"People say, 'I don't like spicy food. Don't give me anything spicy,'" says herbs and spices expert Ian Hemphill. "'OK, dear, I won't give you a cinnamon muffin. No vanilla yogurt or ice cream for you. It's too spicy.'"
While chilies, pepper, mustard and horseradish can make food hot, the majority of spices are sweet, pungent or tangy and enhance food's flavour, says Hemphill, author of "The Spice & Herb Bible" (Robert Rose Inc.), a hefty tome in which he explains almost 100 culinary herbs and spices, including how to buy, store and use them, and how to combine them into blends. Recipes created by daughter Kate Hemphill, a trained professional chef, range from appetizers through entrees and desserts.
Hemphill, who was visiting Toronto from Sydney, Australia, to promote the expanded and updated third edition of his guide, explains the difference between an herb and spice.
"We classify herb as the leafy part of the plant — thyme, sage, marjoram, basil, oregano, mint. A spice can come from any other part of the plant, so it can be buds, bark, roots, berries. It can be the seeds collected from a herb plant when it's finished flowering.
"So you're growing a coriander plant, pick the leaves, call them cilantro the herb; let the plant flower and go to seed, collect the seeds, we call the seed a spice."
Hemphill, who was given the moniker Herbie by his friends when he was growing up, has worked in every aspect of the spice industry, starting with the nursery his parents launched in the 1950s. When they retired he moved to Singapore and managed a spice company. He and his wife returned to Australia and opened Herbie's Spices in the '90s, selling about 350 different items.
Readers can get a feel for flavours and what they do from the recipes and charts in the book. Adding a chipotle chili to pumpkin soup gives it "a beautiful smoky note." For vegetarians, substitute a chipotle chili for the ham bone in pea and ham soup for the smoked flavour without the meat.
"If people understand what a spice is, how it was harvested, what gave it its flavour when it was dried, processed and they smell it and they have an understanding of the sorts of dishes it complements, then you end up being the sort of person who will think, 'Oh yes, a little bit of that will go or this.'"
Hemphill has some favourites he thinks should be in every spice cupboard. Sweet paprika, cloves and chili, for starters. Though black and white pepper are from the same vine, they're processed differently and have a different taste. Cumin is not just for curries — "it has a lovely rounding-out effect and can even be used in stuffing for turkey." Pungent cardamom adds brightness and freshness to curry and tajine.
He calls coriander seed the "amalgamating spice" because it helps bring flavours together when combined and the "rescue spice" because it can mask bitter notes.
A debate rages in the culinary world over using fresh herbs versus dried.
"What a lot of people forget is a fresh herb has a very delicate flavour profile. It's got very light top notes. These are very fragrant and very volatile and lost easily during the heat process of cooking and that's why fresh herbs should always be added towards the end of cooking, that last 15 or 20 minutes at the most."
Use fresh herbs in dishes that aren't being cooked — salad, pesto — or those that aren't being cooked very long, such as an omelette.
"Dried herbs are not actually a poor substitute for fresh. They're completely different. Because when an herb is dried you get a concentration of the volatile oils in the structure of the leaf. You have a flavour that's very stable, it's very strong and because you've removed most of the water content the flavour profile infuses readily into the food you're cooking."
Dried herbs are ideal in casseroles or sprinkled over potato and squash you're roasting in the oven.
When substituting dried herbs for fresh, use a ratio of one to three, so 5 ml (1 tsp) of dried for 15 ml (1 tbsp) fresh.
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