When most people think of “spices” they automatically think of salt, and pepper. These may be the most basic spices, recognized nearly world-wide as the way to get more flavor out of food. Spices come in a dazzling variety of types and tastes. You may think spice is generic. What does it matter if you them at the dollar store, or at a pricey purveyor? But you’d be incorrect because not all spices are of the same quality or freshness. Experienced cooks and foodies know that the quality and freshness of the product makes a huge difference in what you’ll taste on the plate. If you doubt it, try adding a low quality wine that has been sitting around for a week or more, to your chicken marsala. You will immediately know that quality in, quality out, is the rule!
Spices are dried botanicals. That means they may or may not be grown with pesticides. For those who feel that organic is better, or essential, there’s precious little out there to sprinkle and dash on your dishes. But one company, Frontier Natural Products Co-Op (from Norway, Iowa), that I met at a recent healthy foods expo, has a dizzingly good line of organic spices that also are non-irradiated and freshness dated. They are also fair-trade certified.
You can read about the company’s evolution in a long article on the Frontier Organics web site, but I can encapsulate the what’s relevant about their spices: During 1988 Frontier introduced a line of packaged spices. This was followed in 1991 with the introduction of a line of gourmet, 100% certified organic whole bean coffees. Subsequent introductions included a line of herbal extracts and the first certified organic beer in the United States. The Simply Organic brand, established in 2001, focused on certified organic spices and spice blends with creative seasoning mixes for items like sauces, mixes, and chili—quickly followed by dip and dressing mixes.
Spices are organic material, and they degrade. If you let your spices sit around for years and then try to use them you may find that the flavor has diminished in strength and might even have changed in taste. But Frontier’s spices are sent to climate controlled storage (70 degrees Fahrenheit and 60% relative humidity) to preserve freshness and plant actives. They also use (and this is important for those who eat organic), Frontier uses CO2 fumigation for insect control in herbs and spices and thereby avoid the use of chemicals or radiation. They take care in handling, processing and packaging, and grind spices and herbs cryogenically, at temperatures below -20 degrees Fahrenheit. If there is any issue, they can instantly track and locate the product and trace it back to its origin. And finally, herbs and spices are packed in containers that protect the product: foil laminate pouches, glass bottles, or plastic bags double-bagged in paper, with labels freshness dated with a use-by date (so you know when it’s really time to toss it).
Although you can get pepper just about anywhere, you’ll find that the high quality peppercorns from Frontier are excellent choices for a great outcome on your food. Pepper, the king of spices, has been around for more than 4,000 years. The peppercorn has a distinctive flavor that can make you sneeze if you get too much of it in your nose, but along with salt, it’s the easiest way to give even the most bland dish, a dash of personality. Whether you’re grilling, or going on a diet, pepper is your friend!
A brief history of pepper: Peppercorns are the seed berries of the Piper nigrum vine (piper being Latin for plant, and nigrum meaning black). The first accounts of pepper are from the Malabar coast of India. Pepper acount for 1/4 of the world’s spice trade.There are literally dozens of different types of pepper being sold, including a lot of interesting blends from Frontier Natural Products, but there are some very basic types: black, white, red/pink and green. Before pepper became a must-have on the dinner table, it was used as a digestive stimulant and expectorant, prescribed for respiratory distress as an aid to cough up phlegm and mucus. Pepper was also used in an external ointment to relieve skin afflictions and hives. A solution of one-half teaspoon freshly ground pepper to one quart of warm water sprayed on plants can be toxic to ants, potato bugs, silverfish, and even roaches and moths. A sprinkling of ground pepper will also deter insect paths in non-garden areas. But mostly today, pepper is for seasoning food.
The pepper harvesting and curing proccess is lengthy. Basically, pepper berries grow in long clusters, and turn green, then red, as they ripen and then black if left in the sun. The stage at which they’re harvested (and whether or not they are husked) determines the color of the resulting spice. Black pepper is harvested while the berries are still green—before ripening. Sun drying turns them dark brown and wrinkly. White pepper results when the Piper nigrum berries are picked fully ripe and then husked. The red, outer skin is removed and the greenish-yellow berries are sun-dried to a light gray/tan/white. Green peppercorns have been picked, before ripening, from the same plant as black and white peppercorns, but they’re preserved—in brine or with sulfites—before drying (or they would become black). The closer the berries are to full ripeness, the better the flavor and larger the size. Pink peppercorns can be toxic in high amounts and come from a different vine, but their fruity heat and spicy flavor is reminiscent of both cinnamon and allspice (and they look pretty)!
Frontier offers so many herbs spices I couldn’t possibly list them all (but they’re listed on the web site). But they sent me literally a dozen different types of pepper products, and they have many more both basic and flavored. If you think all pepper tastes the same, think again. There are subtle and definitely not subtle, differences. When you start cooking with different peppers, either purchased in packages or in Frontier’s ready-made grinder bottles, the mind almost boggles!
Frontier’s pepper is fragrant, fresh and flavorful. I personally like the all-in-one grinders they offer, because they stay fresher, longer, but you can purchase the peppercorns or ground pepper blends for your own grinder or containers, too. Try the (nice-for-blonde dishes) green, white and pink peppercorns. The Rolls Royce of black pepper is the pungent, Tellicherry black pepper. But I liked some of the more exotic types such as firey Long Pepper, Chinese Sichuan Pepper with lemon-y overtones, and Indonesian Cubeb Pepper (with a more bitter, woodsy taste), and Grains of Paradise, an African pepper that is reminiscent of corriander and cardamom. All of these are pepper, but very different in taste and scent. Most of the grinder run about $6.69 with the more exotic blends under $8.00. I hardly need to point out that if you’re dieting, or eat a lot of bland food or salads, a couple of quick twists of any of these will add something special to your meal without adding a single calorie, sodium, fat or any other bad thing! If you are entertaining guests or having a party and want to do something a bit different than the usual cheese, wine or dessert tasting, get a lot of different types of pepper in grinders, put out the cheese, salad, etc., and let guests have fun trying, and tasting!
Frontier’s natural, organic spices can be found in healthy retail outlets, and you can learn more at: http://www.frontiercoop.com/