Reading Johnny O’Connor’s column in the Munster Express last week I found myself nodding in agreement at the sentiment expressed about rude, angry celebrity chefs on television. However I suppose to the viewing public a calm, happy kitchen with a jolly chef makes for a rather dull television experience. I personally enjoy watching the less exciting cookery shows as I always hope to learn something or be inspired to try something new. I can’t be bothered with Hell’s Kitchen. I see no point in the voyeuristic and ritualistic humiliation of humans by an out of control chef. It’s only food after all.
Shows like Hell’s Kitchen would never have been devised in the first place if it wasn’t for the huge growth in our interest in food. It’s no longer just the domain of the gourmet, but everyone is a stakeholder these days. Our access to ingredients and our knowledge of the world has made for a literal taste explosion and we are all benefiting. Cookery books have long since shaken off their dull, domestic, science text book looks and have become much sought after with celebrity chefs as prolific as novelists. Although their appeal is a little like women’s shoes; they look lovely, you have to have them and although you wear them occasionally, there is usually one or two pairs that seem to be worn more than all the others in the wardrobe. Cookery books are the same. I was looking at my own collection recently and realised that there are really only two that I consult all the time. The rest I dip in an out of occasionally.
Whether we like the calmer shows or the more frenetic or if we despise all forms of cookery television and the idea of the celebrity chef entirely, we have to credit them with opening up the world of food and the taste experience. Starting with the arrogance of the pioneering, wine swigging Keith Floyd to the gentler presentation style of Rachel Allen today, TV chefs have taken us to culinary places we would never have gone to on our own. Herbs and spices are a good example. Growing up in the 70s and 80s I was blissfully ignorant of the world of exotic spices. Our kitchen boasted a very smart wooden spice rack complete with little glass bottles of dried herbs and spices but I would hazard a guess that there were only about three actually used. The mixed herbs and oregano were relatively popular and at the spice end the paprika pepper got an outing every now and again in a goulash or as a garnish on a prawn cocktail or an egg mayonnaise. My granny used to grow fresh parsley and mint in her garden and that was added to various dishes, but that was the extent of my exposure. Then again I did grow up in the 70s and early 80s when we, as a nation, welcomed the ‘new’ idea of dried food in plastic containers that you poured boiling water on to reconstitute! Looking back it is surprising just how well the Knorr Quick Lunch took off. Fortunately my mother didn’t abandon her apron and embrace convenience but she rarely experimented with hot aromatic spices.
These days the food landscape is constantly changing and herbs and spices no longer live out their lives in little glass jars in wooden spice racks. Instead they are actually used in foods to create new and interesting dishes. Also this new found recreational activity of cooking could also be helpful to our general health. Spices became a form of currency that sent intrepid adventurers onto unknown oceans to find new places, people, and trade routes. The Spice Route to China sucked in Marco Polo and brought the spice trade to Europe. Christopher Columbus set out to find the way to the source of spices and found the New World. The British Raj occupied India to gain its wealth, its spice and tea trade. In some countries spices are sacred, considered aphrodisiacs and are filled with health giving anti oxidants.
The use of herbs and spices in cooking offers the chance to prepare exotic, gourmet dishes, bringing a touch of the Orient here, but it is also a great way to add flavour while cutting calories. Herbs and spices can also be used as a substitute for salt and they can dress up inexpensive meats. A little mustard in place of mayonnaise also cuts the calories. Whole herbs and spices last much longer than crushed or ground forms and tend to have stronger, fresher flavours. Growing herbs is easy and can be done on any kitchen windowsill. Generally speaking crushed and ground forms don’t necessarily ‘go off’ but they do lose their potency after about three to four months.
Definitions of herbs and spices vary somewhat but can be identified as follows: Herbs are leaves of low-growing shrubs; parsley, chives, marjoram, thyme, basil, caraway, dill, oregano, rosemary, savory, sage and celery leaves. These can be used fresh or dried. Dried forms may be whole, crushed, or ground. Spices come from the bark (cinnamon), root (ginger, onion, and garlic), buds (cloves, saffron), seeds (yellow mustard, poppy, and sesame), berry (black pepper), or the fruit (allspice, paprika) of tropical plants and trees.
The health benefits of ginger for example have been known for almost 2,000 years. It is a natural anti-inflammatory which means it could be good for heart disease, Alzheimer’s and arthritis. Tumeric is very respected in India as a potent anti-inflammatory and known to be helpful in fighting bowel diseases including Crohn’s disease and colitis. Parsley is reported to have an ability to fight cancer. Animal studies have shown that it can inhibit tumor formation, particularly in the lungs. Parsley is also a rich source of antioxidants and heart-protective nutrients including vitamin C, beta-carotene and folic acid. This is just the tip of the iceberg.
Herbs and spices are now readily available in any good supermarket and there is immense information available in books and online. Apparently in this climate we’re all doing more cooking at home. It’s not rocket science at all it just calls for a spirit of adventure and a decent recipe to start. While there is no doubt that your taste buds will enjoy the experience, it could be good for your overall health as well.