Rebeca Monzó, Havana | October 14, 2014 — The high cost and the limited selection of basic produce forces us to trek from one farmer’s market to another in search of the most essential ingredients for our kitchens.
These days the prices for vegetables as basic as onions, garlic and peppers, indispensable in the kitchen, are so unbelievable that you would think they were threaded in 18 carat gold. The hard-currency stores have stocked various imported spices of good quality that generally are somewhat more economical.
So here I will list some of them, along with their uses and applications:
Garlic Powder. Well known by all for its use – however, being a concentrated product, it must be used carefully, with a concomitant reduction in the amount of salt used in the same recipe. Very appropriate for soups, and meat and fish sauces. A little goes a long way.
Onion Powder. Very recommended for all types of stews, legumes, meatballs and chopped meat. As with garlic powder, care in its application is recommended.
Sesame. This product is found in some farmers markets that accept CUPs (Cuban pesos). This oily seed is especially indicated for making pastas and sweets. For example, when caramelizing a pan to make a mold for pudding or flan (Cuban-style custard).
Celery Powder. Delicious and aromatic seasoning that has a great variety of uses, especially in sauces, vegetables, tomato juice, fish, mollusks, and above all in broths and stocks.
Curry. This is a mixture of spices – with strong therapeutic qualities – that comes from India. Very recommended for meats, fowl, and varied sauces and soups. Especially wonderful for curry chicken.
Cinammon. In stick or powder, this is the most prized eastern spice. Used in sweets, as we all know, but also in fruit salads, beverages such as sangría, ice cream, baked dishes and boiled fish.
Ginger. Widely used in international cuisine. Very appropriate for meat sauces, stews as well as sweets. In its natural form, ginger root, it can be found in high-end farmers markets, such as the one on 19 Street in El Vedado.
Sweet paprika. A marvelous vegetable product used as a seasoning in soups, sofrito*, stews, fish and rice dishes. It imparts an unusual color and flavor, and can substitute for red pepper powder which is often rare and expensive in our markets.
Vanilla bean. Has many uses in sweets, especially in flans and custards, ice cream, fruit cocktails and liqueurs, to which it imparts its delicate flavor. It is also used in cooking as an ingredient in certain sauces – for example, bechamel, in which it makes a good substitute for cinnamon.
Sage. Although this plant is known above all as a culinary herb, it has also had a medicinal use for thousands of years. In medieval times it was thought to promote longevity. Its flavor makes it advisable for soups and sauces for meats and meatballs, as well as for cheese-based dishes. Its leaves can be applied to infection sites as an effective, natural anti-inflammatory. It can be easily propagated by cuttings in gardens and pots. All it needs is watering and full sun.
Nutmeg. Generally available whole or sometimes ground into a powder. Used in all types of sauces for meats, fish, seafood and to give a special touch to bechamel sauce. Used as well in chicken stews and above all in sweets. This is an expensive spice and not always available in our markets.
White pepper. Also available in two forms: peppercorn or ground into a powder. It is the peppercorn that is ideal for use in pickling brine and is also recommended as a seasoning for meats and in stews. It has a mild flavor, subtle and aromatic. Ideal for soups, meats and sauces.
*Translator’s Note: Sofrito is a stir-fry of aromatic vegetables, herbs and spices used as the base for many Cuban dishes.
Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison
17 October 2014