With the holiday season rapidly approaching, we asked award winning chef Jamie McFadden, founder of Sandy Ridge Vineyards & Mercantile to share some cooking tips with us. Here are his thoughts on how to use herbs and spices for the holidays!
Says Chef McFadden, “As adults, the aromas and scents of the holidays take our hearts and minds back to our grandmother or mother’s kitchen. Herbs and spices are essential in every aspect of cooking throughout the year, but during the Christmas season, there are a few spices that stand out, due to the direct connection between smell, sight, and flavors, always bring back memories of happy holiday seasons with family and friends.
Close your eyes and think about the smell of a fresh pumpkin pie, baking in the oven. You don’t have to see it, but the scent of warm nutmeg, sweet cinnamon, and spicy ginger infuse all of your senses, and you can’t help but smile when you think about it!”
Here are some of his favorite herbs and spices for the holidays, along with classic ways to use them.
“Fresh thyme is another one of my favorites, and a classic herb for the holidays,” says Chef McFadden. Popular all year and in many cultures, thyme is the main component of Herbes de Provence, a blend that also includes marjoram, rosemary, summer savory, lavender buds, and other dried herbs. Thyme is also typically included in the traditional bouquet garni, a bundle of herbs and aromatics used in making stocks, a must have ingredient for roasting the perfect holiday turkey or ham, and in preparing sauces and gravies. To obtain the best results from fresh thyme, Chef McFadden recommends gently press the leaves of the herb with the side of a chef’s knife before chopping to release their natural oils.
Ginger has a warm, spicy taste that is sometimes described as peppery. It is one of the few spices that is used in both sweet and savory dishes. Whether you’re baking cookies, gingerbread, or adding it to cakes, pies, or soups, it’s soft, spicy flavor is delicious both as a primary spice ingredient, and in combination with other spices such as cinnamon, cloves, pepper and curry. Chef McFadden says, “I use fresh ginger along with cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and star anise in our Snowbirds mulled red wine punch – it’s the perfect drink to sip on a cold, blustery day!”
Nutmeg is another holiday must have spice. Sweet, aromatic, and nutty, this kitchen essential is usually associated with sweet and spicy dishes. Traditional holiday pies, puddings, custards, cookies and spice cakes taste even better with freshly grated nutmeg in the recipe. It also combines well with many cheeses, and is included in soufflés and cheese sauces and fondues. It is indispensable in beverages like eggnog, as well as mulled wines and punches.
With its sweet, woody fragrance it quite possibly is the most universal baking spice. Cinnamon is used in cakes, cookies, and desserts throughout the world. Often paired with apples and used in other fruit and cereal dishes, you’ll find stick cinnamon is used in pickling and for flavoring a variety of hot beverages, from apple cider to hot chocolate. Chef McFadden says you don’t always have to incorporate cinnamon as an ingredient, but as an accent through aromas and scents! “In our cinnamon sour cocktail,” he shared, “a fresh cinnamon stick is in the glass as a garnish-you smell the aroma, but what’s in the glass is still fresh and citrusy, complementing the whiskey and white wine flavors.”