By: Mary H. Dyer, Credentialed Garden Writer
Located near southern Europe and southwest Asia, North Africa has been home to a diverse group of people over hundreds of years. This cultural diversity, as well as the area’s strategic location along the spice trade route, has contributed to North Africa’s unique cooking style. The secret to the region’s mouthwatering culinary fare is largely dependent on a huge variety of North African herbs and spices and Moroccan herb plants.
Herbs for North African cuisine aren’t easy to find in most supermarkets but, fortunately, growing a North African herb garden of your own isn’t that difficult. Read on to learn how to grow North African herbs.
North African cooks depend on complex blends, some containing more than 20 different North African herbs and spices, often mixed with various oils or ground nuts. A few of the most popular, and their major ingredients, include:
The climate in North Africa is primarily hot and dry, although nighttime temperatures can drop below freezing. Plants grown in the region are able to tolerate extreme temperatures and most can withstand periods of drought.
Here are a few tips for growing a North African herb garden:
North African herbs and spices thrive in containers. They are easy to water and can be moved if weather becomes too hot or too cold. If you decide to grow in containers, fill the pots with good quality, well-draining commercial pot mix. Be sure the pots have adequate drainage holes. If you’re growing herbs in containers, be sure the pot has a chance to drain thoroughly before you return it to the drainage saucer.
If you grow herbs in the ground, look for a spot that receives filtered or dappled shade during hot afternoons. Herbs prefer evenly moist soil, but never soggy. Water deeply when the surface of the soil feels dry to the touch.
Insecticidal soap will safely kill most pests that invade North African herbs and spices. Harvest herbs generously as they ripen. Dry or freeze some for later use.
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Start your spice drawer with these basics, then add to it as you discover your personal favourites.
Louisa Clements Updated September 17, 2015
For thousands of years, spices and herbs have been used in cooking as a simple and economic way to add flavour to any dish. The difference between a spice and herb comes from which part of the plant is used. The leaf of a plant is used as a culinary herb, while any other part of the plant (often dried seeds, bark or roots) is a spice. Keep in mind that herbs can be used both dry and fresh spices are only used in their dry form.
While the ‘perfect’ spice cabinet will be unique to individual tastes, here are 10 basic herbs and spices to give you a good foundation to build on.
Tip: Although whole spices and herbs can have a shelf life of up to 3 years, they gradually lose flavour over time. To keep them tasting their best, purchase in small quantities and store in glass jars with metal lids in a cool, dark place.
1. Black peppercorns.
Pepper is a spice that’s familiar to everyone. This slightly pungent and aromatic spice should be ground fresh for optimal flavour. Whenever possible, opt to buy whole peppercorns and use a pepper mill instead of the pre-ground spice to give you the most flavour and heat.
2. Ground cinnamon.
A warm spice packed with antioxidants, cinnamon adds a touch of sweetness to dishes. Typically used in baking and sweet preparations, it can also be found in savoury Indian and Moroccan-style dishes. But did you know most of the cinnamon we purchase isn’t really cinnamon after all? Cultivated throughout Asia, cassia bark is sold as cinnamon around the world as it’s more affordable than the real deal.
3. Chili powder.
Known for a bright red or orange colour, chili powder is a combination of a variety of chilis. Often used in taco seasoning and curries, this spice can be found with different levels of heat (mild, medium and hot). As it’s a blend of spices, sometimes you’ll find chili powder contains cumin, paprika and salt.
4. Hot-red-chili flakes.
Chili flakes are a great way to add heat to any dish. Made from crushed, dried red chili peppers, you’ll often find this spice used in pasta and pizza, but it’s also added to pickles and oils for flavour.
Warm and earthy, cumin is the world’s second most popular spice and a great addition to North African, Middle Eastern or Indian dishes. It’s best to add cumin early in the cooking process to increase the depth of flavour.
6. Ground ginger.
It’s most often used in baking, but ginger can also be found in spice blends such as jerk spice, curry powder or tandoori seasoning. Its sweet, peppery-lemon notes complement both savoury and sweet dishes.
It’s important to note that a little goes along way with this powerful and pungent spice. Grown in the same seed as the less-commonly-used spice mace, nutmeg is sweet and warm and goes well in hot drinks, baked goods or with root vegetables. For the best flavour, grate nutmeg fresh with a microplane grater.
8. Smoked paprika.
Smoked paprika is slightly sweet with notes of smoke that can be either mild or hot. It adds a beautiful red colour as well as some sweetness and smoky flavour to meats, fish and vegetables. Used worldwide in a range of different cuisines, it should be essential to your spice drawer to add extra depth to dishes.
9. Dried oregano.
A versatile herb used in Mediterranean and South American cooking, dried oregano has a bold floral and lemony flavour. Dried oregano wants to be the star of any dish so be careful as it can overpower other flavours.
10. Bay leaves.
Bay leaves are the background star of soups and stews while the flavour isn’t as in-your-face as oregano or cumin, if used in large quantities they will add bitterness to dishes (just one or two leaves will add enough flavour). Add them at the start of the cooking process and remove before serving.
Suya spice, a special Nigerian spice mixture, is a combination of peanuts and ginger. Though peanuts and ginger are the dominant flavors, the diner can detect other flavors such as onion, garlic, cayenne pepper and salt. Suya spice is commonly used on skewers of beef and chicken, which gives the meat a spicy, earthy flavor. Beef suya is cooked with a beef that has no fat, and it is usually cut into 1/4-inch bite-size pieces. Chicken suya is made with skinless chicken meat similar to jerky, and both meats are marinated in the spices for at least two hours to receive the full effect of the spices.
Whole seed mixture fry or roast to release full flavor. Add to vegetables, seafood, breads, and pulses.
3 tsp. yellow mustard seed
1 crumbled cinnamon stick
Whole seed mixture, used to make pickles, chutneys, and spiced vinegar. Can be wrapped in muslin and removed before bottling.
Grind the spices. Many different forms of this recipe exist, but they generally revolve around the same spices. Optional extras include bay leaves, coriander seeds, mace, and nutmeg. Use with fish, poultry, other meats, most vegetables, rice, pulses, and eggs.
Grind the whole spices. A traditional English mixture. Use in desserts, pies, cakes, and biscuits.
Roast the whole spices, grind and mix all the spices together. Hundreds of different curries exist with varying combinations of the above spices. Other spices that can be used in curry mixes are fennel, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, ginger, and curry leaves.
Use to flavor chili con carne and other bean and minced beef recipes.
5 tsp. ground black pepper
A French spice mixture. Use in preserved meats like salami, with game meats, and with slow-cooked beef and chicken dishes.
Grind the whole spices. Use with stir-fried vegetables and as a marinade for seafood, chicken, pork, and duck.
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