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What wild and homegrown herbs can we substitute for our store-bought spice cabinet?  RSS feed

 
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Thinking about how we might creatively replace spices and herbs, or how we might find similar but dissimilar plants that could evolve into more regional cuisines is one of my favorite Permie thought exercises!

I'm planting sweet flag around my pond, and just recently read on PFAF that the leaves apparently have a vanilla bean flavor and can be used in ways similar to vanilla. The same PFAF post also says that the root can be powdered and is "spicy" and can sub for ginger, cinnamon, or nutmeg. That's a wide variety, so I'm excited to see what the root actually tastes like (maybe an awesome combo of all three?). Sweet flag is supposed to be hardy down to zone 4, but I bet original poster could make it work with a good microclimate! Also, read up on sweet flag's supposed toxicity, and the potentially carcinogenic oil found in european varieties of sweet flag is apparently not present here in our American varieties (Oikos even sells a guaranteed "American" sweet flag.

Someone already mentioned spicebush (Lindera Benzoin), and this is a great suggestion for replacing allspice. I read somewhere, but can't find the source now, that the actual fruit of the spicebush carries more of the "allspice" flavor, while the seeds inside are more like black pepper. This makes sense since spicebush kind of tastes like a peppery allspice, but taking the time to separate them seems like it'd be maddening. Maybe there's some tricky sink/float way of separating them? Say, through them in a grinder and collect floating seeds? This is all totally conjecture, though.

Another one I'd like to bring up is "Carolina Allspice" or "Sweet Shrub" (Calycanthus floridus), which, like spicebush is a strongly scented native shrub. I've read some neat stuff about how the bark was dried and used by Colonists as a Cinnamon substitute after Native Americans introduced them to it. The rub is that the seeds and leaves are supposed to contain an oil called calycanthine, which is an alkaloid with a similar structure to strychnine, which is, well, bad. Of course, if Native Americans were using it traditionally for longer than we know, I doubt it could be out and out toxic. My hunch is that the concerns are probably another case of the dosage being way exaggerated, and you'd have to eat several tablespoons of cinnamon for an unreasonable number of days before you'd risk serious harm. But unforuntately the info I'd like (% composition of calycanthine by weight in the bark, leaves, and seed) just simply doesn't seem to be available. I've searched quite a bit, so if anyone has any leads, I'd be super appreciative!

Last, I don't know if you'd cocoa as a "spice", but apparently honey locust pods can be crushed up and made into a powder that's like carob, the go-to chocolate sub. I'm planning on trying that out with the honey locust pods beginning to fall here in NJ, so I'll let you know how this goes!
 
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Location: Piedmont, NC
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This is a great example of a thread that while it has been around for a while, it is so very valuable and timeless. . .

I am growing those things that I cannot do without (instead of growing suggested spices that I never use).  Some time back, I quit using black pepper in favor of the cayenne pepper that we grow and dry for our own use.  It has that peppery taste, it is red (much more attractive in foods since it doesn't look like bugs), and it actually tastes better than black pepper to me.  I like knowing that it was grown without chemicals, and I like being able to save my seeds from year to year.  We also enjoy the medicinal value of it and use it liberally in our dog food to keep fleas at bay.  Additionally, I have a strong belief that when we grow things locally, it really helps us in our environment.

Oregano is easy to grow (perennial here), tastes great, and has some great anti-bacterial properties so we use it in deodorant, as well as first aid spray for our animals (the same bottle.)  Of course, it is also a main feature in our spaghetti/pizza sauce.

We grow a couple of different kinds of mint (just because it fell into our laps).  We grow it around the foundation of our house to repel rodents, I make mint extract for food flavorings (ground mint with vodka), we make tea with it for upset stomachs, we love mixing it with chocolate dishes in the summer especially (mint chocolate milk shakes - yum), and I use solar distillations to make the essential oils to add to my soaps.

Fennel is also something we love to grow.  I love the flavor in Italian dishes, with sausage, and in tea for soothing and calming.  It grows so easily.  I think once you start growing it, it will continue on with self-sowing.

Basil is a staple around here.  Not only do I make pesto, but I dry it for sprinkling in egg and potato dishes in addition to Italian pastas.  

We grow our own garlic and put it in oil for many, many dishes.

We use green onions constantly as well as bulb onions.  We are quite successful with the green ones and are awaiting success with the bulb onions.  I think I use at least a half onion daily.  We are still buying them, though, as we can't keep up.

We grow lemon balm and have used it to attract bee swarms, but have yet to use it for lemon extract for foods.  I look forward to exploring this.

We are just now experimenting with saffron, turmeric, and ginger.  As we live in zone 7, turmeric and ginger are iffy.  However, I planted them in an old horse trough we got for free because the bottom was rusted out.  I put ginger in half and turmeric in the other half.  I had read that if I mulched them, them would hang around, and I surmised that the horse trough would be excellent for holding in the leaves.  Ask me later on this.  If they come back out in the Spring, it was a success. These were bought at an organic grocery store in the produce section. . . Our harvest from the saffron was quite miniscule especially after drying.  We shall see. . .

We are growing Lindera Benzoin, as I was looking for a spice that could replace cinnamon.  I actually bought the trees/bushes? from a native plant nursery in our area.  I had read that you needed a male and female for the berries.  This last year, berries showed up but I only got 6 of them that are now dried and in the freezer.  Can't wait to try them, but it seemed like such a small amount. . . .I am thrilled to find out that I could get berries though.  Allspice seems a mixture of all the spices I like to combine with cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger.  However, I am thrilled to find the bark of the Carolina Allspice or Sweet Shrub. I also can't wait to try the pods of the honey locust for chocolate.  In my experience - it seems that the roasting is what gives things their chocolate flavor - I have tried roasted dandelion roots as well as coffee beans for coffee.  The amount of roasting is key.

I found this article by looking for vanilla substitutes, as I currently buy vanilla beans and mix them with vodka.  I can't wait to try the sweet flag we already have planted around our pond, or our almond trees for almond extract, should they finally bring nuts  (probably 2 - 4 years old since one was replaced.)  

I read a book once that when someone was asked what they planted they said well, I looked at what I was eating, and if I liked it , I planted it.  That really resonated with me.  Thanks so much for all of this info.
 
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