Tools that Truly Help

Don’t be alarmed by the mere existence of this heading. Just like any work in life, good tools are essential to help us along. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to break the bank to buy them. Usually when I buy equipment for the kitchen, I wait for the sales to start or if I unexpectedly chance upon something that seems like a bargain I quickly look it up from my mobile to check whether or not it’s worth buying in that moment. When using this method to shop, search for the article number on the box of the item or the tag. There should be an article number starting with the letters ART followed by some numbers, if you type in the name of the item and the article number, you’ll find a list of prices by retailers, use this as a guideline to make a comparison.  If funds are low and it’s not a steal, I’ll usually keep the money for more ingredients. Nothing saddens me more than a fridge that runs out of butter.
Apart from that good measure, I often go to thrift shops in search of good second-hand bargains and believe me, I’ve found many. Don’t ask me why but most Italians don’t seem to truly appreciate the value of goods “Made in Italy” or maybe the reality is, they just have too much of the good stuff and need to declutter . Wonderful superior quality wares, made in a time when the quality of your product was your stamp of pride, just waiting on rows and rows of shelves collecting dust, with a price tag that will make your heart jump for joy.
One of my favourite things that I found in a thrift shop is an oil decanter. Made by a Company that’s over a hundred years old that not only make oil decanters but started the Company Sansone by specialising in olive oil pressing, this gift to myself is made with superior quality material and smart design. My stainless steel oil decanter usually costs from 29 €. Bargain hunter here, saw it from a distance and knew it was something worth having and left the shop with decanter in hand, grin on her face and a mere 4.90€ out of pocket. 🙂

However if it’s something that you really need and can’t afford, choose a cheaper alternative until you save enough and then treat yourself. For instance, I would love a very sophisticated stand mixer, with all the impressive attachments, but most start from €600 euro. People have been mixing by hand for centuries, so I guess there’s always that option but often, a machine that effortlessly does it for you is so convenient. Don’t get me wrong, I love kneading by hand, in all honesty it does have a soothing effect, however there are some recipes that yield a better bread using a mixer and that for now, I’m inclined to agree with. Of course baking bread at home shouldn’t cost a small fortune, planning to buy a cheaper but good alternative will yield satisfactory results. There are satisfactory mixers on the market from 100 €.
So basically I’m saying that if it has a dough hook, whip attachment and a paddle attachment then it will suffice until you can afford better. All said and done here’s my list in no particular order.

  1. So the oil decanter is on this list. It’s so important to have this for extra virgin olive oil. The flavour of extra virgin is quite potent and often used to flavour salads, cheese, pasta or simply drizzled over crusty bread, in other words, you don’t need lots of it. Trust me when I say nothing is worse than trying to drizzle gently from a big bottle, let alone a five litre gallon like most Itlaians keep. Also if you can, opt for one that’s small so you can keep it close to your cooker without it getting in the way. I know you may be thinking but Jamie Oliver uses his thumb over the top and it works well for him. Well you can do that too, I did, but not before I realised I don’t have man size thumbs. Another way to do it is to get an oil pourer or a cruet and attach it to your bottle. This allows you to pour without worrying too much about control, it is designed for drizzling. A good point to remember is that extra virgin is not exactly cheap  so you want to use it wisely. Maximise it’s flavour by keeping it under dark conditions like a stainless steel decanter or a tinted bottle, if decanting in glass always use a tinted bottle as extra virgin reacts poorly with light. Or as a final option I will suggest you wrap the bottle in tin foil matt side facing outward.
  2. The stand mixer. Put that under aspirations or give thanks if you already have one. 🙂
  3. A good zester. Not just for zesting but it’s what I use for grating hard cheese like parmigiano and solid spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. Zesters are good for garnishing dishes as well as adding fine flavor to food. While the four sided box grater might look like it’s seen some rough times, replacing it with a sharper, newer model can save you money and time. Easy to use the common  box grater has four sides dedicated to providing efficient results whether it’s fine grating,  zesting or mincing, shaving, or regular grating all in one tool. If you are thinking of replacing an old one I would suggest a non stick model that’s easy to clean, and razor sharp.
  4.  A sharp peeler. A peeler is essential to be quick but without wastage. I still remember my gran peeling potatoes with a knife.  Certain memories make me feel grateful for potato peelers. Most of the goodness of nutrients lies just under the skin of vegetables that’s why potato peelers are so smart. I don’t have a julienne slicer, most people do but i tend to multi function with my peeler using it for slicing long vegetables paper thinly like carrots and zucchini for stir-frys and salads, apart from just using it to peel.
  5. A strong balloon whisk. Often difference between a sauce or batter with lumps and one that’s perfectly smooth, is your wrist action and the strength of the whisk you choose to buy. A strong whisk is also essential for whisking semolina which tends to get heavy really quickly and a reliable whisk must be strong under that weight.
  6. Spatulas. Start with at least two so that you don’t have to leave the cake batter sitting while you wash the spatula, it’s always better to have another on hand. I find spatulas great to transfer cooked grains with ease and it’s  also good for turning vegetables without bruising if you are not skilled at tossing.
  7. A decent set of knives, sharpener and kitchen scissors. We are cooking at home, not in a bustling restaurant, so we shouldn’t have to break the bank for this. Plus let’s remember that professional chef knives are used by professionals who studied how to use them and practised for years, that’s not us so we don’t need that added expense in our lives as they can be quite pricey. No point in buying a tool when we don’t know how to maximise its potential.  Find a set that’s in the middle range of knife sets between good and great. I use a Swiss brand that’s not manufactured for professional use but it is perfectly suitable for every day cooking. A good set to start should consist of the following: Pairing Knife, Carving Knife, Bread Knife, Chef Knife, and a utility knife. Kitchen scissors will take the effort out of cutting fat off chicken and splitting it down the back in addition to normal uses such as opening a bags, cutting parchment paper and so on when you desperately need a pair of scissors and can’t find one.
  8.  A blender or food processor. This gadget has innumerable functions in the kitchen and worth its weight in gold.
  9. A set of heavy based pots with tight-fitting lids and strong handles. A heavy based pot  will absorb and distribute heat more evenly. Thin based pots are prone to hot spots which tends to burn food easily.  A good set should include a frying pan. A pasta pot. A sauce pan. A 20cm multi functional pot.  And small pot with a spout for heating milk and other liquids, making sauces, gravies, syrups and custards. This makes for pouring easily without wastage and without mess. You won’t regret investing in them.
  10. A sturdy colander with fine perforations. The other way to do it is to have more than one colander. Big perforation colanders are fine for pasta and vegetables while you can reserve a fine perforation colander for small grains.
  11. A stainless steel bowl or a heat-resistant glass bowl for double boiling. I prefer stainless steel, it eliminates the risk of cracking.
  12. A  dish that can go from stove top to oven. This is important for rendering meat before it goes into the oven and essential for deglazing.
  13. Measuring spoons, measuring cups and a kitchen scale.  I much prefer a digital scale for accuracy and one that allows multiple measurements in one bowl. Don’t try to estimate. Baking is a mathematical science, it will go wrong if you’re inexperienced at measuring offhand.
  14. A sieve deep enough to sieve flour. Not a tea strainer. Although a tea strainer is also handy for dusting with cocoa powder or icing sugar. If you can afford a set of different sizes, it’s a joy to have.
  15. A pestle and mortar. Probably the oldest tool around the pestle and mortar resembles the rock and stone technique used in ancient times and there is a reason why this technique is still in existence today. This utensil is serious in heightening up flavor in the kitchen. Great for pestos, marinades, masalas, relishes, herbed butters, etc etc etc its function in the kitchen is indispensable.
  16. A good quality grill pan is a cook’s must-have for properly grilling, searing, roasting, deglazing and finishing meat, fish and veg with ease. Investing in a cast iron one will stop you having to spend on this time and time again. 

And there it is guys, my top 16 essentials for now, we will build on this as we go along. Remember, Home wasn’t built in a day so build your equipment over time and with discernment and take care to pay attention to the prices in relation to the quality.

No One is Born A Great Cook

As the quote goes, “a great chef is first a great technician.” While we are not aiming to be professional chefs here, some essential techniques must be learned and applied properly to be able to improve our standard of home cooking. When I was learning cookery at school it was a subject to be ashamed of. It wasn’t just my imagination telling me that if you were not signed up for maths and science lessons then you were secretly mocked by some of the students who were. The stigma attached to cooking lessons reeked of laziness and dim- wittedness, fast forward twenty years, amidst the hype of culinary celebration, I assume they’re eating their words for breakfast. Cooking and baking is as important as any science and there’s a multitude of knowledge and skill that go into a Bavarian Cream ( happy school memories) than most “serious scholars” ever imagined. Yes our mum’s cooked at home every single day making it look effortless, but by no means was there “nothing to it”I grew up eating curry, the authentic kind. Traditional Indian Kari (Tamil word for curry) was encountered by the British only in the mid 17th century which attests to curry’ancient history. If we think about how much time and traditions have been passed down from generation to generation to cook what most people consider to be one of the most complex cuisines in the world, then we have to acknowledge that what my grandmother was doing at the tender age of 12 and what she taught my mother to do at 15, has more to do with time and practising of skills rather than boasting that cooking curry is easy. My point is that while most people take for granted that everyone can cook, many forget that authentic cooking is a time-honoured skill which deserved the same respect back then as it is honoured in today’s era of the culinary enthusiasm. Indians will tell you that there is a precise technique to making perfectly round rotis (hand-made bread) just like Italians will tell you that there is an exact technique involved in making tortellini (a variation of filled pasta), or in the case of the Japanese, the precision of tepanyaki is a technique so stunning, it’s nothing short of brilliance and on the subject of culinary brilliance, let me not get started on the proficient techniques of French pastry making. I’m sure you understand the point. Skill and technique has been mastered at home for centuries and is not only reserved for professional kitchens. By learning some basic cooking techniques and understanding what ingredients pair well with those techniques and by practising them day after day, the food we eat and serve will inevitably delight. Here are some basic techniques and common terminology to get us started.

  1. Basting – the spooning of melted butter or marinades over food
  2.  Braising – The browning of food in fat then cooking it in a covered pot in a small amount of liquid.
  3.  Blanching & Refreshing – to plunge food in boiling water and then into an ice-cold water bath to retain colour, texture and flavour.
  4. Beating – beating is a good way to train your arm and wrist action, it is the mixing of foods or liquids vigorously. 
  5. Blending – To mix food together less vigorously than beating
  6. Coat a Spoon – This technique is used to indicate the thickness of a batter or sauce. The spoon is dipped into the mixture and withdrawn to reveal its consistency
  7. Caramelising – the melting of sugar or the browning of other types of ingredients containing sugars resulting in a nutty or enhanced flavour. Eg. onions and carrots
  8. Deglazing a technique used for sauce or gravy making. After food has been roasted or sautéed, and degreased, liquid is poured into the pan and all the bits usually left behind in the pan are scraped into the liquid as it simmers to form a flavoursome sauce or gravy.
  9. Degreasing – the removal of accumulated fat from the surface of hot liquids.
  10. Dredging – a technique used to coat moist foods with a dry ingredient prior to cooking or frying
  11. Egg wash – a mixture of egg and salt to brush over pastries before baking to ensure a golden brown colour.
  12. Folding – To blend a delicate mixture such as egg whites into a heavier mixture whilst retaining the air bubbles.
  13. Infuse  to steep foods in liquid to extract its flavours.
  14. Macerating – To place food in a liquid so that they absorb flavour, give off flavour or become tender, maceration is usually reserved for fruit.
  15. Marinating – the process of soaking food in a seasoned liquid to intensify flavour.
  16. Proving – to allow a yeast dough to rise 
  17. Poaching – Food that is submerged in liquid that is barely simmering.
  18. Reducing – to reduce the quantity of a liquid by boiling it down to concentrate and  intensify its flavour.
  19. Rendering – to cook down the fat in meat products over high heat.
  20. Roasting – Oven or flame cooking, using dry heat to envelop food and cook it evenly on all sides at temperatures starting from 150 degrees Celsius. Roasting enhances flavour through caramelisation.
  21. Sautéing – involves the cooking of food cut into small pieces in a shallow pan over high heat preserving texture, moisture and flavour.
  22.  Searing – a technique which the surface of the food, usually meat or fish, is cooked at high temperature until a crust forms sealing in the juices.
  23. Spatchcock – a technique of preparing poultry for roasting or grilling by removing the backbone of the bird and flattening it out.
  24. Stir-frying – A Chinese cooking technique in which ingredients are fried in a very small amount of hot oil while being stirred in a wok.
  25. Sweating – gently heating of vegetables in a little oil or butter which usually results in translucent pieces.

As we progress we will understand more about these techniques and how and when to use them as well as the ingredients they pair with. I use all of these techniques and more in every day cooking and I found that they become second nature to you the more you cook. I’ve chosen the most basic ones that are commonly used so in all likelihood  you are familiar with most of them too but the goal should be to master them so we can have fun in the kitchen and move on to more complicated techniques in the future and master those too.

My Favourite Closet is my Pantry

I don’t have a little black dress. But I do have a little red cupboard. This is a piece of furniture that I nursed back to Life, gave it some personality with a lick of paint and now it’s a unique piece with character that would probably be difficult to find in  an arbitrary furniture store. I love it because it reflects my personality and my love for all thiings vintage but mostly because of what’s inside. Of course being a woman all the beautiful girly stuff, but to be really honest the fridge and the little red cupboard are my two favourite closets in the house. I am going to give you a quick run down of basic things I keep to ensure that there’s always something good to prepare even when we’re not planning to have guests. These are some of the simple ingredients to have on hand.

  • Flours. The thing to remember as a key-note is that stronger flour makes better bread so when making bread always keep bread flour on hand. Now, while Italian flour is graded by colour from 00 to 04, English flour is graded by colour and strength from plain, strong to extra strong. Here in Italy 00 flour or manitoba is the best flour for bread, by English standard that will be strong white flour. I always keep a 1kg bag of manitoba on hand as well as 1kg of farina dolce which translates into  flour for sweets which is basic cake flour. So far I’ve never come across a self raising flour here in Italy. You can opt for self raising but plain cake flour must be kept on hand for cakes that use eggs as the rising agent. Also, I keep a kilo of garbanzo flour or chickpea flour also known as chana flour for various  traditional Italian and Indian dishes which we learn more about in the future. A bag of  farina di riso or rice flour and maizena corn flour. Both can be used as thickening agents to thicken stews and soups while the rice flour for oriental doughs. Polenta. Polenta is a maize flour that I’ve grown to appreciate. It’s easy to prepare and wonderful for those wintery cold evenings. A traditional dish in Italy is Wild Boar with Polenta. I first tried it at a Wild Boar Festival in the country, and it’s the reason I make sure to keep a packet on hand. Semolina. Semolina is purified wheat and comes in 2 variations. A powered variation much like a flour and a more grainy variation. It is a favourite for Indian sweets and in contrast a savoury ingredient for Italian dishes most commonly Gnocchi alla Romana and a variation of other handmade pastas.
  • Pasta. Lately fresh pasta has become so popular that it might seem almost criminal to suggest buying the dried kind however I do insist that dry pasta is wonderful for its shelf life and versatility, meaning I always keep a few bags of dry pastas in the cupboard. While we will tackle the art of making fresh pasta here, I love the amazing variations of dry pasta. When you walk into supermarkets in Italy, its amazing to see how many shelves are dedicated to dry pasta, proving that Italians themselves live by it. Fresh pastas are great for their super fast cooking time and if it’s not filled it should not take more than 5 minutes to cook. It’s great for quick meals and when you’re starving hungry but nothing less than a good dish will do. Fresh lasagna is great too when  it’s not overpowered with the smell of raw eggs, but I always keep a bag of dry lasagne in the cupboard and then in the fridge after its been opened to preserve its shelf life. Filled pasta, I love filled pasta. With a simple sauce,  filled pasta can be ready in twelve minutes and still leave you feeling satisfied without much effort.
  • Sugar. This is what I keep. Granulated or castor sugar for baking. Icing sugar for dusting and frosting. Brown sugar for baking (especially with chocolate) and cooking. And palm sugar for macerating fruit. It’s also great for asian dips and dressings, which we will be preparing in the near future. It’s not common to find in Europe so I go to the shops that cater to foreigners and you can do the same. Also considering it is more expensive than regular sugar, I reserve it for oriental cooking and fruit.
  • Oils. It is shocking how on the direct opposite spectrum of the goodness of palm sugar, we have the palm oil which is terribly bad for you. I stay away from any products with palm oil as much as possible. This cancer inducing oil can be found in surplus products on the market and is dangerous to the body. It usually hides in the ingredient list of a product under vegetable oil.  When buying or shopping look for products made with sunflower oil or olive oil or a mix of both but it’s best to steer clear of palm oil. Retailers are taking heed to this world-wide concern and I’ve seen many products on the market with the sign in bold writing Senza Olio di Palma which literally means Without Palm Oil. Look for similar signs when shopping. The Oils I do keep however are Olive Oil both regular and extra virgin. Good and healthy, extra virgin is great to flavour food most commonly when the oil is ingested without being cooked, like on  salads, cheese, bread, pickles, pestos, and over cooked rice etc. Regular olive oil can be used to sauté, to pan fry, for meat rubs and marinades and most cooked dishes. Great for making confits as well as flavoured oils. Sunflower oil. Sunflower is a neutral oil meaning that it has no intense flavour and perfect for Indian cooking as well as deep-frying. A blend of olive and oil and Sunflower oil works well for pickling. Sesame oil. This is pricey and must be used delicately as it has quite an intense flavour. It is great to add nuttiness to various Asian dishes, sauces and dips. It is also good to flavour Asian style vegetables as well as rice. Any other oil you might want, to flavour your dishes can be made simply and easily with olive oil for all your flavoured oils such as garlic, lemon, rosemary, tarragon etc.
  • Salt. My best advice is to steer clear of anything called Table Salt. Table salt is a man-made salt full of chemical by-products that are highly dangerous to the body. When buying fine salt always look for Sea Salt which of course is a natural salt. Sea salt is common in the rough variety and is excellent for most dishes but fine salt is equally important so if you can’t find sea salt in the fine variety I suggest you buy a packet of rough sea salt and pass it through a coffee grinder to refine it. Himalayan salt, also known as pink salt has grown vastly popular in the culinary industry. The beauty of pink salt is that this particular salt comes packaged in a variety of versatile forms. You may often find salt slabs made from pink salt, these salt slabs can be heated and meat and vegetables cook on top and while being seasoned at the  same time. It may also be used as a serving platter for various finger food including sushi. It can be acquired by way of a pestle and mortar, so that herbs and spices can be seasoned simultaneously while being ground.
  • Whole Grains. Rice is such a wholesome, satisfying food source that you would be hard pressed not to find a few jars of various types in my home. I’m fond of seeking rice as my ultimate comfort food. Probably because of my Indian background, like they say old habits die-hard, rice was a staple growing up. My favourite rice to keep is long grain. It’s the type I cook the most, but other variations that are good to have is a 2 kg bag of Jasmine Rice that compliment various Thai curries beautifully with its unmistakable fragrance. Basmati Rice for traditional Indian dishes for those authentic Indian evenings. Risotto Rice is always handy to have on hand for those cold days when all you want is something rich and warm and nourishing. I also keep a small jar of white rice for rice puddings and sweets but it’s not imperative that you keep this unless specified. A packet of pearl barley. I use barley to bulk up salads when unexpected guests arrive, they are also good for keeping you regular. Most people don’t particularly enjoy it but that’s probably because they have not paired it well. What it needs is complimentary ingredients that have just the right amount of saltiness and tang. The saltiness of Parmigiano is just perfect for cooked pearl barley. Try making a salad with some green leaves, cooked barley, shavings of Parmesan and a few pickled sun-dried tomatoes, topped with a basic vinaigrette of balsamic and extra virgin olive oil. The textures and flavours of these basic ingredients thrown together in a big dish, makes an amazing lunchtime snack or dinner accompaniment. Most of the very basic and cheap ingredients are the ones that people tend to steer away from, but I find that it’s these very ingredients that are the ultimate comfort.
  • Tins. Everytime I’m in the market I never fail to go to the tinned goods sections. We all love to eat good food every single day but there are days when time doesn’t permit this luxury, and that’s where tins come in. Tinned goods can cut your cooking time in half, affording you the joy of eating good food on a time budget. Beans. Tins of beans are the perfect example of ways to cut down cooking time. I keep various types like canellini to bulk up stews and soups like minestrone, butter beans for a variety of dips, as an example, blend one can of rinsed b utter beans, with a few sundried tomatoes, capers and olive oil for an amazing dip to add to mezze platters, or to simply spread on toast. Red beans, are perfect  for salads. Barlotti beans, are great to add to curries . Lentils. A tin of lentils goes a long way, it’s ready to add to rice dishes, lasagna dishes, salads, and soups. Moroccan dishes love Chickpeas.Curries love chickpeas. Dips as well, the most famous chickpea dip, hummus is great for mezze platters. Always keep tins of chickpeas available. The smooth creaminess that you get from a hummus made from tinned chickpeas is unbelievable not to mention effortless. Tomatoes. Fresh tomatoes are gold but there are times when tinned tomatoes will save your life. Tuna, sardines even salmon and other variations of good fish in a tin. Use them properly to create dishes that supersede it’s reputation for being tinned. From pasta dishes, to pie dishes, to quick fish cakes and quick quiches, it saves you time, it saves you money and can be used in a myriad of ways. Sweetcorn. There’s no doubt that sweetcorn on the cob reigns supreme but a tin of sweetcorn, panfried for a quick snack or to add to a snappy meal or to add to salad dishes is good to keep. I also use tinned sweetcorn to bake a cake that is very simple to make using a regular cake batter with drained tinned corn added to it. Bake as normal adding 10 minutes to the baking time for a golden colour and voila, you have nice, moist cake for tea.
  • Herbs.  Fresh herbs bring an unmistakable freshness to the table and when it comes to herbs, some herbs are only the best when fresh. Basil is a typical example, it doesn’t take well to drying, the fragrance of dry basil is completely different. I therefore keep a potted plant of fresh basil that’s fairly easy to take care of. In Italy fresh basil is a must have and is commonly thrown over Italian pizzas and pastas. And of course I can’t talk about basil and not mention basil pesto which is adored over here. Basil pesto I think, is an acquired taste but it’s beautiful when you start to truly enjoy it. All the markets here have a cold section dedicated to basil pesto but my husband and I prefer to make it at home and not just because home-made is better but because it’s so easy as I will show you. There’s even a basil liqueur that’s famous here, Liquore di Basilico. When I first arrived in Italy for a holiday, my then future brother-in-law brought me a bottle for a dinner party and I was absolutely intrigued by it, up until then I’d never tasted a herb liqueur. I must say it is good though I’ve not  attempted a home made version but  I don’t see why we can’t. Coriander is also a herb that is best used fresh. It may seem like a silly thing but a dish of freshly cooked curry is not complete until it has fresh coriander thrown over the top. The coriander at the end has a beautiful way of finishing the dish perfectly with its remarkable fragrance. Many people assume that coriander is merely a garnish for curries but let me assure you that coriander is vital for an authentic curry. The smell of coriander when it hits a freshly cooked curry reminds me of my grandmother and almost always takes me back 20 years. The same can be said for curry leaf. This little leaf packs a punch when it is infused with the hot oil before Braising a curry and I remember that my grandmother could never cook without it. It’s difficult to find here in Italy and when I can get my hands on them I tend to freeze the leaves and keep them like gold. Earlier this year we had a couple visiting Florence from England and they called me and asked what they could bring back for us, and I said just bring me some curry leaf. They kindly did and I still have some left in the freezer and I use it ever so sparingly.  You can grow these but I unfortunately couldn’t get my hands on a plant but you can grow coriander easily  by adding coriander seeds that have been crushed gently, to a pot of soil. img_4949If you want to preserve fresh coriander for longer to use in curry dishes, you may chop it and freeze it. When needed take the container of frozen coriander out of the freezer at the very last moment and spoon out the desired amount quickly before placing it back into the freezer. Do not allow the container to sit out for than a minute. Mint is another herb that is superior when fresh so it’s good to keep a potted plant. The same for sage and when it comes to these two plants more especially the sage it is common to find the leaves turning yellow. This is an indication that the soil is lacking magnesium. Add half a teaspoon of bicarb to the water before watering to replace those much-needed vitamins and minerals and watch how beautifully they will flourish. img-20160527-wa0008Be careful though not to over water herbs. The roots are delicate and too much water can lead to root rot and kill the plant.  You may plant these in little pots and later transfer them into bigger planters. As for thyme, rosemary and oregano they are wonderful fresh and great for a bouquet garni which is a herb bouquet tied together and thrown into a pot for stews and stocks and even roasts to add that much-loved flavour, and then discarded.  But these are just as good when dry. I keep bottles of these when I don’t have fresh on hand. I also keep dry mint for marinades. Dry mint as well as fresh in marinades brings out an exotic north african and middle eastern flavour to dishes that I can’t wait to share with you. Harissa is a huge favourite of mine. My mum once hosted a huge family Christmas party and I was the designated cook. I decided to do a different kind of roast lamb without the traditional rosemary and garlic and so I rubbed the entire leg of lamb down with Harissa paste. Needless to say it was wiped out in record time and I clearly remember many guests asking me how I prepared the lamb, one guest even said that the flavour was amazing. I think he was referring to the depth of flavour because that is the essence of harissa. I took this as a big compliment because his wife was studying to become a chef right at that time and I’m sure he must have been inundated with beautiful dishes from her, so I was especially gratified.  There is another way to preserve herbs. Sometimes we have to buy fresh herbs for a particular recipe but we have leftovers. By putting your leftover herbs in an ice tray and covering it with olive oil, you can easily freeze them and to dishes when needed by placing the herbed cube in the pot. All the above mentioned herbs are my favourite for heightening up flavour in the kitchen. All these different herbs combined with a few ingredients can be used to make a variety of flavoured oils, salts, marinades, rubs and bouquet garni. For a classic Italian example combine dried basil, dried oregano, dried parsley and salt to flavour vegetables or poultry.
  • Spices We will be making a variety  of spice blends, marinades, rubs and preserves here so there are certain spices that are vital to keep. Of course this does not mean that you have to rush out and buy everything all at once, building up a spice collection takes discernment and time. What I tend to always have on hand are as follows and while not all may constitute as typical spices, for me they enhance flavour and texture so wrote them into the list:
  1. black, red and green peppercorns
  2. nutmeg
  3. cinnamon
  4. cloves
  5. star anise
  6. bay leaf
  7. cardamom
  8. tumeric
  9. mustard seeds
  10. fennel seeds
  11. cumin seeds
  12. sesame seeds
  13. poppy seeds
  14. chia seeds
  15. saffron powder/threads
  16. garlic powder
  17. onion powder
  18. ginger powder
  19. white pepper powder
  20. dried chillies
  21. paprika
  22. cayenne pepper
  23. dried rose petals
  24. dried lavender
  25. dried citrus peel