Spices Are the Food of Life

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I seem to be much more involved with cooking these days than I have ever been in the past. If truth be told I don’t really care that much about food in spite of evidence to the contrary as demonstrated in my girth. If left alone I doubt that food would be much of an issue for me at all. I would purchase one of those huge Costco roasted chickens and be content for a week. Instead I am a social person and cooking for others motivates my interest in the culinary arts. 

A challenging twist to creating delicious meals is that many of the people who eat my food have to go easy on salt. I’ve had to learn how to use herbs and spices to enliven the taste of dishes that might otherwise be bland. I’ve become a huge fan of Penzey’s a little store in the Houston Heights that sells a remarkable variety of products to enhance virtually any kind of cooking. Best of all they have an entire section of the store devoted to mixtures that are salt free, but add so much delightful flavor to my cooking. I find myself using these concoctions on meat, eggs, sauces and even my famous beans. 

My favorite spices have become pepper, garlic, turmeric, parsley, basal, bay leaves, sage, and a Penzey’s creation called Mural of Flavor. It is a perfectly balanced salt free combination of herbs and spices that seem to work well with almost anything that I cook. I keep a large jar of it handy in a cabinet next to my stove. A sprinkle of it here and there seems to bring natural flavors alive.

I’ve also learned the loveliness of olive oil and vinegars. Last summer I visited an olive oil store in Old Albuquerque that features wonderful combinations like Persian infused olive oil and raspberry balsamic vinegar. Such products have become standards in my kitchen and I use them for both cooking and salads without having to include lots of fats, sugars and salt. Sometimes I can’t believe how flavorful the food becomes. 

My foray into a healthier way of cooking has been gradual so I don’t miss fats and salt anymore. In fact, when I dine away from home I am sometimes repelled by the saltiness of the dishes. My body reacts by swelling and sometimes my digestive system becomes angry. On the other hand people who come to my house to eat often request the salt shaker because their taste buds are missing the zing of salt. 

I often think of the many places around the world where my herbs and spices were grown. I hark back to history of stories of trading along the silk road. I imagine exotic spices making their way to the Europe of my early ancestors and I envision adventurous chefs finding new ways of using them. There is something quite precious about the spices and herbs that bring our foods alive. 

My husband watches cooking videos and has become my partner in the kitchen. He’s far more inclined that I am to try new ways of creating the food we eat. He found a lovely recipe for butternut squash that has become a staple in our menu planning. Ironically the crowning glory of the dish uses fresh sage leaves that are gently cooked alongside the squash and then used as a garnish. That lovely herb transforms the squash from ordinary to luxurious. 

I often wonder how humans thought to create edible foods. Who would have looked at stalks of wheat and decided to create flour and then combine it in such a way that it became bread? What instinct drove people to roast meat, and for that matter why would anyone even consider killing a beast and eating its flesh? I imagine myself sustaining life with berries and fruits hanging from trees. The idea of building a fire and cooking would have never occurred to me. I marvel at the creativity and ingenuity of the human race.

We have to eat or we die. Somehow over time there have always been people among us who pushed the envelope to make our process of staying alive more pleasurable. We have geniuses who create culinary delights with the same basic ingredients that we all have. They are food scientists who experiment with ingredients, herbs and spices until the taste is just right. They are artists of the culinary palette. I am in awe of them.

As I try a pinch of this and a dash of that I do my best to make my food enjoyable. I have victories and I have failures. Over time I eventually get it right. My herbs and spices and oils and vinegar are the key. They are the riches of my kitchen and I am ever thankful to the adventurers of yesteryear who first learned of their value and to those who spread the word of their value. Spices are the food of life.