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Published: Tuesday, 3/1/2005

Pickling spice in the bag

While a little bag of herbs or spices may not be on your kitchen radar screen, take note: Bouquet garni, which is the classic French herbal blend, has competition.

The latest craze in comfort cooking is pickling spice, according to McCormick & Co., a spice company. Not just for Grandma's pickles anymore, the versatile blend of flavors (cinnamon, allspice, mustard seed, coriander, bay leaves, ginger, chili peppers, cloves, black pepper, mace, and cardamom) is a favorite of chefs for braised meats and stews. Home cooks are using it for slow-cooker recipes, soups, and rice dishes. Pickling spice has been named one of McCormick's top 10 flavors to watch in 2005.

To infuse recipes with pickling spice, create a sachet by placing pickling spice in the center of a piece of cheesecloth or a coffee filter and tying it with a long piece of string (or use a premade cheesecloth bag). Drop the flavor sachet into the pot and enjoy the taste and aroma of the blend.

Chef Allen Susser of Chef Allen's in Miami serves a warm shrimp cocktail that is poached in pickling spice. This spice blend can be used in Mediterranean-inspired dishes like Moroccan chicken, Tuscan beef stew, Corned Beef and Cabbage, or New Orleans-style dishes.

While some of the other nine flavors in the McCormick Flavor Forecast 2005 are familiar and others exotic, all are being used in new ways to complement a variety of foods. America's trendy chefs strive to deliver a multisensory experience of flavor, color, aroma, and texture with:

●Allspice: Used in baking and in jerk seasoning and curries.

●Cardamom: Important to Middle Eastern, North African, and Latin American cuisines, and is a key ingredient in curries.

●Cinnamon: A staple in every cuisine worldwide.

●Annatto: Provides orange-red color for Latin American dishes.

●Curry: A key element of Southeast Asian, Caribbean, Japanese, English, and Australian cooking, now combined with fruits such as apples, bananas, and passion fruit and sweeter flavors like vanilla.

●Ginger: Flavor for salt-free rubs.

●Mint: With a cool aftertaste, is great for balancing spicier foods and can be used in salsas.

●Sage: A classic holiday spice, now used often as a dry rub in many of the same ways as oregano or basil.

●Vanilla: Used as flavoring in salad dressings, lobster, and as a complement to fruits, vegetables, and flavored butters.

For worldly tastes, chefs are combining one or two global tastes with familiar foods. To get these flavors, chefs and home cooks are looking to locally grown ingredients and those from specific locations, such as Turkish bay leaves and balsamic vinegar from Modena, Italy.

As Americans seek healthier food with less fat and calories, herbs and spices add flavor. Upscale interpretations of comfort foods include macaroni and cheese made with ingredients like blue cheese or Jack cheese, cilantro, or Mexican seasoning blends, according to McCormick Flavor Forecast 2005.

While flavor is a driving force for chefs, many home cooks may feel a little spice goes a long way.

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