What a fun topic to tackle!!
I confess that I dress and eat by my moods. That means that what I use to season my foods with varies greatly from day to day. And because I have lived in several various cultures and picked up the tastes of those cultures I am a fusionist.
Yet there are some very basics that I use and then some tricks that I will share.
For starters, when you open up your spice/herb drawer or cabinet start to consider the ones that you know that go well together. (Combinations you see in standard recipes.) For instance, if we have a craving for Italian food I season ground meat or chicken and eat it with zucchini noodles. Italian spices are basil, oregano, thyme, and marjoram–too much of any of them can be overpowering and ruin the whole meal.
Or if I am going for a Mexican flavor I will add a variety of spices depending on the flavor I am after: oregano, cumin, corriander, cinnamon, paparika, cayenne pepper, salt and black pepper. (Lime juice will add some thing very special to these spices!) The neat thing about cooking with peppers is that using a variety adds uniqueness to the flavor. For instance, paparika is a pepper and usually is the base for most chili powders…and likewise, black pepper (which is actually a spice) adds not just heat but enhances the flavor of other types of peppers. And cumin also blends well with peppers….At one time I hated the flavor of cumin, it is one of those spices I had to learn to like and now I use it a good deal. BUT, I don’t always use it in my Mexican food because like the great United States, Mexico has different regions and their foods vary a good deal in flavors.
Asian food uses a lot of ginger, pepper, ground mustard and hot peppers. They also use anise which has a licorice taste but can quickly become over powering if you get too much. Both Asians and Mexican cultures use star anise when slow cooking beef and pork. One piece of star anise in a pot roast gives a uniqueness that is quite good.
Okay, now on to something perhaps a bit more practical. There are some certain blends of spices that go well together with particular types of meats. These are some of my favorites but may not be yours. The goal is for each individual cook to develop flavors that suit them and their family.
Beef: cinnamon, cloves, corriander, black and white pepper, garlic and salt. I once worked with a chef that said,”Beef is not beef with out garlic!!” I am of the same opinion.
Pork: sage, black and white pepper,paparika and salt or I might use: ground mustard, tumeric, paparika, salt and a touch cumin. And while I use a lot of garlic on most everything I usually do not put it on my pork. I might put it in a sauce that I use on the pork but rarely do I cook garlic with my pork.
Chicken/Poultry: oregano, basil, rosemary, garlic, paparika, salt and pepper or I could use tumeric, paparika and a little sage. Poultry is so versatile that you really can put just about any spice/herb combination with it.
Fish: salt and pepper, dillweed, maybe a little onion powder and always paparika. Seafood needs a lighter seasoning to accompany the lighter textures and flavors.
Lamb: rosemary, garlic, salt and pepper.
These are by no means hard and fast rules with me. I just pull out spice jars and boxes and create as I go along. A little trick that I learned a lot of years ago is that if you take a whiff or small taste of what you are cooking and then quickly take a whiff of a particular spice or herb you can sort of get a sensory feel for what it might taste like. I keep a wide variety of herbs and spices and only use some of them once in a while. Salt is essential to bring out the taste in spices so everything gets salted. And when freehand cooking (not tied to a recipe) always start with a little at first and remember that it only takes a little bit to get too much. You can always add more but you can’t take it out. A prime example of this is tarragon. Tarragon has a unique flavor that really is not bad at all but a tad too much will send me pushing my plate away.
One last thing about seasoning meats. A splash of wine can enhance meat that is slow cooked. The best rule for that is red on dark meats (beef, lamb) white on light meats (pork and poultry). Distilled liquors can also add a uniqueness to foods.
This perhaps has not been as clearly written as I would have liked. (I started it several days ago and have been interrupted numberous times…) Yet, I hope that it was useful. Have fun creating your own favorite blends!!