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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Spices and Seasonings- For Free, Or Nearly

Terrific, expensive, high quality food doesn't need much primping to get it to taste good, but frugal, el cheapo food sometimes does need a little spiffing up to make the meal a delicious one. I think one of the most important thing a frugal home needs to have is a well stocked spice cabinet. Spices, in my opinion, are what allow you to take simple, frugal ingredients, and create a delicious masterpeice, so that your tastebuds and your senses enjoy every second of the eating experience, so you're not left wanting, even if the food was very frugal food.
Because of this, I probably have a more extensive and varied spice cabinet than anyone I know. (More than 50 different spices at last count.) Because spice is the variety of life. Haha.


My spice drawer, as of 15 minutes ago.
And its not even all of my spices. I have
another bag filled with another 10 spices.

But seriously, I would feel lost in the kitchen without my spices. (In fact, that's part of why I have a hard time cooking at other people's houses, because if they don't have the spices I'd usually use- which most people I know don't- I get stuck.)

One thing I've noticed, though, is that I am spending a lot of money on spices. Not that I mind terribly, or think that I'm being too unfrugal, because even with the money spent on spices, I'm probably spending less money than if I'd be buying more high quality (aka expensive) ingredients and fewer spices. 
Even so, when I heard that my friend Butter, over and Hungerandthirstforlife.blogspot.com, was trying to fill her spice cabinet with foraged spices, I got inspired and decided that I'd like to do the same. Not that I'd stop buying my regular spices, but if I could use free, foraged spices part of the time, hopefully I'd go through the purchased ones less quickly, and therefore lower my costs in that area.

I've had this thought to collect, store, and use my own spices, but I never really did anything about that.
Until today.


I was teaching a wild edibles class today (if you live locally, email me to inquire about when and where these classes are) and spotted something that I haven't paid attention to before- dried out wild mustard plants. I tend to ignore those dried out plants, because, after all, what can you do with something dried and crunchy like that, but today, I actually noticed that it was wild mustard. And it still had its seed pods!
I always knew that mustard seeds come from mustard plants, but I'd never actually collected the seeds, because I thought it would be too much work, what with the tiny seeds and tiny pods. But today, I decided to see how that would be. But first I decided to make sure that the mustard seeds were still good.
They were.
They were little black mustard seeds, tasting like a cross between regular mustard seeds and hot peppers. Oh boy do those burn. They tasted awesome!
I easily stripped a whole bunch of pods off the dried out plant, then put them in a bag.


When I arrived home, the seed pods had opened themselves up, and I had a whole bunch of "chaff" which had separated from the seeds.
The mustard seeds settled to the bottom of the bag, and the husks/chaff was at the top.

Here are some of the tiny little black mustard seeds. 


Now that I see how easy it is to work with these black mustard seeds, I should have picked much more! I'll be heading back tomorrow so I can get a nice amount.
Also on my foraging walk, I picked a bunch of fennel seeds. These seeds are really the fruit of the wild fennel plant, but they can be used in cooking where it calls for fennel seeds. They're usually used in sausages and in some Indian cooking. (Would pair nicely with those black mustard seeds.)



To use these as a spice, I'm going to let it dry, and then separate the seeds from the stem.

In addition to these things typically used as spices that I picked today, there are some other plants that I wanted to start using as spices, even if some aren't exactly what you'd call conventional spices.

See, before I get into it, I wanted to talk about spice/seasoning. (Whenever I say spice, I mean spice and seasoning, I just don't want to write spice/seasoning every time.)
What exactly is spice anyhow? Is spice only "parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme" and the stuff you'll find on the spice rack in Kroger?
Spice, really, in my opinion, is just a strongly flavored plant that packs a powerful flavor punch, so that you don't need to use a lot of it to give a nice flavor. Carrots, for example, do impart a deliciously flavor to dishes, but they aren't so strong that you can just add a little to a dish to add a lot of flavor- you need to add a lot of carrots to have a lot of carrot flavor, not just a teaspoon or tablespoon.
So, that's my definition of spice- something that is strongly flavored enough that just a teaspoon or a tablespoon in a dish is enough to improve a dish, and sometimes even less is needed. And ideally, in my book, a spice can be dried, so that it can be used at a later time, and not just fresh.
That may not be the official definition, but it's the one I'm sticking to, at least for the purpose of this quest.

I mentioned to you that when I was on my vacation, I picked a bunch of samphire, a plant in the fennel family which grew along the coast. Samphire is a very strongly flavored plant, a bit bitter, a bit licoricey, a bit salty, and a bit spicy. I cooked a few dishes with it already, and in order to use it as a potherb, it needed to be blanched first and the water poured off, because otherwise the flavor would be too overwhelming.
So I took my cue and decided to use it as a spice herb and not as a vegetable herb. Using samphire as an spice, I made a terrific potato dish. It certainly has good potential as a spice!
My mom took my kids and me to the coast yet again (just for a few hours this time), and I came back with a big shopping bag filled with more samphire. That samphire, after being washed, is now hanging from a strong to dry. Once dried, I plan on grinding it up and using it to flavor my food as a spice.


On my kitchen windowsill I have a basil plant that my husband bought for a dollar from some students who learn near my husband's work. They were selling them as a fundraiser, and my husband figured, "Well, why not?" That basil plant is terrific- I have fresh basil all the time, no more need to pay for dried basil.
I'm trying to decide if I should dehydrate a bunch of basil to use in the winter, or hope that if I bring it indoors, my basil plant will continue producing throughout the winter.

I also have green onions and garlic greens growing on my windowsill that I grew from scraps- the green onions from the root trimmings of scallions, which has been producing a steady stream of scallions for me for the past almost year, and garlic greens which I got from sticking a sprouting garlic clove into the ground.
Two more spices I won't need to pay for.

Celery leaf is one of those vegetables, that, in my opinion, is more spice than veggie, what with its really strong flavor. I am growing celery for free (explanation in a future post), and I plan on drying the leaves, then grinding them and using them as a spice.

I want to start foraging mint- it grows in my area, so if I pick and dehydrate it, I won't need to pay for mint anymore.
We also have lots of lavender and rosemary growing right outside my house. I want to pick some and start using it more as a flavoring in cooking.

I recently read that you can use myrtle leaves as a spice, similarly to how you'd use bay leaves. I want to try that one out, because we have lots of myrtle plants growing nearby.

We have a whole bunch of capers in season now. I plan on hopefully picking a bunch to use in my cooking, as they pack a powerful flavor punch. I also want to pick and cure olives for the same reason, also in season now.

I want to experiment and pick grape leaves, then dehydrate and grind them. They have a strong, rich, lemony flavor- it seems they would work really well as a spice.

If wild carrots were still in season, I'd want to use those leaves as a spice, but unfortunately, they're all dried up and out of season, and it'll be almost a whole year until they're in season again.
So I'll try to grow carrot greens and use them as a spice.

And I heard sumac grows here- I'll try to find some growing so that I can harvest some.

As for seasonings which aren't spices- vinegar packs a huge flavor punch, and I make kombucha vinegar. I want to experiment with making wine vinegar out of the wine we made last year, now that we're about to make new wine with this year's batch of grapes. I also have my fish sauce, which definitely packs a powerful flavor punch. (And if you were wondering what ever happened with my soy sauce experiment, it's still sitting in my cupboard- I'm way too chicken to even taste it, even if I'd first pasteurize it. There's something pink and fluffy growing in there. Scary stuff. I'd call that experiment a failure.)

I am looking forward to this experiment. I can't wait to figure out what else I can use as homemade or home picked or home grown spices.

Do you tend to rely a lot on spices and seasonings in your house, or do you just use the food you buy as is? What seasoning do you use the most? How many different spices and seasonings do you have? Do you spend a lot on spices?
Have you ever considered foraging or making your own spices, or are you not adventurous enough for that? If you've made, grown, or foraged your own spices, what was it? Do you use it a lot in cooking?
Any suggestions of stuff to add to my list of homemade or nearly free spices?

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