Who says that today's paddler should be satisfied with the "eat to live" assumption and limit oneself to boring food choices just to feed the body? Treating your taste buds to bursts of flavors is easy and requires no particular cooking ability: just spice it up!
Remember that America was discovered by mistake because a bunch of Europeans were fighting over the quickest way to locate the Spice Route. Thank God those navigators were not as good at reading a nautical chart as we are today… At least, when they found the Americas they also discovered treasures like chilies and cocoa beans as compensation! For centuries kings, foodies and sailors were ready to kill to find that world of spicy splendor where star anise, clove, cumin, pepper, cinnamon, turmeric, nutmeg, coriander and saffron were grown; namely South East Asia and North Africa. Empires were built on the tireless quest for the most fragrant aromas from plant leaves, roots, barks and pistils: Venice, Netherlands, England, Portugal, Spain and France made fortunes trading spices all around the world. Not only were they prized for their culinary potential but they were also of high value for religious and medicinal purposes.
Today, modern science acknowledges that most herbs and spices really do have incredible health values: some help cure the flu, stomach aches, menstrual cramps, inflammation and fever while others are so rich in compounds such as capsaicin found in chilies or antioxidants in turmeric that they help prevent chronic diseases and certain cancers.
Now that we have access to as many as 180 varieties of aromatic herbs and spices from all over the world and that most of them are available at any food store we should really take advantage of their incredible potential and learn to cook with them. With their wide range of flavors they will add a lot of interest to your next outdoor meals and are also a great tool to limit our fat intake.
The difference between herbs and spices
Herbs like sage, parsley, oregano, thyme, chervil, chive, marjoram, basil, mint or cilantro are the leaves of a plant, whereas most spices come either from the bark, roots, fruit or bay of tropical plants. Think about clove, cinnamon, star anise, mustard, horseradish, ginger, turmeric, juniper, licorice, cumin, sumac and you get the big picture. Some plants like celery, fennel or cilantro are used for their seeds and their leaves. Herbs are easy to grow in any soil and can be used either fresh or dry, although any paddler will certainly carry them in the latter version for more convenience and versatility. On the other hand, most spices come from Asia and Africa, except for chilies, vanilla pods and all-spice, that are a legacy from the Americas. From the Mediterranean come fennel, mustard, puppy seeds and coriander while northern Europe brought us dill, juniper and caraway.
How to master the new Spice route
Signature dishes from all over the world are always based on the association of certain herbs and spices. Use these combinations with your favorite ingredients or in some recipes that you already easily master to create new flavorful meals in no time. This is possibly the best trick to learn the basics of the new Spice route…
To create dishes with international flair, use the following easy combinations.
For a Mexican flavor: cumin seeds, Jalapeno and chili peppers, fresh coriander, lime
For an Indian flavor: cumin, cardamom, turmeric, coriander seeds, chilies, garlic, fenugreek
For a Greek flavor: Marjoram, thyme, Greek oregano, garlic, lemon juice
For an Italian flavor: oregano, basil, flat leaf parsley, sage, bay leaf, garlic
For a Spanish flavor: saffron, aniseed, cumin, almonds, olives, garlic
For a Provence flavor: marjoram, rosemary, sage, parsley, thyme, garlic
For a Thai flavor: lemongrass, Thai basil, lime, cilantro leaves, star anise, chilies, galangal (or ginger), coconut milk
For a Vietnamese flavor: lemongrass, ginger, fish sauce, basil, mint, cilantro leaves, garlic, peanuts
For a Japanese flavor: miso, soy sauce, wasabi, sesame seeds, pickled ginger
For a Chinese flavor: star anise, black been sauce, ginger, garlic, chilies, Hoisin sauce
For a Moroccan flavor: cinnamon, clove, cumin seeds, powdered ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, flat leaves parsley
For a Lebanese flavor: mint, flat leaves parsley, sumac, tahini (sesame paste), lemon juice
For a Northern and Eastern European flavor: caraway seeds, juniper, dill, fennel seeds, paprika, garlic, onions
Herb blends and rubbing salt ready to go
Another great way to add oomph to any grilled piece of meat or fish without adding extra calories is to use rubbing salt, which is a legacy brought to us by grilling experts like Steven Raichlen, author of the Barbecue Bible and Elizabeth Karmel who published Taming the flame. You can easily prepare your favorite rubbing salts before leaving for a paddling trip and bring them along in a small plastic jar. Rubbing salts can keep easily for months as long as you substitute dry garlic or onion for the fresh version.
I use the same technique for herbs and I create my own blends with the followings:
French flair: one third dry parsley, one third tarragon, one third marjoram
Italian bouquet: one quarter fennel seeds, one quarter basil, one quarter oregano, one quarter parsley
Desert Delight: one fifth cumin powder, one fifth clove, one fifth coriander seed, one fifth cinnamon, one fifth ginger powder
Dessert Madness: one quarter cinnamon, one quarter cocoa powder, half sugar. I rub fresh fruit pieces in it or I add some of this mixture to my regular cup of tea at night.
As for the rubbing salt, the principle is easy: use one part of salt, one part sugar (or brown sugar) and five parts of dry herbs and spices. Mix well to combine and rub on fish, meat, poultry or tofu before grilling. You can use our chart of international flavors to create your own of try one of the following suggestions.
Cajun style: combine one tablespoon crushed black pepper, cumin powder, one teaspoon crushed yellow mustard seeds, oregano, garlic powder and brown sugar. Add 2 tablespoon red paprika and half to one teaspoon of chili powder.
For fish and seafood: mix dill leaves, fennel seeds, parsley, chives and dry lemon zests with sea salt
For beef: use equal parts of crushed black pepper, chili flakes, thyme, oregano and garlic salt
For lamb: combine two parts red paprika with one part marjoram, one part thyme, one part mint and one part cumin powder with Fleur de sel or regular sea salt.