This is the second part of my post about choosing your ingredients. This post covers stock, alcohol and spices.
The ingredient you use for meat flavour can be difficult to choose. Your options include stock, or demi-glace, homemade or commercial. If you use commercial product, be careful of the sodium level of the product and read the label - you want to avoid preservatives and any ingredient that you do not recognize. Please do not use bouillon cubes - you are basically putting an artificially flavoured salt lick into your food. Making your own stock is a skill in its own right, and I was thinking about making it a separate post but I think I will just include it here. Making stock is not that difficult and the basic process is as follows.
Take some bones, preferably some that also have some cartilage attached. For some stocks, especially beef or veal stock, you may want to roast the bones in the oven first, along with some onions, carrots, celery and a dollop of tomato paste, but for other stocks, put the bones directly into the tallest and biggest pot you have. Cover the bones with cold water and bring everything up to a simmer. Make sure it does not reach a full boil and keep the stock at a bare simmer for anywhere from 2-8 hours depending on what kind of stock and what bones you are using (fish or vegetable stocks take much less time - about 45 minutes). Chicken stock takes from 2-4 hours, dark (roasted) veal stock takes 4-6 hours, white beef stock takes longer. As it simmers, especially in the first hour or two, some scum will form on the top of the stock. This needs to be skimmed off, either with a skimmer or with a ladle (being careful not to take off too much water).
About halfway through the process add onion, celery and carrots cut into large chunks, along with some thyme sprigs, a few bay leaves and some whole peppercorns.
Do not add salt. Because the liquid is being reduced over time, any salt you add during this process will become more concentrated. Since stock is not a finished dish, seasoning is not as important. When the stock is done, let it cool a bit, then carefully strain the stock into a container using a very fine mesh strainer (if you really want to be anal about this you could even line the strainer with cheesecloth or a large coffee filter, like some restaurants do). Multiple wide containers are a good idea if you have a lot, as this will cool the stock down faster making it less vulnerable to spoilage. If you are going to use all of this within a couple days, you can keep the stock in the fridge. Otherwise, portion into amounts you would use at any one time and freeze. From a roasted beef or veal stock, you might want to make your own demi-glace. To do this, put the finished and strained stock into a fresh pot and bring it to a boil and reduce the liquid until you have half the total volume left. Adding some red wine at the start of this process can produce a nice result.
Alcohol is a very important cooking ingredient. Because alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water, it evaporates and reduces quickly, providing a lot of flavour. The problem is, depending on what you buy, it can get expensive. For wine, you have probably heard that you should never cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink. This is generally true but a little misleading. If a wine doesn’t have much flavour, or is too sweet or tastes unpleasant it will probably not be a good choice, because you are putting something that doesn’t taste good into your food. On the other hand, many characteristics of good wines are volatile. This means they are aromas that dissipate into the air. When you cook, these complex aromas and nuances will disappear. So a fine, complex wine will essentially be wasted. So buy wine that is acceptable to drink but there is no need to spend large amounts for a cooking wine. Beer can be very useful for cooking as well but can be a little trickier to work with. Most beers are bitter so this has to be accounted for. I also would not suggest using most mass market beers as to me they are nothing but water with some alcohol in it. Choose fuller flavoured and darker beers as they will be more likely to leave behind a noticeable flavour after cooking.
Almost any hard liquor can be useful for cooking. However, if the flavour of the booze is either non-existent or very distinctive, the applications will be limited. For this reason scotch and gin have limited uses. Some of the alcohols I find most useful are brandy, sherry and rum. I also use Calvados, an apple brandy. I may use other things for specific applications. For rum, use dark rum only. White rum is only acceptable for mixed drinks and even then I’d rather use Jamaican medium or dark rum. For brandy, the key is to find a balance between good flavour and reasonable price. For this reason, it is often good to look for a non-French brandy as you will pay more for equivalent quality for a French brandy. I prefer Spanish Brandy from Jerez, the region that also produces Sherry. However, when I was in Quebec it was almost impossible to find any brandy that is not from France, so I had to look for a V.S.O.P. Brandy that is not too expensive but has good flavour. Recently at a friend’s house, I tasted a Greek liqueur known as Raki. It was very impressive with a complex, brandy-like flavour with hints of fruit and vanilla. I am very interested to see if I can get a quality version here and how well it will work in cooking. For sherry, I would apply similar “rules” to those above for using wine. Just keep in mind that for savoury cooking, you should be looking for a dry sherry. While vodka has no flavour I do find it useful in making tomato sauce, because the tomato has certain flavour compounds that dissolve in alcohol and not in water, giving a tomato-based sauce more flavour.
The next category I will discuss is spices. I firmly believe that, here, quality is a very important consideration. Spices can lose their freshness fairly quickly so the form in which you buy them is important too. The most important thing is to not buy a lot at a time, particularly if you buy pre-ground spices. If you plan to cook frequently and with many different spices, I would highly recommend buying whole spices and grinding them yourself. While ground spices may be more convenient, they have a maximum shelf life of six months, during which time they continuously lose flavour. If you have never ground your own spices, try it once and you will be amazed at the difference. There are two options for grinding spices. For most people, a simple coffee grinder is the best choice. They are inexpensive and grind spices quickly and effectively. For those that are really serious about spices, you might consider getting a mortar and pestle. For these there are smooth ones, usually porcelain or granite, that are good for very hard and dry spices. For spice ingredients with some moisture, you may want a coarse stone model, often made with lava rock. All the bumps and ridges help make a paste. These items do tend to be big and bulky and they also require more time and effort to prepare your spices. I do take my spices very seriously and I have not bothered to get one (though a stone mortar and pestle is on my eventual wish list).
Because I cook with a lot of spices, I have a very wide variety so I have access to anything I might need and I can make my own spice mixes. That leads me to spice mixes. Many cuisines have rather complex blends of spices that are integral to many dishes. If you are unfamiliar with the flavours it may be easier to simply buy the appropriate mix. But here you must be very careful of the quality of the mix you buy and to make sure that there are no “fillers” or other ingredients that do not belong. Many use an abundance of salt as an alternative to flavour. One example I have already mentioned in recipes before is chili powder. To most people, “chili powder” exists only as a jarred spice that one uses to make chilli. Years ago, we used to use commercial chili powder in our family, as we had found a brand that was full flavoured and of good quality. But in time they stopped making this (isn’t that always the way things work - as soon as you find a product you like, they stop making it!) and nothing else on the market met even our lowest standards. The solution was to make our own. What is chili powder? Well, it is a blend of ground dried chiles with a few other spices. Mixes can vary, but the most prominent spices are cumin seed and coriander seed. I believe that some may use some form of powdered tomato paste or some similar powdered tomato product. Some might contain salt and/or sugar. My own chili powder combines pasilla and guajillo chiles in a 2:1 ratio (sometimes I add ancho as well), to which I add cumin and coriander. I have written before that, if you have a chili powder that tastes good to you, it will work fine in your recipe. However I don’t believe there are many good chili powders out there so I generally recommend to use the chiles and spices instead.
So how do you know what quality is? The ideal situation is if you can buy spices somewhere that specializes in spices. Often you will be able to sample the product and maybe even learn something about it. They will also source the best quality product and sell some of the more obscure spices unavailable at other stores. The disadvantage is that these stores can be pricy and, unless you live in a large city, you are unlikely to find one in your area. Fortunately, some of these stores sell online so you can have things shipped to you. Health food stores that sell bulk spices can also be good, since you can actually smell these and check for quality. For most people, this is the source I would advise. Many sell spices that are organic and/or Fair Trade certified, ensuring good growing practices and good treatment of the harvesters. Because they are sold in bulk, you can buy only the amount you need - another advantage for freshness and budget. I generally advise against buying in supermarkets - they are overpriced, especially when you are paying extra for a fancy jar, and the quality is generally not good. Some ethnic food stores, especially Asian and Indian, sell many spices often at low prices but, with some exceptions, the quality is often suspect to me.
One thing I haven’t mentioned is which spices you should get. Well, I can’t really answer that. It all depends on what your tastes are and what kind of flavours you will want on a regular basis. Some of the more versatile spices include pepper (either black or a peppercorn blend), paprika, cumin, coriander, cayenne, nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon. Despite its name, allspice is not a blend of spices - it is a distinct individual spice. In Jamaica it is also called pimiento and is probably the most used spice there. Also note that there are two kinds of cinnamon - true cinnamon and cassia. Most supermarket cinnamon is actually cassia and anything that does not say true cinnamon or ceylon cinnamon is also probably cassia. Cassia is a bit sweeter and spicier, while true cinnamon is earthier and more complex. If you mainly use cinnamon for baking or other sweet applications, cassia will work just fine. Cinnamon is also useful for savoury applications, particularly in Indian food or in spaghetti sauce. If you will be using cinnamon in a lot of savoury foods it may be worth searching out true cinnamon. Of course if you read through my recipes you will find I use many spices other than those listed, some even more than others I have mentioned. The point is what I said at the start of this paragraph - what spices you use depend on what you want to cook and which flavours you prefer.
If I think of other ingredient issues I feel I should pass on, I might well add a new post on this topic.