Spices & Seasoning
From PBS Kitchen Explorers comes this wonderful article about raising kids to love food. Eating habits are a big enough challenge for parents, but the next step of learning to cook is an excellent skill and can provide for quality family time. Aviva Goldfarb interviews J.M. Hirsch, who is the Associated Press food editor, about how he has involved his child in cooking. The article provides a lot of examples on how to include kids in cooking and provides great suggestions. Hirsch even gave a knife to his two-year-old, but explains how he created rules to ensure safety. Basically, when using a knife the child must only use one hand and keep the other hand by his side. Any breach of the rule means that knife privileges are lost. That’s a good idea for kids starting to use a knife regardless of age.
Some of the advice in the article includes ideas about kitchen games, having kids make spice rubs on their own, introducing kids to smells early on, and embracing the kitchen mess. You can also check out J.M. Hirsch’s cooking blog for his recipes and videos, and he also has a book out called High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking. The book gets good marks on Amazon and looks like a great reference for the parent who likes to cook but has limited time. There is also a video on Amazon of Hirsch actually putting his kid to work on a spice rub. I like the idea of putting selected spices that work together in a plastic tub so the kid can smell and combine with minimal guidance to come up with flavorful mixes.
Even if you as a parent aren’t comfortable with such mixtures or know what spices go together, there are some good books out there that provide guidance. Herbs & Spices by Jill Norman is a good reference and has a chapter on herb mixtures. Also, The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg has a lot of useful tables that even break things down into different ethnic cuisine flavors. Both are good books on herbs, spices, and other flavors.
A lot of the cinnamon that we use from our spice rack is not actually cinnamon but cassia. True cinnamon is called Ceylon cinnamon and comes mostly from Sri Lanka. It is more complex, has floral aromas, and offers a delicate sweetness. It also has a lower oil content. Cassia, on the other hand, has a stronger flavor, is darker in color and has a higher oil content. In North America cassia is usually marketed as cinnamon and is mostly sourced from Indonesia. Other cassia varieties are from China and Vietnam.
It is hard to say which spice is better. According to The Epicentre, cassia — due to its strong flavor — is better suited for main dishes when a punch of flavor and spice is necessary, and true Ceylon cinnamon with its delicate sweetness is better for desserts and tea. In Mexico, Ceylon cinnamon is preferred, and in the United States we use mostly cassia.
The picture above is of true Ceylon cinnamon, but if you want to see a side-by-side comparison check out this link. Cassia tends to be thick and true cinnamon has finer rolled layers. Vietnamese cinnamon usually comes in chunks and looks different yet. A lot of people like Vietnamese cassia for cooking, and the highest grade is often the most expensive.
If you want to taste or smell the differences, you can order from Penzey’s or visit one of their retail stores if you have one nearby. They offer cinnamon from China, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka. A good source for Ceylon (White Alba) cinnamon is from gigachef.com. They source their cinnamon through Soloway Selections, which is run by Dan Soloway. He personally chooses his spice producers from small growers in Sri Lanka. You can also check out Latino grocery stores, as they will usually carry true Ceylon cinnamon.
And whatever you do, don’t take the cinnamon challenge. This involves trying to eat a heaping spoonful of cinnamon and usually ends up with gagging, aspirated cinnamon, and a YouTube video.
There are a hand full of items in the kitchen that really are important because they get used all the time. A good chefs knife, baking pan, stock pot, among others but the pepper mill is probably used as much as any item in the kitchen. From start to finish, a meal often involves the use of pepper.
After having a Unicorn Magnum Plus Pepper Mill for a couple years, I realized what real pepper grinding was. It was and is an excellent pepper grinder, but there were a couple of things I didn’t like about it. I previously posted on my site about the Unicorn and the substitute pepper grinder I have been using since.
The substitute was fine for a while, but I still needed a good pepper mill. I remembered seeing an intriguing, well-designed spice mill at The Building Museum store in Washington, DC a few years back and searched for that. It was an Oliver Hemming designed pepper mill called the “Spice Boy” made out of wood (unlike the acrylic ones above). The wood ones are stunning, but I couldn’t find them for sale in the US, so I decided on a light blue acrylic spice boy instead. The mills come in a range of vibrant colors. On Amazon there is one black Spice Boy Mill available but you can find more options at Unica Home. I bought mine on eBay for a very good price.
Now I must admit that I have only had the pepper mill for a short period of time, but here are my initial impressions. Later on, as repeated use allows me to give better commentary on durability and other quality factors, I will update this post.
Design: The design is brilliant, and the modified mortar on top of a grinder works impressively well. It feels great in the hand. There is no other way to describe it. It’s balanced and the proportions are just right. My hand cups the wide top perfectly, making the grinding very comfortable. It also looks stunning, and that is why it has won several design awards.
Speed: It grinds fast, but probably not quite as fast as the Unicorn. The unicorn is a literal pepper buzz saw, so it is hard to hold all grinders to that standard, but even though I don’t have my Unicorn with me anymore, I think it comes very close to it in speed.
Grind: It uses a tested corrosion-free crush/grind ceramic mechanism that is apparently guaranteed for 25 years. The mechanism at the bottom is easily adjusted, but I found that it took several times to figure out the coarseness of the grind. You have to get used to the ‘tension’ of the knob. Very loose is coarse and very tight is fine — and the middle is some kind of medium. But with that said, I was able to get fine, medium, and coarse grinds very easily, and I found the shower of pepper coming out of the grinder very even — more so than the Unicorn. I will be interested in see how it ‘holds’ a grind, especially at the medium setting as the mechanism is fairly loose and I could see it loosening on its own with repeated turns, thus giving a coarser grind. We will see, but I also had problems with the Unicorn going to a coarser grind.
Capacity and Loading: The mill probably holds about 2 ounces of pepper corns, which isn’t that much but enough that you won’t have to refill it constantly. The upside with this grinder is that it is extremely easy to fill with the mortar on top that acts like a funnel. But it does not hold nearly as much as the Unicorn Magnum Plus grinder. Chefs grinding a lot of pepper during one cooking session might want something with a bigger capacity.
Cleanliness: It is very clean, and that comes both from being very easy to fill and limited pepper release after grinding. One of my complaints about the Unicorn was that it left ground pepper all over and a special cup was to be placed underneath. This mill sheds a fraction of the pepper that the Unicorn did after grinding. I ground it, then smacked it on my hand and even then very little came out, maybe a fifth of what the Unicorn would leave behind.
Versatility: The grinder can be used for all kinds of spices, spice blends, salts, and pepper. The product description says it will grind anything as big as a coffee bean, but I even took it a big step further and it performed admirably. I used Indonesian long pepper which looks like miniature pine cones and range in half inch to inch long pieces. I probably wouldn’t want to use them all the time in any grinder, but the Spice Boy took them on very well.
Price: The cost is about $38 on most sites, but I purchased mine new on eBay for $15. The Unicorn Magnum Plus sells for $45 and the smaller Magnum retails for $31. I think the price is quite reasonable considering how expensive grinder can be.
Ease of Use: This is an easy piece of equipment to use, but it is a two-handed grinder. Those who want one-handed grinding will have to turn to other products. Elderly people or people who have hand problems may prefer this model to other manual grinders as the wide top is easier to grip. Think about the difference between gripping a screwdriver with a fat handle and one with a narrow handle. Also, those with less than steady hands or poorer eye sight will appreciate the wide loading cup.
My overall impression couldn’t be more positive about this grinder. For those who want design, this is a great choice, but even for those who just want to grind pepper, this will be an excellent choice too. So far I prefer it over the Unicorn Magnum Plus, which I used for two years. Maybe in two years time I will change my mind, but for now I would highly recommend this product.
In the most recent Cook’s Illustrated (Nov/Dec 2009) they did a taste test of different saffrons to see if there is a big difference.
First of all, when buying saffron look for the higher-grade, dark-red threads. These darker hued threads are from the top of the Crocus flower stigma and have more flavor. The lighter threads come from the base and are a lesser grade.
As for taste, Cook’s Illustrated concluded that it doesn’t matter too much which type of high-grade saffron you buy if it is just one of the flavoring ingredients. Most of the saffron in the US is from Spain and they will do just fine. If saffron is the main flavoring, however, you may want to go with a better brand.
Cook’s illustrated recommended two brands: Morton & Bassett – Saffron Threads and
the saffron from Penzeys Spices. This last link will also give you a lot of information about saffron, how it is harvested, and the different types.
The Unicorn Magnum Plus Pepper Mill is a popular and very good option for a pepper grinder, and I would highly recommend it. Since Cook’s Illustrated gave it their thumbs up, it is often the go-to product for foodies, and there is no doubt that the mill does a very good job grinding pepper. It will get the grinding done fast and with ease, and this was the first pepper mill I’ve had that I loved using.
With that said, it is not a perfect product. It can be a messy grinder, and if not shaken thoroughly, residual ground corns will fall out of the bottom quite liberally, and after a short time you will notice your cupboard or counter littered with pepper.
The smaller grinders have a little plate that fits under it, but I find this a bit annoying as I never wanted to keep track of a dish in addition to the grinder. A pepper grinder moves around the kitchen: where you prep, at the stove, and at the table for finishing. I just don’t find it realistic to always place it back on the tray unless your kitchen is smaller and the mill is always within arms reach. And if more than one person is cooking, the likelihood of the tray ‘following’ the grinder is even smaller.
Another problem was that the opening where you load the peppercorns comes open very easily during grinding. After a while I became used to it, and it rarely opened, but when others used my grinder, the hole often became exposed. Just look at the picture. If any part of your hand overlaps on the middle loading portion that you slide to open, and you turn the top, it will also slide the the loading hole open too. This isn’t a problem if you notice it and close it, or the pepper grinder doesn’t fall over, but a couple times that did happen.
Additionally, while the loading hole does allow quick filling of the grinder, I didn’t find the side hole that easy to use when filling, and if you try to do it without a funnel of some sort, you can spill peppercorns. This isn’t a big deal in my opinion, but with some top-loading grinders it is easier to fill up than the Unicorn.
All in all, despite these minor flaws, I loved using this pepper mill and it ground pepper very quickly. A sign of something working is using it, and this grinder I definitely used a lot.