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Prairie Fare: Spice Up Your Menus

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Julie Garden-Robinson, NDSU Extension Service food and nutrition specialist Julie Garden-Robinson, NDSU Extension Service food and nutrition specialist
Spices have a wide range of flavors, ranging from mild to hot and spicy.

By Julie Garden Robinson, Food and Nutrition Specialist

NDSU Extension Service

“Do we have any more of that spicy meat left?” my 16-year-old son asked.

“I thought you didn’t like it,” I responded.

“Well, it burned my mouth at first but it had a good flavor after awhile,” he added.

My husband, who had made the spicy meat, was listening quite intently to this conversation. He seemed pleased that the leftovers were desirable.

I bit my lip and didn’t comment that teenage boys eat almost anything. My lips still burned from the meat. OK, the meat was tasty, just a little too spicy for my Scandinavian palate.

Spices have been used for thousands of years to enhance the flavor of foods. Spices have a wide range of flavors, ranging from mild to hot and spicy. In earlier times, spices sometimes were used to mask the undesirable flavor of meat and other foods that were past their prime.

Much of the early exploration of the world was prompted by the lucrative spice trade as explorers from several countries found new routes to distant lands. Spices can be obtained from berries (black pepper), fruit (paprika), seeds (poppy seeds), buds (cloves), roots (ginger) or bark (cinnamon).

Most of us have several containers of spices and dried herbs in our cupboard. Some flavorings are used for a special recipe made a few times a year. To check the potency of your spices, do the “sniff test” about every six months. If the aroma is weak, then the spice is not adding much flavor to your recipe. You may need to use more or buy a new container.

If you keep your spices above your oven or near your dishwasher, the heat and/or humidity are not extending the storage life of your spices.

Instead, store spices in tightly covered containers in a cool, dry, dark place. Mark the date of purchase on the container. Most ground spices retain their flavor for about one year, while whole spices, such as cloves and cinnamon sticks, retain their flavor for two years.

Whole spices may be ground in a clean coffee grinder or with a mortar and pestle. You also can crush spices by placing the whole spice on waxed paper and crushing it with a rolling pin.

To experience the flavor profiles of spices and herbs, try mixing softened butter with a small amount of spice and spreading it on a cracker.

Be a little adventurous with your spices. Do you have dill weed in your cupboard? Sprinkle it on potatoes, tomatoes, green beans, carrots or scrambled eggs. Enhance the natural sweetness of fruits with a sprinkle of ground cinnamon. Bake apples, winter squash or sweet potatoes and sprinkle with cinnamon, ginger and/or nutmeg. Many cookbooks include a spice chart that pairs food and spices.

Spices add flavor with little or no sodium. For example, garlic powder has little or no sodium, while garlic salt may contribute a fair amount of sodium to your diet, depending on how much you use. Black pepper has no sodium, while lemon pepper may contain a significant amount of sodium. Read the ingredient statement on the spice label to see if salt is one of the ingredients.

In general, the rule of thumb is to begin with 1/4 teaspoon of spice per pound of meat or pint of liquid. You easily can add more spice to suit your taste. Adding ground spice near the end of the cooking time will preserve more of the flavor.

Here’s a recipe featuring a savory blend of cumin, oregano and cayenne pepper, plus green chilies. This isn’t the spicy meat recipe that left us with chapped lips, by the way. You can add more cayenne pepper if you prefer a spicier chili.

Chicken and White Bean Chili

2 Tbsp. canola oil

4 boneless chicken breasts, cubed

1 c. chopped onion

2 tsp. chopped garlic

3 (14.5-ounce) cans chicken broth (reduced-sodium)

2 (4-ounce) cans chopped green chili peppers

5 (14.5-ounce) cans great northern beans, drained and rinsed

2 tsp. ground cumin

2 tsp. dried oregano

1 tsp. cayenne pepper (or to taste)

Heat oil in a Dutch oven or other large pot. Add chicken and stir until fully cooked. Add garlic and cook until translucent. Add chicken broth, peppers and beans. Allow to simmer for about one hour. To preserve the most flavor, add the spices during the last 15 minutes of cooking. Optional preparation step for a thicker chili: In a food processor, mix two cans of the drained, rinsed beans with one of the cans of chicken broth. Puree and add to mixture, then simmer.

Makes 10 servings. Each serving has 270 calories, 6 grams (g) of fat, 35 g of carbohydrate, 14 g of fiber and 490 milligrams of sodium.

(Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., R.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and associate professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.)

NDSU Agriculture Communication – Feb. 9, 2012

Source:Julie Garden-Robinson, (701) 231-7187,
Editor:Rich Mattern, (701) 231-6136,
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