Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Final Post

This will be the final post here. All future Spice University posts will be on our new website My sincere thanks to those of you that have been followers of this blog. Please come to the new site and become a part of our new concept. Not only have we changed the look and name of our store at Historic Findlay market, but look for news of our expansion in 2012. I look forward to serving you long into the future. Again thanks, and I will see you at

Colonel De Stewart

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Spice University - Grains of Paradise

A Little Spice of Life
From the Colonel

Grains of Paradise Aframomum melegueta

It is truly a wonderful thing when you find something that you have never had before and discover that it is incredible. This was my experience with something called Grains of Paradise. I had heard of it many times before. Alton Brown on the Food Channel goes all misty eyed just talking about it. Many of my customers had requested it. The only problem seemed to lie in how difficult it was to find. I like to pride myself on having some pretty darn good resources and I looked, and looked, and looked some more. Grains of Paradise are pretty rare. Then I found them. The day they arrived I was filled with trepidation. Now that they were here, was I really going to like them or would they be like Indian Black Salt and wreak havoc with my taste buds? I found myself throwing caution to the wind (those of you that know me are now saying, “what’s new?”). I threw three or four of them in my mouth and began to chew. Wow! First, came the wonderful floral flavor and aroma that hits your palate with coriander. This was followed by an incredible heat. Not the chili pepper kind, but more like a good quality black peppercorn, which blended with the coriander flavor beautifully. To heck with Alton Brown, now I was getting misty eyed. So here’s the scoop on Grains of Paradise.

Grains of Paradise are the seeds of a tropical plant that is in the ginger family. Grains of Paradise are native to Africa’s West coast. In recent years this area of Africa has seen a lot of political and economic upheaval, which is one of the reasons that Grains of Paradise are sometimes difficult to find. Most Grains of Paradise imports stem from Ghana. In the countries of origin, the seeds are used not only to flavor food, but they are also chewed on cold days to warm the body.

In the Middle Ages, the spice was termed grana paradisi “Grains of Paradise” because of its high value. The name also reflects the medieval conception of an “earthly paradise” full of the scent of spices. Grains of Paradise were an important spice in 15th century Europe, when spices were high in demand, but the sea route to India had not yet been discovered. In those times, Grains of Paradise were a substitute for black pepper. The West African coast got its nickname “pepper coast” because Grains of Paradise were traded there. Later, in the Renaissance, when pepper had outrun them as the favorite kitchen spice, Grains of Paradise were commonly used as beer flavoring. Since that time the importance of and, subsequently, the knowledge of Grains of Paradise (outside of its native lands) has fallen to nil.

In addition to North Africa and Morocco, Grains of Paradise are also popular in neighboring Tunisia. Tunisian stews are frequently flavored with an aromatic mixture called gâlat dagga, which contains Grains of Paradise. This blended ingredient also contains black pepper, cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg. This type of pungent aromatic mixture makes this a good example of a traditional Arabic spice blend.

There is no good substitute for Grains of Paradise. Many try black pepper, but what’s the point?

Kickin' Peach Cobbler
Grains of Paradise Pesto

Colonel De Stewart

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Spice University - Mace

A Little Spice of Life
From The Colonel

Myristica fragrans

Mace is an Aril

Mace tastes and smells like a pungent version of Nutmeg for a very good reason. Mace is the covering of the seed that will become nutmeg. They come from the fruit of the tree Myristica fragrans. A pile of fruit large enough to make one hundred pounds of nutmeg produces a single pound of mace. So mace has always tended to demand a higher price than nutmeg. Although the sheath or aril is scarlet when it is opened, it dries to an orange color. By the way, an aril is a partial covering of the seeds of fruit. It is sometimes referred to as false fruit, as is the case with pomegranates. Once dried it is ground into what we call mace. Occasionally it can be found un-ground where it is called a blade of mace. An all around spice it can be used on foods from sweet to savory.

Being from the south I can tell you that any good southern cook wouldn’t consider making a sweet potato pie without adding a little mace. Generally speaking mace’s counterpart, nutmeg, is used in sweet dishes while mace is generally used for savory. Mace can also be found in clear and creamed soups, cream sauces, lamb, chicken, potted meats, cheeses, stuffing, sausages, pickles, puddings, ketchup, baked goods, and doughnuts. It also adds to the flavor of chocolate drinks and tropical fruit juices and fruit punches. Mace has found its way into French, English, Asian, West Indian, and Indian cuisines, and is important to the spice blends garam masala, curry, and rendang.

The primary source of Mace is Indonesia. However, mace from the East Indies is the most sought after because of its bold orange color, rich flavor and high oil content. Mace that comes from the West Indies is yellowish in color and has a milder flavor.

Until the 18th Century, the world's only source of mace was the Maluku Islands (also known as the Moluccas, Moluccan Islands, the Spice Islands or simply Maluku) the area now part of Indonesia. When the Dutch took control of this area from the Portugese, mace and nutmeg were among the most valuable spices in the world. Knowing that these spices did not grow anywhere else, they established one of the tightest monopolies the world has ever known. There is a legend that it was a Frenchman who started the erosion of Dutch control by smuggling seedlings and planting them elsewhere. True or not, it is a fact that a series of transplantings did occur and a number of other areas began producing these spices.

In colonial times the Governors of the colonies didn’t understand that both nutmeg and mace came from the same tree. They all sent dispatches to the Spice Islands requesting that more nutmeg trees be planted and less mace trees. I’m sure the Islanders were not amused.

If you must, you can use nutmeg as a thin substitute for mace.

Orange and Tomato Ketchup
Sugar Maple Cookies

Colonel De Stewart

Monday, September 13, 2010

Spice University - Oregano

A Little Spice of Life
From the Colonel

Mediterranean oregano Origanum vulgare Mexican oregano Lippia graveolens

There are really two oreganos

It’s been several months since I began this project of writing about Herbs & Spices, so I think it is high time I cover one of the most popular herbs in our kitchens. While oregano has been part of the European cuisine for centuries it is a relative new comer to the American scene. World War I saw a modest spike in American interest in oregano, but it wasn’t until the end of World War II that returning GIs began demanding this tasty herb for their tables. They had become accustomed to it while serving in the European Theatre.

Sometimes called wild marjoram, oregano belongs to the mint family and is related to both marjoram and thyme. Because it is more pungent and aromatic, it has to be used with more care than marjoram. Fresh Mediterranean oregano is sometimes available in supermarkets and the dried variety is almost always available. There is a Mexican variety that is much stronger and typically used in highly spiced dishes, especially in Mexican and Tex-Mex recipes.

The Mediterranean variety is widely used in Greek and Italian cuisines. It is the leaves that are used in cooking, and the dried herb is often more flavorful than the fresh. (Remember when substituting dried herbs for fresh herbs 1/3rd dried equals 1 fresh. Whether it is a teaspoon, tablespoon, cup or poundage the substituting equation is always the same.) Together with basil, oregano contributes much to the distinctive character of many Italian dishes. Oregano is used in tomato sauces, fried vegetables and grilled meat. Oregano combines nicely with pickled olives, capers and lovage leaves. Unlike most Italian herbs, oregano works with hot and spicy food, which is popular in southern Italy. The dish most associated with oregano is pizza, which has been eaten in Southern Italy for centuries.

Oregano is an indispensable ingredient for Greek cuisine. Oregano adds flavor to a Greek salad and is usually used separately or added to the lemon-olive oil sauce that accompanies almost every fish or meat barbecue and some casseroles.
Then there is Mexican oregano, which is closely related to lemon verbena. Mexican oregano has a very similar flavor to oregano, but is usually stronger. These two oreganos have become highly regionalized. (Mexican oregano isn’t a true oregano, but work with me on this.) If you were born and raised east of the Mississippi then Mediterranean (Greek or Italian) oregano is what you would know as oregano. On the other hand, if you were born west of the Mississippi, especially Southwest, then Mexican oregano is what you know as oregano. My recommendation is, if you are doing a dish that is Mexican or Tex-Mex and it calls for oregano, use Mexican oregano. If you are doing any other recipe that calls for oregano, then use Mediterranean oregano.

A thin substitute is sweet basil or mint.

Holiday Turkey with Mediterranean Oregano
Mole Sauce for the Holiday Turkey
Vegetable Soup Stock
Chili Rellenos

Colonel De Stewart

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Spice University - Herbs de Provence

A Little Spice of Life
From The Colonel

Lavender in or lavender out?

Herbs de Provence are also called the French countryside herbs. Legend has it that the French farmers’ wives would simply go out to the hillside and pick these herbs to add to their dishes. The mixture that I sell contains: rosemary, thyme, savory, fennel seed, basil, lavender, and marjoram. It is generally accepted that this mixture was standardized by the larger spice companies in the ‘70’s. Every major spice vendor has their own take on what the final ingredients should be. I have had more than one person vigorously inform me (we tend to be very passionate about our spices) that lavender has no place in Herbs de Provence. I have had just as many counter that they are glad to see that I was smart enough to include lavender. My research into the creation of Herbs de Provence gives me the same 50/50 results.

Over the years there have been many combinations that have gone together to create what we know as the Provençal cuisine. In the Provence region Herbs de Provence are used to grill meat, fish and stews. This combination is always used in its dried form. As with most herbs, it should be added somewhere late in the cooking process so as not to lose the flavors or have the herbs turn bitter on you. The one exception is if you are going to infuse them into the oil that you will use. While it is not particularly easy to get the mixture right, it is definitely worth the effort. The flavors can be incredible. A good addition to any dish from the Mediterranean region, Herbs de Provence are also tasty added to a pizza sauce or sprinkled over game or kabobs, for seasoning salads, sauces and cheeses, as well as soups and stews. Rub the blend on a whole turkey or the breast before roasting. Rub beef, lamb or veal with olive oil and then pat the herbs on before roasting or grilling. If you are using a charcoal grill, you may wish to add a handful to the fire while you are grilling the meat.

Herbs de Provence Roasted Chicken
Lavender Provence Pepper Steak
Herbs de Provence Pizza Sauce
Provence Onion Rings

Colonel De Stewart

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

How Do You Say Asafoetida (English) Asafetida (American)? (a-sə-ˈfe-tə-də)

A Little Spice of Life
From the Colonel

Asafetida Ferula assafoetida

At the store I have heard some pretty interesting attempts at pronouncing this unusual spice. The spice, asafetida, is a gum resin produced from the roots of the asafetida plant. Throughout the Middle Ages it was used to ward off plague and other diseases. A piece was sometimes hung around the neck to help ward off these things. It was used in much the same way throughout the 20th Century in the South, on children, to ward of colds and the flu. It would be mixed into a foul-smelling paste and hung in a bag around the afflicted child's neck. One of the reasons it may have kept you from coming down with a cold or flu is that no one wanted to come near you, because you smelled so badly. Thus, you weren't able to get their germs.

Because of the plant’s strong sulfurous smell, it has been given some very derogatory names. It has been called, “devil’s dung”, “stinking gum”, and “devil’s herb”. Since this is a family friendly blog, I can’t even translate the French name for you. Let’s just say it isn’t very nice. However, its odor and flavor become much milder and pleasant upon heating in oil or ghee (clarified butter), acquiring a taste and aroma reminiscent of sautéed onion and garlic. Consequently, there are whole segments of the population in the Middle East (those adhering to the Jain religion and others), who do not eat onions or garlic; use asafetida as a substitute for these flavors in their recipes. It is used in most vegetarian and lentil dishes to both add flavor and aroma and reduce flatulence. That’s a lot to ask of a little powder. For those of you that have an allergic reaction to onions and garlic, you might check with your doctor to see if asafetida is a good substitute for you.

Asafetida has been used as a deterrent for deer and other outside yard marauders for a long time. They don’t seem to like the spice. The only exception is the American wolf, which seems to be attracted to the aroma.

While most other countries in the Middle East use asafetida in its powdered form, in India the green parts of the plant are used as a vegetable.


Alu Matar
Bajji Vegetable Fries
Spicy Tomatoes with Mushrooms
Spiced Okra

Colonel De Stewart

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Spice University - Mustard

A Little Spice of Life
From The Colonel

White or Yellow mustard Brassica alba (Brassica hirta/Sinapis alba), Brown mustard Brassica juncea, Black mustard Brassica nigra

Why is mustard yellow?

There are a variety of plants grown for their acrid seeds and leaves collectively called Mustard Greens. The leaves may be used in salads or cooked with, or as a substitute for, spinach. Mustard belongs to the same family as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collards, kale, and kohlrabi. For centuries mustard has been used for culinary, as well as, medicinal purposes. Most notably it’s used as a curative for the common cold. I don't think there has been a child born before 1950 that has not had to suffer through at least one mustard plaster. The name comes from the Roman mixture of crushed mustard seed and must (unfermented grape juice), called mustum ardens or burning wine.

Because mustard seeds are so small, they have figured in much ancient writings. Mustard is used as an example by Buddah, in the Quran, and by Jesus in one of his parables in the Bible. Not bad for an itty bitty seed. Pope John XXII liked prepared mustard so well that he created a new position within the Vatican, 'grand moutardier du pape', or 'mustard maker to the pope'.

Mustard seeds are sold whole, ground into powder, or processed further in prepared mustard. Most of us know mustard by the form of prepared mustard. It is typically referred to as that “yellow stuff” we put on hot dogs at the ball park. As weird as it may sound, it is not the mustard seed that makes this prepared mustard yellow, but the addition of turmeric to the mix that suddenly makes it very yellow.

There are two major types of mustard seed, white (or yellow) and brown (or Asian). There is a third variety that is black which is the most pungent but has been replaced mostly by brown because it can be grown more easily and economically. White seeds are relatively large. Their flavor is spicy and almost sweet. Brown mustard seeds have a flavor that is hot and slightly bitter. Toast either sort of seeds in a little butter or oil in a skillet until you smell them.

Mustard seed's hot spicy flavor is great with meats, fish, fowl, sauces, and salad dressings. Whole mustard seed is used in pickling or in boiling vegetables such as cabbage or sauerkraut. Brown mustard seeds are an important flavoring in Indian dishes. Powdered mustard has no aroma when dry, but develops a hot flavor when it is mixed with water.

Out of mustard seeds? Try caraway seeds.

Cajun Mustard
Maple Mustard BBQ Sauce
Rabbit Pastrami or other Wild Game
Creamy Slaw Dressing
English Pub Mustard

Colonel De Stewart