However, I do use this one occasionally for pork roasts too, just depends on my mood. Around the holidays, this makes a great compound butter for your turkey. Just mix about 1 Tbsp of mix with one stick of softened butter or margarine. (sometimes I add in a little rubbed sage) Slather on top of turkey skin and also, create a pocket underneath the skin and smush it up under there. I do this with our smoked turkey breasts as well, makes killer sandwiches! The ingredients are simple, but I'm telling ya, the taste is unbelievably awesome!

D.D's Poultry Seasoning

Makes about 4-6 oz

2 Tbsp Dried Rosemary
2 Tbsp Dried Thyme
2 Tbsp Dried Parsley
3 Tbsp Garlic Salt
1 1/2 Tbsp Lemon or White Pepper

Combine all ingredients into a bowl and mix. If your dried herbs are homegrown, you may want to pulse for a few seconds in a grinder or use a mortal and pestle to break them down a bit. Place in an jar larger than contents. You'll need to shake this one periodically because the salt and pepper will fall to the bottom.

Time for some Tips:

You can choose any jar, container etc, but if it is plastic be aware that the aromas/flavors can permeate or become infused with the plastic. So I try to use the same plastic jar over and over for any one particular blend.

As with the recycled jar, choose your recycled lid wisely. While using the salt-shaker type lids with your spices is ok, but a better choice for your herb blends might be one with larger holes and even better, a duel top that you can shake or pour them into your hand. (you'll thank me later ;) )

Take the time to label your blends. Yeah, trust me, you'll inevitably forget what was in there or what you intended to use it for. I used floppy diskette labels that I had left over from back in the day, but even if it's a piece of masking tape, that will help. (ya, done that too) Once you've found a blend that you like, or you've created your own, go as far as putting a label on the back, with the recipe. This way, when you want to refill it, it's right there! Also, after applying my labels, I put shipping tape all around to protect them. ('cuz I'm messy, and they get blurred, and I can't remember how much of what I used, and 'cuz I'm an OCD dork! and yes, btw, I would have done computer printed labels but frankly, I don't have the time LOL) If you're making a fresh batch with new dried herbs/spices (instead of just cleaning out old spices) then I'd put the date on there as well. If it's something you use often, don't bother.

I suggest if while trying out these or other blends, mixes, rubs, whatever, that you only use a scaled down version to try it out. Once it's mixed, it's done. Of course you can "add" stuff to tweak it, but you can't take it away, right?

If you're having problems with clumping in your shaker style jar, throw in a couple of dried beans or some uncooked rice (obviously, bigger than the holes in the shaker). They will not only absorb the moisture and prevent caking, but they will break things up on a quick shake.

As mentioned earlier, you can use an electric spice grinder if you choose. However, never use the same grinder as you do for your coffee beans. There are plastic parts on "them there" grinders and again, the spices will permeate the plastic and the next pot of coffee might taste like, well, garlic salt or something. Not good.

In fact, I used to have two grinders, one for coffee, one for spices. But I seriously got tired of cleaning out the spice grinder after each use. (wiping around the blade, blah) So now, I only use my mortal and pestle. It's marble and for the most part, impervious to odors. Most of the time, I only need to swipe it out with a dish cloth real quick like. If crushing very aromatic seeds and such, I will wash it completely with soap and water.

However, on heavy duty spice mixing days (uhm, or when smashing paprika clumps?) it can get stained. Here's a quick easy solution. I just throw in about a Tbsp of coarse salt (use the cheaper Kosher salt, not your fancy sea salt), and scrub using 1/2 a lemon. If that doesn't work for ya, just add in some baking soda and squeeze in the lemon juice. Now stand back! (throw in the pestle while you're at it)

It will foam immediately, but give it about 15 minutes for the scrubbing bubbles to work their magic. Now go clean up your messy kitchen while you wait. (or blend a margarita, you've worked hard today) You may have to use the lemon and scrub it around in there just for a few. But look, see the paprika in the bubbles? Gotta love it!

Woooohoooo! Wicked clean! (as my beeps Spryte and Bob would say hehehe)

Ok, so I hope you've found some useful tips and are inspired to try making your own spice and herb blends. I have to warn you, it's addicting. Not only that, but you'll save yourself tons of money by not buying the premixed out-of-date spice blends in the grocery store. (start reading labels people, chances are, you have everything in your spice rack) One last thing for people new to using herbs/spices/rubs etc....they taste VERY different in the jar or say, on your finger than they do on the food! The juices in the meat/veggie, the temperature, the method of cooking, can all affect the flavors. For this reason, try not to pre-judge or change a recipe until after you've used it at least once. The exception to this rule would be loweing the sodium or sugar if you need/like to. Also, if you don't like it on one thing, try it on another. If you still don't like it, then by all means, tweak away to your liking.

Jun 1, 2009

We Be Jammin'... with Balsamic Strawberry Jam!

Strawberries. Yum! Anywhichaway, shape, or form, ya gotta luv 'em. But before I get to the jammin' part, I want to share a story with you. My mom (God rest her soul) loved them a bit too much, unfortunately, she was allergic to strawberries for as long as I can remember. So growing up, we never really had very much strawberry anything. Because you see, she apparently had NO self control and would "sneak" one here and there whenever they were around. That translated into hives, coupled with a nasty rash, and her dousing herself with calamine lotion. Then one day at work, she had a couple and nothing happened. So for a couple of days in a row at work she'd sneak one here and there. She took it a bit too far and ate one too many. Later that evening, frantically, she called my brother and had him take her to the emergency room. That evening, I called and asked him, "was it really that bad?" (mom had a tendency to overreact or exaggerate at times) To which his reply was, "Well, she looked like a cross between Frankenstein (swollen brows), Linda Blair (bulging welts moving in and out on cheeks and neck), and Rocky Balboa (lips like a bad collagen ejection and eyes swollen shut)". Yeah, it was THAT bad. To make matters worse, she was allergic to the antibiotic they had given her and that meant another trip back to the hospital later that evening.

Moral of the story: if you or someone you know has (or has had) an allergy to strawberries (and/or kiwi, which is common btw) or anything else, take it very seriously. Never assume because you hadn't had an allergic reaction recently that you've "outgrown" the allergy completely. As for mom, not sure, but I think it's safe to say that for the next 20 or so years, she hadn't so much as LOOKED at a strawberry, let alone "sneak" one.

Because of my deprived childhood, my hubby and I put in a strawberry patch. Although we planted an everbearing variety, it's going to be late summer before we enjoy the fruits of our labor. Not to fear, hubby recently picked up 8 lbs of strawberries at a local fruit stand. Of course, thanks to my bakespace buddies and all of our talk about strawberry jam lately, I knew exactly what to do with them! I didn't want to do freezer jam because I need the room in both of my freezers for cakes and baked goodies, so I decided I'd make canned jam. If you want to do an easy peasy tasty freezer jam, check out my friend, Danielle's Blog "Cooking for My Piece of Mind"

Now, I have canned before (all of my life really) but I have never EVER made jam. Recently I did make a (refrigerated) strawberry concord wine fruit topping that was to die for that was very similar to jam. So I thought, ok, this can't be that hard. right? Besides, if I screw it up, margarita season is right around the corner (wink wink)

I ended up making two different kinds. The first one, on the left, is the straight up strawberry jam recipe from the insert out of the pectin box. (our grandma's secret recipe LOL) I won't bother writing it all out 'cuz, well, it's right there. You use strawberries, sugar, pectin, lemon juice...that's it. Also, I won't go into the canning process 'cuz that's there as well. (I always use the water bath method) I found it pretty simple to do actually, but again, I'm used to canning. Or maybe I was lucky the first time out, I dunno. This morning, I popped a jar open and it had set, just a wee bit on the soft side, but from what all I read this is to be expected. Supposedly they will continue to set for sometimes up to two weeks. (if not, it's margaritaville baby! Oh, that's gonna happen, regardless)

Balsamic Strawberry Jam

Makes 4 pint jars

5 (full) cups of crushed strawberries
1- 1.75oz box of fruit pectin
1/2 C aged balsamic vinegar
6 (leveled) C white sugar

With the rest of the berries (I had about 5 cups crushed leftover to use), I decide to "kick it up a notch" and I made some "Balsamic Strawberry Jam". I didn't really bother researching a recipe (yeah, 'cuz I'm an expert now, pfffft) The original recipe called for 1/4 C lemon juice so instead, I used 1/2 C balsamic. I put it on to simmer, and reduced it down to about half while I got the strawberries ready, then set it aside.

Next, I mashed the berries, with my pastry blender LOL (can u believe that I don't have a potato masher?) Apparently, you're not supposed to use a food processor or blender because it inhibits the fruits natural pectin. Yup, says so on the box. As for that, I followed the directions to the tee. I did leave some chunks because my worst fear was that it would cook down too much.

I put the strawberries on medium heat then I added the pectin and stirred constantly until the mixture started to boil and "couldn't be stirred down", like the box says. Then I poured in the sugar and brought it back to a full rolling boil. Then I added in the balsamic syrup. I boiled it hard for one minute while stirring constantly. At this point and time, the jam started to thicken up, coat the back of a spoon. (when left in my spoon rest, it was jelling up) Wooohooooo! it's gonna be jam! We be jammin'!

So I ladled it into the hot sterilized jars, processed for 10 min, then let rest overnight. They tasted really similar, but the balsamic was a bit more tart, which is exactly what I was hoping for. It also brought out a "brightness" in the strawberries, defining their "berryness" flavor.(yeah, I just make it up as I go along) Out of the two, I preferred the balsamic, hands down. Now, that being said, I can't tell you how good both of them were on this Honey Lemon Muffin!

"In the mornin', I'm havin' WAFFLES". LOL

ETA: Since I've had so many questions about home canning/preserving, I thought I'd post a couple of links for you. Although there are TONS of info on the net about canning, I only use reliable sources. It's also important to consider updated sources. Things that used to be considered standard or "safe" back in the day may not be now with new research.

The Ball site: freshpreserving.com

The USDA safe canning guide: http://foodsafety.psu.edu/canningguide.html

Oh, and one more thing.... I'll be sure to post complete water bath procedures for my "beeps" in a future blog post, perhaps I'll do that around salsa canning time. ;)