As the temperature begins to drop, it’s official. It’s time for bourbon. During the summer, the drink of choice definitely trends toward clear liquors, and clean flavors. Fruit and frosted glasses take center stage. But, as soon as the weather begins to turn drizzly, I find myself craving amber spirits and spices. It’s the season for mulled wine, hot buttered rum and, of course, my favorite winter warmer: the hot toddy. This spiced drink is relaxing, invigorating, and somehow a mysterious cure all. Whether it’s at get together with friends, or just to sip by yourself on some blustery evening, this drink is always warming, and always a hit.
When I was young, my family would have a fish fry every few weeks. Whenever my mother would bring home a few pounds of fresh cod and buttermilk from the grocery store, I immediately knew I was in for a treat. I used to love the process of it all, dipping the fish in the flour, then the buttermilk, and then the flour again. I loved listening to the oil pop and sputter, being to short to watch my father place the battered fish into the pot. There is such theatre to a fish fry, the purposeful steps forming a dance of comestible intent. The flurry of these dancers’ movement is scored by the scents and sounds of sizzling spiced batter and hot snapping oil. No one person takes a passive role in this dance, while the surrounding viewers may only first stand and watch in anticipation, they later become eager participants in the eating. Food is about more than just the things that we digest, it is also about the process, the participants, and the community that create it. These food traditions become an act of modern story telling, a form of ritual that groups use unconsciously to pass on the customs and teachings that make up a heritage. Continue reading →
Getting bored in the kitchen happens, and finding interesting ideas can be a handful. Limiting ourselves to pursue new culinary territory might seem like a good way to just get out of a rut, but it can also apply to real world nutritional needs. There are an awful lot of customers we see who can no longer have certain loved ingredients, due to health problems or newly discovered allergies. Yet the removal of an important ingredient doesn’t mean that bland or lifeless food is the only option, it just takes a little work and ironically, a little restraint. Continue reading →
I love making ice cream at home. I have had a love affair with my ice cream machine ever since I took it out of the box. It's a labor of love, creating layered and often downright wacky flavors of ice cream and sorbet that can be found in no grocery store freezer. Fanciful ice creams, flavors that combine sweet and savory, sorbets the more offbeat the better. Half the fun of cooking at home is the creative licence afforded there, and that ice cream machine and I have pushed that envelope all over town. Sure, not all of the flavors have been successful, but how can I know that Jamaican Jerk Peanut Butter ice cream is a bad idea until I try it myself? On a side note, Jamaican Jerk Peanut Butter ice cream is certainly a bad idea, but I had a lot of fun finding out why, the hard way. Mishaps aside, let me share with you one of my more successful creations, Pink Peppercorn Pear Sorbet. Continue reading →
Some time back we hosted at our Old Town store a book signing with New York Times Food Columnist, Melissa Clark, who had been making rounds to promote her then-new cookbook, “Cook This Now: 120 Easy and Delectable Dishes You Can’t Wait to Make.” We entertained a small crowd as attendees had the opportunity to meet the author, get her autograph, and pick her brain as she fielded questions about cooking and beyond. The book’s release, and subsequently the event, landed in mid-Fall, so it was no surprise that many of the questions and much of the advice she doled out, centered on, among other seasonal topics, brining, stuffing, or otherwise preparing turkey. Melissa Clark, I realized then, is uniquely talented. Besides being a good cook, she has a way of making some perennially nightmarish kitchen projects sound and look surprisingly manageable. Case in point: I’d been trying for a good while with limited success to concoct my own flavor-infused mayonnaise when I stumbled upon some classic Melissa Clark wisdom in the form of a recent column, “Mayonnaise: Oil, Egg, and a Drop of Magic.”
The art of brewing may be the oldest craft invented by humanity. In fact, many anthropologists believe that brewing predates agriculture, and may have been the original impetus for the development of permanent agrarian settlements.
Today, the standard formula for beer is malt, water, yeast and hops. In fact, the reinheitsgebot purity law of Germany forbids the use of any other ingredients in beer. However, this has not always been the case. Historically, brewers have utilized a variety of spices to enhance the flavor of their beers. Long before the use of hops became widespread, a blend of spices known as gruit was the primary means of flavoring beer. Often, the spices in gruit also acted as a preservative to protect the beer's flavor. There are many versions of gruit, each using a variety of spices. Many include esoteric herbs such as sweet gale and mugwort, as well as some more familiar spices, such as juniper berries, ginger, caraway seed, anise seed, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Although the use of gruit largely fell out of favor when hops became the norm, many craft and home brewers, as well as some historic breweries, still use gruit to create unusual and flavorful beers. Continue reading →
In the past couple of years, I have gotten the chance to work with some really wonderful spices. It’s always fun to rediscover old favorites in new and interesting ways, and play with delightful new spices. A few months ago we got in a spice that really wowed me: Ultra Blue Lavender. This gorgeous, deep violet lavender had incredibly strong color and fragrance, that made our normally wonderful lavender pale in comparison. Continue reading →
There might be a reason you love a good curry and can’t stomach spinach. A group of European scientists have begun work on a project that could eventually explain everything from your insatiable sweet tooth to your superhuman tolerance for spicy foods. New research on the “genetics of food preferences” suggests our tastes and distastes for certain foods may have their origins in our evolutionary histories, and that our genetic makeup may actually dictate which foods we find attractive, and which ones we abhor. The project – officially called Marco Polo (after the explorer who famously travelled the trade route centuries ago) – examines DNA from a number of cultures and communities along Eurasia’s historic Silk Road in an effort to determine how genetic variation translates to palatal differences within and across cultures. And while Marco Polo’s orchestrators still have significant work to do before the project sees its conclusion, early research has already turned up some interesting results which could, given time, lead to advancements in food science and changes in the direction of food industry research.
The Silk Road is home to ongoing research on the genetics of food preference.
The pungent mixture of curative spices, served as delectable fine dining.
Throughout history, many herbalists, doctors, and chefs have touted the health benefits of spices in the kitchen. Nearly every individual spice and herb we carry has at some point been used as a holistic remedy. Cultures the world over have long turned to the healing properties of spices to ease pains, fight deseases, and slow aging. Even now, every few months we hear about a new study proving the long known health benefits of a particular spice. Here, at the Spice House, we are far from doctors or herbalist healers, we are but humble spice merchants. It is from this perspective that I've noticed that there is one thing that isn't always mentioned in these modern medical studies of spices or holistic herbalist books. Cooking with spices isn't just healthy, it is also delicious. Continue reading →
Pickles. Without a doubt my favorite food group. This briny treat is an excellent accent to sandwiches, salads, bloody mary’s and (in my house) midnight snacking. The perfect pickle balances sourness, sweetness and spice in a way that makes them a truly addictive snack sensation. Typically I get my pickle fix from fine vendors across Chicago. But this fall I decided to try my hand at homemade refrigerator pickles.