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Old 12-27-2010, 04:59 AM   #1  
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Default Book on herbs and spices? (and how to clean mortar and pestle?)

I'm trying to learn how to cook without having to rely exactly on recipes, and part of that is learning what individual ingredients actually contribute to recipes, instead of just following the recipes blindly. Internet websites aren't being very helpful and I'd appreciate a better guide, of sorts. I guess that instead of a bunch of separate links, it'd be easier for me to just have a book that I can leaf through. Books really make everything seem easier to me.

Are there any books anyone can recommend on demystifying ingredients for me? The most helpful would be a good guide to spices and herbs, what sorts of tastes different spices and herbs have, what sorts of dishes they can be used in, which ones are good mixed together.. I am so naive with spices and herbs that I really DON'T know which ones give which sorts of tastes, so I can't improv and have to rely on recipes. What complicates me even more is how they can be used in such different contexts, like how ginger is often used with Asian food, but also in sweet things like gingerbread cookies? So a guide really WOULD help a LOT. I know there's always experimenting, which I will try, but I really don't have much intuition when it comes to cooking and it doesn't come so naturally to me, so actually having a book on it would REALLY help.

I wouldn't mind advice or a book for other things too, like what foods go together in general, but herbs and spices are the most important. As a sidenote, I might be using some pre-ground spices, but I'm at least going to try to use whole spices when I can, toasted when I have the patience, and fresh herbs when I'm willing to go buy them for the week (otherwise it'd be dried and pre-cut, most likely). Which leads to my final question.

Does anyone have a mortar and pestle? That's what I bought to grind spices, since I figured it'd be easiest to clean since it has no nooks and crannies. But I tested it out with some cumin and found that even after washing it with warm water, the cumin smell was strong on the pestle two days later. It's marble (but unglazed on the mashy parts), so "supposedly" it can be washed with detergent, but I'm afraid that if it soaked up the cumin oil that well, it'd soak up the detergent too! Does anyone have a marble mortar and pestle and advice on how to neutralize tastes carrying over from grind to grind? I'm thinking like doing garlic one day.. cinnamon the next.. I don't want my cinnamon tasting even remotely like garlic! I tried grinding white rice in it, twice in a row, but it only helped minimally reduce the scent and was a lot of work (raw rice is hard phew!). I guess the odor can linger if the taste doesn't though. I don't want the taste to carry over's the most important thing. Any first hands experience with marble mortar and pestles anyone?

Also, sorry for the long post. I am, as always, ranty. Sometimes I think I just like to hear myself type (most literally... tap tap click click click....)

Last edited by megwini; 12-27-2010 at 05:41 AM.
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Old 12-27-2010, 05:26 AM   #2  
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I know when I was a kid, I would go through my mom's spices and take a sniff and a little taste of everything. That gave me a really good idea of what they tasted like and what impact they would have in a recipe.

If you do a search what spices go with what foods you will find a lot of useful information. for example here.

If you're buying fresh herbs (like parsley, cilantro, dill, etc.) when you get it home, cut off the bottom inch or so of the stems with a sharp knife or scissors, put them in a mug or short glass with water, cover them with the produce department plastic bag you brought them home in, and put them in the fridge. Change the water every so often (days), trim the ends again if needed, and they will last weeks. Take out what you want for a recipe, rinse, chop and recover and return the rest to the fridge. They usually look better and are crisper after a day than they were when you brought them home.

I've never used a mortar and pestle.

Last edited by WebRover; 12-27-2010 at 05:28 AM.
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Old 12-27-2010, 06:05 AM   #3  
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A few years ago, my mom bought me an Idiot's Guide to Vegan Cooking. God love her, she was really trying hard to find a cookbook for me, but since I've been cooking for 20 years now, it was an interesting choice. The book was split in 1/2 - the back half was recipes and the front half was a laundry list of ingredients - what they were, what they tasted like, what they paired well with, how to store them, when they were in season, etc. It was a ton of information that I already knew, but my sister-in-law was new to cooking and found it EXTREMELY useful. I'm not sure if they have a spice and herb version, but I would imagine they do.

You can wash your mortar and pestle with soap, it shouldn't soak up the detergent. The way I always cleaned mine was with kosher salt though, just grind the salt to dust and the smells should be gone.

Easier than a mortar, however, is a coffee grinder. One of the cheap $10 electric ones works great. You clean it by wiping it out with a damp cloth, then grinding rice and/or salt, then wiping again. It's really easy. Just make sure you have one for spices and another for coffee (if you use one), or you'll be cleaning the sucker constantly.

ETA: They do make an Idiot's guide to spices. Amazon carries it.

Last edited by bacilli; 12-27-2010 at 06:06 AM.
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Old 12-27-2010, 06:53 AM   #4  
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For a good, basic cookbook, I still swear by the Joy of Cooking. At the beginning of every chapter (poultry, vegetables, baking etc.) it has an encyclopedia-like section on Ingredients or Basic Cuts or Fruits. I used it just last week when one of my houseguests brought home a breadfruit from the market and I had no idea what to do with it. It has a paragraph on pretty much any herb or spice you will encounter, and what are good pairings. It is over a half century old now and in multiple editions, so you can often find it at used bookstores, and your library should have it too. The older versions are pretty cool (my 1960s edition tells you how to cook bear and whale meat, how to prepare a bed tray for invalids, and how to purify your water in case of nuclear attack!) but the latest one is also really worthwhile because of its more international take on foods and ingredients, and more up-to-date nutrition advice, although they always paid special attention to calories and nutrition.

It's a little old fashioned in that it doesn't have fancy pictures (although it does have a lot of helpful line drawings).

The Chow website has a sort of searchable encyclopedia very similar to the JOC approach If you type a food (the name of a fish, a vegetable, a spice) into the Search box on their web site, it will return a lot of hits for articles and recipes, but usually near the top is a sort of encyclopedia entry. Here's the one for cumin:;results_list

The related Chowhound site is discussion forums, and I search their archived discussions all the time for ideas -- mostly the Home Cooking one since they also have lots of local restaurant review stuff. Here's a thread on mortars and pestles, although I didn't see anything about cleaning yet ... you can often find handy stuff in the "related discussions" links at the bottom.

On the pestle situation, I would say vinegar is a good all-purpose deodorizer -- but I don't know if the acidity will be bad for the marble. You could try rubbing with a paste of baking soda mixed with a little water.

Last edited by bronzeager; 12-27-2010 at 07:01 AM.
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Old 12-27-2010, 10:33 AM   #5  
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Take a look at The Flavor Bible ( ). It does an amazing job showing what herbs/spices go with different foods and why.
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