SPICE IT UP: Make your own seasoning mix

August 1, 2012 

Many chefs have a personal seasoning mix they prefer to use and some have even been made famous by celebrity chefs on the Food Network or through popular cookbooks.

Certainly Chefs Emeril Lagasse and John Besh top the list in our part of the world.

Theirs are just a couple of seasoning styles that have Cajun or Creole flair. For something different check out Bobby Flay's 16-spice rub for chicken or the multitude of specific-use rub recipes you can find on the Internet.

What those professional chefs have found over a lifetime of cooking is that certain spices and dried herbs seem to go together well. They have tweaked their combinations in a personal way and keep a supply on hand for a variety of uses.

It is a good idea that applies to home cooks as well. There's no reason you have to rely on one of the commercial blends, such as Tony Chachere's or Konriko, as good as they might be they do tend to be a bit heavy with the salt. The basic ingredients for your personal spice blend are inexpensive and are not hard to find.

Besh's seasoning is a blend of celery salt, sweet paprika, sea salt, black pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne pepper and allspice.

Lagasse's differs only in the addition of oregano and thyme and the omission of allspice. Those combinations are good ones and if

you use small quantities and make notes as you go along, it can be fun to build your own blend. You will need an electric blender, the type used to grind coffee works well. They are inexpensive too and last forever.

A more basic blend that I use frequently is black pepper, red pepper flakes, dried oregano and just a hint of salt. This combination works on many recipes, but the trick to it is to play with the combinations and find what tastes good to you.

Once you've got your blend down pat make sure to seal it tightly in a glass container. Most herbs and spices have a shelf life of about six months and not knowing how old it was when you bought it you should be careful or your blend will begin to get dull. They should also not be exposed to sunlight.

The best bet is to put a small amount into a container for immediate use and freeze the rest. Don't make so much that you'll have it in the freezer all year -- even freezing does not extend the shelf life indefinitely.

Once you have perfected your personal spice combination try it on one of these simple recipes.

SPICY ROASTED WHOLE CHICKEN

1 whole frying chicken

1 whole garlic clove

4 tablespoons spice blend

1 whole lemon

1 bunch cilantro

Parmigiano-Reggiano

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Wash the chicken and dry it completely. Loosen the skin around the neck and insert your fingers to separate the skin from the breast. With your fingers or a small spoon placed about a tablespoon of spice under the skin on each side of the breast, making sure to spread it evenly. Cut the garlic and lemon in half and place them in the cavity. Do the same with as much of the cilantro as will fit without packing it in. Season the chicken liberally on the outside with the remainder of the spice and place it on an oiled sheet pan. Put it in the oven and roast for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 375 degrees and continue cooking for 30 minutes. Turn off the heat, do not open the oven door and allow to cook for 15 more minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to rest for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

This dish goes very well with roasted potatoes (they can cook together) or a simple pasta tossed with a little butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano and a salad. Serve a good pinot noir or one of the new craft beers that are now available in Mississippi.

SPICY SHRIMP AND PASTA

1 pound large shrimp

1 cup large chopped locally grown tomatoes

3-4 cloves diced garlic

1/4 cup dry white wine

4 tablespoons spice blend

1 lemon

Olive oil

Butter

1 pound wide cut ribbon pasta like fettuccine or pappardelle

Grated Asiago cheese

Cook the pasta according to package directions, drain and set aside. Season the shrimp with the spice blend, place in a plastic bag and add 3-4 tablespoons olive oil, mix well. The shrimp can be shell on or off, but shell on produces a more flavorful and moist result, albeit a bit more messy to eat. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Remove about 10 minutes before ready to cook and allow to warm almost to room temperature. Place several tablespoons of olive oil and a small tab of butter in a large sauté pan and heat until almost smoking. Place 6-8 shrimp in the pan (do not over crowd it) and cook quickly for 30-45 seconds on a side. If you've got the temperature right they will sear and take on a lovely golden brown color. Remove and repeat the process until all are cooked, adding oil and butter as necessary. If the bottom of the pan becomes burned give it a quick wash, re-heat and add more oil and butter and proceed. When the shrimp are finished add the tomatoes and garlic and wine to the pan and cook for about 10 minutes, if the pan is too dry and a little more olive oil. Combine the pasta, tomatoes and garlic and mix well, garnish with the shrimp. Serve with a loaf of crusty French bread.

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