At any time of year, a few herbs will elevate a plain-Jane dinner into a pleasurable entree. Simply dust chicken breasts you’re sautéing in butter with a healthy pinch of dried tarragon, cumin or paprika. The scents of France, Mexico or Spain will carry you on an aromatic global trip.
It takes but a nanosecond to “spice up” a dish, so no additional prep time is required. The only other thing that rises is the taste quotient. Nothing is added to the sodium, fat or calorie count.
During winter none of us have fresh herbs growing outside, and a small pack at the supermarket will set you back $4, about the cost of a chicken breast.
Thank goodness we have been steadily moving to bolder international flavours. Twenty years ago, adding pepper to my chicken meant picking up the pepper grinder. Today, a hit of pepper ranges anywhere from searing cayenne to smoky paprika. “Mexican” used to be created with garlic and chili powder; today it might be ancho chili powder, chipotle chili or dried jalapeno flakes.
Stocking the Shelf
In many spice cupboards, some of the jars have been there for years. The best way to tell if they’re fresh enough to still pack flavour is to SHAKE the jar. Remove the lid and take a whiff. A pleasant aroma should arise.
Then LOOK for the obvious.
* If they are supposed to be green (like basil and tarragon) and they’re dull brown, that’s an instant giveaway.
* Ditto if powdered spices such as cinnamon are CLUMPED. That means they’ve picked up moisture and lost flavour.
* Check the bottom of the jar for an expiration date.
TASTE the spice. Antique spices won’t make you sick and they don’t go “bad,” they simply lose flavour potency. So if something is lacking or doesn’t seem right, it’s time to replace them.
Keep dried spices and herbs in sealed jars away from light and heat. From the minute they’re gathered, they begin losing essential oils—their flavour—through evaporation. So jars must be airtight. Light and heat will eat away at their taste and colour, so best to keep them in a closed drawer or dark cabinet, away from the stove.
Some spices such as nutmeg and peppercorns are best kept whole, and then grated and ground as needed, because this cuts down on their exposed surfaces for as long as possible.
Remember to hold your hand high over the bird when sprinkling on any seasoning. The further away your hand is, the more even the distribution will be.
The Final Pinch
During a long simmering or baking, spice flavours will meld. That’s a good thing, but also creates sameness in the flavour. So before serving any soup, slow-cooked creation or long-simmered chili, spark it up with a healthy sprinkling of the major seasoning such as dried thyme or basil. Think of it as a final wake-up call.
Spice It Up 101
Not sure which spice to reach for? Here are a few suggestions.
Poultry seasoning, ground sage, thyme and tarragon are very popular. Ground spices stick more than larger rubbed or leaf spices. Ground cumin and coriander give a Moroccan vibe. Smoky paprika adds an intriguing heat. Montreal Chicken Seasoning and Cajun mix give a wake-up flavour. If you want heat, consider cayenne over chili flakes. Marjoram, celery salt and tarragon sing of spring.
For a host of ideas, check 10 FAST CHICKEN SAUTéS and 10 FRESH FRUITS TO MARRY WITH CHICKEN.
Dried rosemary, leaf thyme and rubbed sage give a classic taste. To release more flavour, crumble as you sprinkle them on. To form a crisp crust on the bird as it roasts, mix smoky paprika with sweet paprika and cumin seeds, or blend equal parts of ground cumin and coriander. For a one-shake coating, reach for Italian seasoning, curry powder, herbes de Provence, poultry seasoning or five-spice powder.
When roasting a whole bird, sprinkle some spices on the inside as well. Baste often with pan juices—or, if you want a crispy skin, don’t baste at all.
Feeling like something a little different? Click to our INDIAN SEASONED ROAST CHICKEN WITH LENTIL BROWN RICE, which cleverly uses ancho-chili powder; or BARBECUE CHICKEN RUB for a mix of seven everyday seasonings to massage on chicken before roasting.
Dried ginger, garlic powder, hot chili flakes and five-spice powder are the usual add-ins. Check our CASHEW-CHILI STIR-FRY and STIR-FRYED CHICKEN WITH BABY BOK CHOY AND PEPPERS.
My version of CLASSIC CHICKEN SOUP uses only thyme and bay leaves. Global flavours rule in many of the other soups on this website. For the addictive perfumed broth that is the soul of Vietnamese pho soups, I use whole cinnamon sticks and star anise with an occasional flick of hot chili flakes. Check out CHICKEN “FAUX” PHO and SLOW SIMMERED VIETNAMESE NOODLE SOUP.
With a creamy filling, nutmeg is always appropriate. Tarragon, with its grass-like freshness, is my go-to-herb for anything creamy. Sage, poultry seasoning and celery salt are also complimentary. Our intriguing CHILEAN CHICKEN PIE WITH SWEET CORN CRUST uses cinnamon and cumin.
When making burgers, meatballs or chicken loaves, you can add whatever flavour profile you wish, from a bold Mexican spicy mix to a Quebecois “tourtière” seasoning. To distribute the seasonings evenly, it’s best to spread out the ground chicken over a wide area and then evenly sprinkle on the spices. I spread the chicken out on a large piece of waxed paper or on the shiny paper wrapping containing the ground chicken I buy from my local butcher shop. Once I’ve mixed them in, I squeeze together a small amount of chicken and microwave or fry for an easy taste test. Our SAUCY MOZZARELLA & CHICKEN BURGERS have fennel seeds, dried basil, garlic powder and hot chili flakes; our herbaceous MEDITERRANEAN OLIVE LOAF has both dried basil and oregano.
Chicken on the barbie is a Canadian summer mainstay. If basting on sauce is as fancy as you get, throw spices into that sauce and you’ll achieve an instant flavour boost. Ditto if you’re in the habit of simply brushing on your favourite salad dressing. Add basil or oregano to a Greek salad dressing or tomato-based barbecue sauce. Ramp up the heat with dried chili flakes, cayenne, hot paprika or dried crushed jalapenos (now sold in jars in supermarkets). Go Middle Eastern with lots of cumin and coriander. Indian can be as easy as curry powder or a blend of curry, cumin and coriander with a sprinkling of garam masala near the end of cooking.
No matter what you add, be sure to oil the chicken before sprinkling on the spices. For more intense coating, mix spices with oil and rub on, or stir the spices into a salad dressing and baste often. If you simply sprinkle the spices on, they may be brushed off with basting. Barbecue sauces are sweet and burn easily—best to baste them on near the end of the grilling.
If you’re in a hurry, save time with the “one shake” approach. Reach for a jar of spice blend—Montreal Chicken Seasoning, Cajun, Jerk, Lemon Pepper or Herbes de Provence—and don’t forget the jar of trusty poultry seasoning which does wonders when stirred into any barbecue sauce. To be whisked even further away, consider Ras el Hanout, a multi-spiced Moroccan blend, or Asian Five-Spice Powder.
For smoky inspiration, glance through our SPICE UP YOUR BARBECUE blog; it outlines four very different flavour routes guaranteed to satisfy most cravings.
Then there’s Asian TIPSY TERIYAKI-GINGER CHICKEN, where ground ginger shines. The intriguing Middle Eastern flavour of our CHICKEN SHAWARMA comes from allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and cardamom.
When you have time, consider our BASIC BARBECUE SAUCE. With chili, mustard powder, ginger, cinnamon and cloves, it has overtones of the marvelous homemade chili sauce your grandmother may have made. Or spark up any dull-tasting store-bought sauce with pinches of any or all of these. Remember: the spice of life is variety, and with chicken that is only a pinch or shake away.
Guest Author: Monda Rosenberg