Dry spice blends

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Dry spices play a huge role in my style of cooking and with some exceptions like smoked and sweet paprika and roasted cumin, I rely heavily on blends. Finding the right spice blend helps you create deep, complex flavors in little time and as we venture into the soups and stews of the fall and winter months, blends play an increasingly important role in my everyday recipes.

I first got into using spice blends when I started to explore cooking Indian food.  Curry, as you may well be aware, is not an individual spice but a blend of spices, herbs and chilies that may taste completely different depending on which part of the world it comes from.  Some curries are smokey, others are sweet.  I first got into making Indian food using recipes from Madhur Jaffrey whose dishes use a variety of whole and ground spices that require toasting and grinding. I loved making these blends but soon realized that I only had time for these recipes on weekends.  I began to explore prepared spice blends, recognizing that much of what I was looking for could not be found in the spice aisle of my local supermarket, and that I had to find the freshest spices I could in order to mimic the flavor profiles I was after.  Once I found some great independent spice markets, listed below, it opened the door to a whole world of spice blends that I could use to make dishes that tasted like I’d been cooking for hours.
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Here are my go-to spice blends for weekday meals linked to the local spice shop where I found it

Mediterranean/North Africa:

Mexican/Latin American flavors/Caribbean:

South Asian:

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London and a bit beyond

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Here is my complete generalization about British food: it’s quite excellent and extremely inspiring. I feel the need to speak in generalizations here because, in my experience, if you ask someone over the age of 50 who has not travelled to the UK since the 90’s all you’ll hear is “the food in Britain is awful!” Influenced by South Asian flavors and techniques, committed to locally produced meat and dairy, and vehement about their cultural culinary traditions, the Brits know full well how to push the global food scene in their own reserved style.  In 2012 our family spent three months living in Cambridge, England from September to December.  My partner had spent a full year living in Bristol many years before and we’ve made a number of trips to London, Scotland and the south coast over the years for visits with close friends.  Typical of any extended stay, I was excited to really get to know British food through its markets. From Sainsbury’s to the corner take-away, I felt inspired by Britain, it’s wonderful ingredients, and strict sensibilities when it comes to taste.

Visiting the massive supermarket chain Sainsbury’s was something I often found exciting. The flat we rented had a dollhouse-sized refrigerator (by American standards), a fact I conveniently forgot upon stepping through those sliding glass doors eager to fill our cart.  Here are just a few of my favorite items one can pick up in any British supermarket:

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Healthier Snacks

We’ve been defaulting to graham crackers and potato chips around here. When we’re feeling “healthier” we’ll swap in some string cheese or fresh berries. I actually found myself digging out spoonfuls of peanut butter the other day and thought enough is enough. It’s easy to be uninspired about snacking. When you work to plan and make meals for everyone in the family and have back-up meals on hand in case a certain someone turns his nose up at his first meal option, who has the energy to do much more than grab the first thing you see in the cabinet.

We’ve also been working to transition Orion away from snacking, focusing instead on three solid meals and maybe one healthy snack during his longer period of wakefulness, either that or during the time of day when he’s fussing the most and it’s not yet a meal time. So our cabinets have been emptying out as me and my husband gorge on toddler-sized treats. It’s been tough since I’ve been a dedicated snacker my whole life. First there’s second breakfasts. Then I’ve always considered ten a.m. to be potato-chip a’clock. I’m starving by the time lunch rolls around. Same goes for dinner so I usually have to have at least one snack before a late dinner. I’ve been known to sneak a bowl of cereal before bed as well. Most of the things I snack on though turn out to be choking or allergy hazards for babies, so without realizing it, we had stockpiled all sorts of processed, carbohydrate-heavy snacks and were pressing them on Orion.

Our son has always been one to lose it when it comes to food. Even his very first night in the hospital, he was up like clock work every two hours demanding to be fed. While it took us a while to figure out what he was saying, most of Orion’s cries related to wanting milk and wanting it in his mouth now. He was born extremely impatient (wonder where he got that from) and despite efforts to work on building his resiliency, if the kid doesn’t get food, he loses it. So I took to tucking bags of gold fish and pretzels and graham crackers in every pocket of our diaper bag. But then Orion started walking and suddenly his appetite has dropped off a cliff. If we can get him to eat a few bites for dinner and drink some milk, we’ll count it a success. Meanwhile there’s lots more screaming now related to not wanting to eat and food thrown on the floor and smeared about because isn’t food more fun to play with than eat. So I decided to start re-thinking my own snacks as reinforcements. Who doesn’t feel better prepared to take on a toddler with ketchup in his ear and dinner on the floor when your stomach is full. Here’s some ideas I found from around the web.

seed crackersby mynewroots

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 by Green Kitchen Stories

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Irish Soda Bread

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A little known fact about me – I actually have a cow named after me living in a small town in Ireland. Ever since I spent three weeks in County Monaghan in high school, I’ve felt a deep affinity for Ireland, despite having no genealogical ties. Ireland is one of those rare places that actually exceeds its stereotypes (like New York City, California, and Paris). It really is that green. People are that friendly and love to make you laugh. Ireland was the first place I heard a sheep – coincidently sheep exceed expectations too; they really say “baaa, baaaa” – drove on the left side of the road, and fell deeply in love with a country.

I recently re-visited Ireland during the summer. It’s a rare thing to find a place with worse weather than the pacific northwest but I can say that Ireland is just such a place. It was cold and rainy every day for the two weeks I was there in August. Interestingly enough I learned while I was there that in the Gaelic calendar seasons are defined differently. Summer is observed in May, June, and July. I’d recommend either visiting in May – July or bringing a sturdy waterproof coat, warm socks, and a sense of adventure.

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While Ireland isn’t known as a culinary destination per say, we managed to find some great places.

Places to Eat in Dublin:

  • The Winding Stair – a great little spot in a historic building along the quays of the River Liffey. Thick, old, stripped wood stairs lead you up past a bookstore on the first floor to this spot looking out over the river. The Winding Stair serves traditional Irish food like potted crab, roasted lamb, and seafood chowder that highlight ingredients sourced from local, artisanal farms. We loved this place enough to go back a second time. Everything tasted fresh with flavors perfectly balanced in presentations that felt every bit as approachable as they felt polished.
  • Locks Brasserie – Tucked away in a great neighborhood along a canal outside the regular tourist destinations, this fine dining restaurant offers fresh, bright food presented with lots of polish. It’s a great place to visit for a romantic dinner. Dishes feature a lot of fresh seafood and local ingredients.
  • The Bakehouse – a cute little café, perfect for breakfast and a pot of tea tucked away along the banks of the River Liffey not far from The Winding Stair. This bakery features traditional baked goods and dishes including lovely scones, fresh baked bread and giant plates of sausages and ham.
  • Leo Burdocks – a fish and chips institution in Dublin with several spots, we tried the walk-up spot on Werbugh Street near the Christ Church Cathedral. While there’s nothing healthy about the amount of grease your fish and chips are cooked in or the portion size, it was still an experience we wouldn’t have wanted to miss, especially eating on the Cathedral grounds.

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Pauline’s Kitchen

tea towelsSome days I like to close my eyes and pretend that our kitchen floors isn’t covered in a thin layer of milk and banana peel slime or that whenever I reach for a kitchen towel it isn’t filthy with remnants from breakfast and lunch. So I’ve been daydreaming about fun and more importantly clean kitchen towels I’d love to spruce our kitchen up and spoil myself a little.

1. Ish Tea Towels in lovely tones by Mae Engelgeer 
2. Whale Print Towel by Enormous Champion
3. Confetti Print Towel by Avril Loreti from Leif
4. A Walk in the Woods tea towel
5. Man and Woman tea towels on Etsy by Depepa
6. Neon Pink Robin by Oelwein on Etsy
7. Piano Nobile’s spring textile prints

Rome

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Some of my best restaurant meals have no doubt been in Italy where rich olive oil, sharp Parmesan, fragrant tomatoes and of course, wonderful wine win me over every time. This was my second trip to Rome not counting a high school trip from which I can only recall developing a serious obsession with bacio gelato and sneaking bottles of wine into our hotel room. My first real trip to Rome was in 2004 with my partner, Ryan. We had just finished a whole year apart between Bristol, England and New York and planned an epic reunion at the airport in Milan where we would take the second leg of our flight to Rome’s Fiumicino airport. Little did I know, he had missed his flight from England and I spent the entire second flight crying my eyes out. Despite the rocky start, our week in Rome was magical. My best food memory from that trip was lunch at Alfredo e Ada on Via Banchi Nuovi 14. We stumbled upon this tiny restaurant after seeing the Pope outside of St. Peter’s (no joke, he comes out every Wednesday!) We sat down at our table, the only one left, and watched as our neighbor asked an old woman in English if he could see a menu. Raising both hands from the elbow, fingers turned up and pressed together, she said in a booming voice “la nonna is the menu.” From there the fun began with classic, straight-forward pasta with red sauce cooked to perfection, thinly sliced veal chops and carafes of house white wine, all brought to our table without a single word. We walked out laughing, drunk off of two carafes and the pure pleasure of knowing that we would never forget that meal.

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