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Spices for Middle Eastern and Indian cooking impart a characteristic yellow or orange tint to the sauce as well as plastic utensils. Shown here are fresh mint, garlic, cardamom, saffron, curry, sea salt, smoked paprika, turmeric and coriander.
By Erica Cusumano | STAFF
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It's always fun to spice things up
By Kathleen Ostrander

If protein is the canvas, then spices are the paint. Chefs can take diners all over the world depending on how they paint the meal.

"The biggest mistake when using spices," said Michael Camerano, the former executive chef at Pao and a culinary arts instructor at Lincoln Land Community College, "is using too much or too little. The wrong combination or flavor pairing can be a disaster.

"And simple is what can make a dish sing. You need two or three major components. Too many cooks try to put too much in what they are cooking," he said.

"Think of the spice as a complement or accessory to the protein. They should heighten the experience, not overpower it," Camerano added. Spices should be stored in a cool, dark place with low humidity. Move the spice rack off the shelf above the stove and put it in the cupboard.

Spices are best if purchased whole and ground for a particular dish. "Just get a cheap coffee bean grinder to grind the spices yourself. It is the oils that are released that release a lot of flavor. If the spices are already ground, the spice immediately starts to lose its intensity. Freshly ground spices are pungent, and they retain their oils," Camerano said.

When using dried herbs, he advised, taste the dish at the end to determine if more should be added. Cooks, he said, should also be particular about the type of salt they use. "Iodized salt tastes like chemicals. I use sea salt when cooking and kosher salt to finish."

Camerano went through some basic spice sets to give dishes a specific flavor.

Middle Eastern and Indian cuisines would typically use lamb as a protein and immediately bring to mind curry. Curry, however, is not one specific spice, but a mixture of spices, and loosely translated means sauce or gravy.

To get the flavor profile of that area, Camerano suggested coriander, turmeric, cardamom and paprika or smoked paprika. Those spices supply the yellow color that most identify with when they think of curry, and they also add a well-rounded heat to the dish.

Saffron also is used in Middle Eastern and Indian cooking. The tiny threads add a rich flavor, and because saffron is the most expensive spice in the spice rack, moderation is the key to heighten the taste as well as protect the pocketbook.

After the lamb kebobs are marinated and grilled or roasted, try a nice yogurt sauce flavored with fresh mint, Camerano said.

Moving to Asian cuisine, Camerano said look to soy, sesame, ginger, coriander, garlic and Sichuan peppers. "Garlic adds that mellow hit, and Sichuan brings the heat," he said.

Use some common sense when using a spice, he said. "If the protein is beef, you're going to need a little more. If you are stir-frying shrimp, you have to be careful with the spices and oils. Sesame oil has a very intense flavor. You'd want to add a little at the end, and you could finish with a splash of Thai sweet chili sauce," Camerano said.

Take advantage of bottled preparations, he said. "You can get bottled sweet chili sauce or bottled Sriracha chili sauce at most large grocery stores," he said.

French cuisine means butter, herbs and calories. More than most cooking styles, French cuisine relies on bundled herbs. Luckily, most spice companies happily bundle them for cooks. Fines Herbes mix typically contains parsley, chervil, lovage, dill, tarragon and thyme. Herbes de Provence has thyme, chervil, rosemary, savory, lavender, tarragon, marjoram, oregano, mint and bay leaves. Camerano said Fines Herbes can be added to a sauce. Herbes de Provence is typically used with roasting. Chicken would be the protein with either of these herb mixes, both of which also could be used with fish.

Camerano said if he was using a rich, fleshy fish, he would use capers because the acidity would cut through the richness of a crème sauce and make the flavors more distinct.

"Have some fun with the spices. Tailor the spices of a particular country to your own taste," he said. Don't overlook edible flowers, either. "You can use them in a dessert such as a crème brulee."

About the chef
Michael Camerano is a graduate of Triton Community College's culinary program, and he recently joined the Lincoln Land staff after serving as executive chef at Pao restaurant.


Story published Friday, November 6, 2009 ( Volume 4, Number 6 )

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