Understanding flavour combinations: herbs & spices

Spring is upon on us and I’m so excited to be cooking lighter, flavourful meals full of fresh ingredients, herbs and spices that can be easily thrown together. I’ve always loved buying little and often when it comes to fresh food and now the sun is out, I haven’t hesitated to visit my local markets in search of the good stuff. London is bursting with choice when it comes to fruit and veg markets. There is something very satisfying about picking and choosing from the many stalls at a leisurely pace, chatting with the vendors and generally coming away with several bargains for your money! My recent trip inspired this updated post on understanding flavour combinations.

If you’re not much of a cook, flavour combinations will seem like an alien concept. When you go out to restaurants or cook at home, you just eat and know what tastes good or bad together, right? From classic duos like lemon and thyme or garlic and ginger, to sweet things like strawberries and chocolate or apple and cinnamon, they’re all combinations that we eat often because somehow, they just work.

But why?

Often, sweet foods and spices work well with more savoury, salty or sour foods – sharp contrasts that will enhance the overall flavour and bring out the undertones. There’s a reason why everyone is going crazy over salted caramel! Salt is one of those fundamental ingredients that do just that. One of my favourite combinations is a soft tangy cheese like goats or feta, with a sweet and spicy chutney like carrot or mango. It’s something I will always order on a menu!

I’ve found it can take a lot of trial and error to find out what compliments each other when cooking at home, as there are so many variations you can try that will elevate your meal to another level. Another fail-safe of mine? Honey or agave syrup. I use these in savoury meals a lot, usually in sauces or veg based dishes. You can combine with crushed garlic for fragrance, dark soy sauce for saltiness, fresh or dried chilli for heat and olive oil to make a tasty sauce or marinade.

The foodie and traveler that I am, discovering new countries, cultures, foods and amazing flavour combinations is what I enjoy the most so I eat out a lot, and I incorporate those ideas into my everyday meals and weekly shops too. Indian, Moroccan and Mexican cuisines are some of my favourites. Having Caribbean heritage also means I’ve always eaten well spiced and delicious food, so it’s what I know best.

Spices:

My spice cupboard is bursting, literally. Partly because I dislike bland food but also because I like to try new things. There will always be the staples though – I’ll let you in on my essentials.

  • Paprika – you can get hot, sweet or smokey varieties. I like smokey personally with it’s deep red/burnt orange colour and deeper flavour.
  • Fresh chilli – for added warmth but not necessarily overbearing heat. A little goes a long way, especially the dried flakes. Generally the smaller the chilli the hotter it is (except the round shaped scotch bonnet which is the hottest variety).
  • Whole cumin seeds – a classic aromatic Indian spice, usually toasted in a dry pan to release the oils before use. Works well with meat, potatoes and carrots especially.
  • Curry powder – hot or mild varieties. I use this to flavour veg and curries. Traditional in Caribbean and Indian cooking.
  • Turmeric – a subtle flavour with natural medicinal qualities. I use this to add colour and warmth to various dishes.
  • Fresh ginger – juicy, pungent and spicy it’s also part of the turmeric family. I use this in fresh teas and Asian inspired dishes mainly.
  • Garam Masala – a fragrant Indian ground spice made up of cinnamon, cloves, coriander, black pepper and cumin.
  • Whole nutmeg – ah, perfume worthy. I prefer the whole nut over ground varieties because the smell lasts longer. Used primarily in puddings, white sauce, cakes and other sweet bakes.

Herbs and misc:

  • Dried bay leaf – a pungent, strong and bitter sweet spice that I use in soups, stews and porridge. Works very well with nutmeg.
  • Thyme – fresh or dried. A fragrant but strong spice that I use in soups, sauces and stews. Works well with meat, chicken and roasted root veg.
  • Garlic – neither a herb or spice, but an essential. And always the fresh stuff!
  • Lemon and lime – I use the zest and juice to add a fresh lift to otherwise heavy dishes like curries and sauces, as well as in salad dressings, teas and plain water.

There are plenty of other fresh and dried ingredients I use for added flavour which you’ll see throughout the blog, but these are the foundations and a pretty good start for anybody just beginning to explore spices and herbs. Hopefully you can try some of these ideas out if you haven’t discovered them already, and if you have then keep going!

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