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How to care for and keep spices and herbs

Cooking a variety of international dishes requires a good selection of spices and herbs for the kitchen.

Spices and herbs, oils and sauces; all are essential ingredients for ethnic cooking. You can invest in some of the basics and add to your collection with each visit to the grocery store or ethnic market.

Here are a few tips and tricks for using and storing spices and herbs.

Use ground spices and dried herbs within a few months. After a year or so, the flavor begins to deteriorate. If you are using only a little along the way, try to find whole spices rather than ground. Whole spices will last much longer and, with the purchase of a small, inexpensive grinder, you can use as much as you need without compromising flavor.

Fresh herbs make a big difference in flavor. Some varieties, such as basil and oregano, can be rinsed and frozen. They may lose some flavor in the process, but not as drastically as the dried version if it sits unused in the pantry.

Fresh herbs lose quality if cooked too long. For maximum flavor, plan on adding herbs during the last fewminutes of cooking time.

Grow your own herbs in the garden, in a container, or even on the windowsill. Basic herbs, including basil, parsley, and oregano are annuals. Keep the blooms pinched back for greater leaf production.

Herb gardens do not require a lot of space. A few small clay pots with good drainage will hold several plants. Be sure to mark the pots so you can make a quick - and accurate - identification. Place the containers where they will receive plenty of morning sun and afternoon shade.

Some varieties of fresh herbs will grow all year long if you have room for them indoors.

Here are a few hints on other items you should have on hand:

Southeast Asian dishes often include for lemongrass. Cook with the core only; cut it into pieces for soups and remove it before you eat.

Purchase ginger fresh; it will keep in the freezer for a very long time. Snap off a good chunk of gingerroot at the grocery and double wrap it to avoid freezer burn.

Coriander and Cilantro are the same plant. You can purchase coriander ground or as a seed. Cilantro is the fresh version, in young leaf form. It has a short growing season.

Many Asian recipes call for saffron, which is the most expensive spice on the market. Do not be tempted to purchase ground saffron, as much of the flavor is lost with cooking. Most saffron originates from Spain, and is purchased in the form of strands. Use the less-expensive turmeric in its place for coloring. It does not provide the same flavor.

Ground chili is not the same as chili powder, which is the spice blend used in chili. You can purchase powdered jalapeno for a good bit of heat or chipotle, which is smoked jalapeno but milder and very flavorful.

Paprika sold in grocery stores is the milder variety. Hungarian paprika is deeper in color and more flavorful. You can also purchase another version - hot paprika - at ethnic markets.

If possible, avoid the local grocery store when purchasing curry powders and other types of ethnic seasonings, such as tandoori. These products are Americanized blends. Ethnic markets, both local and on-line, will carry the authentic versions.

In many countries, spices are the centerpiece ingredients for cooking. Once you have tried a few ethnic recipes you will discover the wonderful flavors that spices and herbs add.

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