When I was growing up, I didn’t know what a spice was. I don’t think I heard the word “garlic” until I got my first full-time job at 21. I grew up in a coal-mining town in Western Pennsylvania, and my mother’s cooking consisted of bland dishes—boiled chicken, meatloaf, brisket, sardine salad and grilled cheese sandwiches. Spaghetti came out of a Chef Boyardee can. Sitting down for dinner was a duty, not a delight.
Dorm food wasn’t much better. The highlight was toasted English muffins, served about once every two weeks for breakfast. Food was fuel, nothing more.
Once I graduated and got a job on a magazine in New York City, my taste buds perked up. I had a not-very-good meal at a Mexican restaurant, but it had flavors I’d never imagined existed. My neighbor took me out to his favorite Indian restaurant, but the Madras-style curry was so burningly spicy that I downed about 10 glasses of water before I’d cleaned my plate. Better was my visit to a Lebanese restaurant, where I had my first taste of Tabouli Salad, which features fresh parsley and mint.
Suddenly I had a mission: finding out as much as I could about spices. For my 22nd birthday, my mother bought me “The Spice Cookbook,” and for many years it was my food bible. It still shares space with more recent favorites: Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything”; “The Silver Spoon”; and the 1997 edition of “Joy of Cooking,” edited by Maria Guarnaschelli. I like this edition because it includes a lot of popular, spicy ethnic dishes such as Szechuan Spicy Noodles, Shrimp Pad Thai and Taramasalata.
I also love Madhur Jaffrey’s cookbooks. Despite my disastrous first Indian meal, I have come to favor Indian food, and I make it frequently. I’m no longer afraid of spices.
Below is a semi-spicy Jaffrey recipe for Cauliflower with Potatoes, adapted slightly, from “Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery.”
Meanwhile, here are 3 key things to remember about spices:
* Many spices, including basil, rosemary, oregano, dill, mint, parsley, cilantro (known as coriander in its ground form) and ginger, are available fresh. Their flavor is wonderful, but be aware that if you use the dried and ground spices, they have a much stronger taste, so use just half as much.
* Better to add too little spice than too much. You can always add more, but you can’t remove it.
* Dried and ground spices lose their punch as they age, so try to use up what you have within 6 months. You can continue using them after that, but you may have to add more to get the original taste.
Cauliflower with Potatoes – serves 4-6
1/2 pound potatoes
1 medium-sized cauliflower
2 tablespoons canola or corn oil or more if needed
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
Boil the potatoes in their skins and allow them to cool. (Leftover cooked potatoes work well for this dish.) Peel the potatoes and cut them into 3/4-inch cubes. Set aside.
Break up the cauliflower into chunky florets, about 1 1/2 inches top to bottom and side to side. Rinse in running water and drain.
Heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. When hot, put in the whole cumin seeds and let sizzle for 3-4 seconds. Add the cauliflower and stir it for about 2 minutes. Let the cauliflower brown in spots. Cover, turn the heat to low and cook for about 4-6 minutes or until the cauliflower is almost done but still has a hint of crispness.
Add the potatoes, ground cumin, coriander, turmeric, cayenne, crushed red pepper flakes, salt and black pepper. Stir gently to mix. Continue to cook uncovered on low heat for about 3 minutes or until the potatoes are heated through. Serve immediately. This dish is also good cold.