Spicing Up Your Life

Spicing Up Your Life

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Locally made spice blends add some kick in your kitchen.

Plain chicken be gone. Simple salt and pepper are too boring. Our food deserves better.

Cooking can feel mundane when it’s a daily necessity. So spice up your life. Literally.

First, let’s clarify the difference between herbs and spices. Herbs are created from the leaf of a plant and often dried. Spices are created from the berries, buds, bark, seeds, or flower stigmas of plants.

Dating back to ancient times, spices have been used in dishes for their aromatic and flavor-rich properties. Today, with myriad people facing heart disease, diabetes, and other physical ailments, spices can be used to lessen salt reliance and boost the taste of many foods in a healthier way.

Several zesty local personalities have concocted spice blends from scratch, and they’re sure to invigorate any homemade meal. From enticingly ethnic to fiery and fresh, these local flavor connoisseurs beckon your taste buds with their essence-enhancing favorites you can try at home.

 

Carrying on a Flavor Legacy

Mama Ray had been making her rub for decades, giving it to loved ones, and using it to prepare delectable dishes in her kitchen for her family.

On her deathbed a few years ago, Mama Ray was asked by her daughter, Denise, if she could carry on her legacy and start a business making her signature spice blend. Permission was tearfully yet joyfully granted, and Denise Ray began a new career path.

Diane Ray, aka Mama Ray, had spent much of her life preparing food for others, eventually starting a catering company in Oceanside, Calif., aptly named Heavenly Cooking. At home, Mama taught Denise how to “take a refrigerator full of nothing and make a meal out of it.”

Denise launched Mama Ray’s Kitchen in Reno four years ago using her mother’s original spice blend recipe, and a beloved photo of her mother taken by her nephew years ago now graces each bottle.

Both Mama Ray and Denise have been fans of basil and lemon, two key ingredients in Mama Ray’s Original Rub. From there, Denise and her Ecuadorian husband played with spice mixing until three more rubs were created: Mama Ray’s Poultry Rub, Steak Rub, and Italian Blend.

Denise sources 95 percent of her herbs and spices used in the rubs locally, as well as the packaging.

“It’s truly a local business … I do as much local as I can; people support me so much locally, I want to give back that way,” she says.

Mama Ray’s rubs ping all parts of your palate. Blends also are texture-rich due to Ray using granulated garlic instead of powdered, for example.

Denise Ray marries the spices for her Original spice rub: pink Himalayan salt, minced garlic, parsley, thyme, tarragon, cracked pepper. Photo by Olga Miller

Her spice blends are free of preservatives, gluten, additives, and fillers, and they are vegan. Each spice is visually distinctive when poured in your hand, making them a feast for the eyes as well. Mama Ray’s Kitchen products provide a single stop for flavoring, with balanced blends also incorporating fresh salt and pepper.

Ray explains that you can avoid counter and cabinet clutter, along with excessive spending on spices, just by having a few bottles of Mama Ray’s in your kitchen. Then get creative.

“I love it so much, this is my passion, and every single day I get to work with my mama,” Denise says in a voice tinged with emotion.

 

Playing with Fire

Did you know that “chile” with an “e” references the uncooked fruit, while “chili” with an “i” refers to the cooked fruit?

That is just one tidbit from the mind of chile master Ricardo Frost of Reno Chili. He leans to the fiery side when flavoring meals. His Mexican heritage includes notable figures in the formation of the state of Texas. Frost’s mother had built a catering business in El Paso based on a love of food and talent for cooking that she passed on to her son.

A display of curry spices by Reno Chili. Photo courtesy of Ricardo Frost

He then spent decades in the food industry indirectly, earning multiple degrees, including a bachelor’s in agriculture and a master’s in agricultural economics.

While working with New Mexico State University, Frost met Roy Nakayama, a legend in the field of chiles, along with Paul Bosland, a professor of horticulture and expert in chile breeding and genetics, also known by his peers as “Chileman.”

A fire for the spicy fruit began to burn within Frost.

Nakayama taught Frost to hand-breed chiles while working in an NMSU greenhouse. Frost intently pondered petri dishes to analyze levels of nutrients in their chiles, on a mission to stay abreast of new genetic techniques and water-saving methods in the desert. Frost explains chiles are a difficult, cold-sensitive crop needing warm soil and about 120 days to fully develop. During his work at the university, he became familiar with more than 200 varieties of peppers.

In 2007, seeking new opportunities, Frost moved to the Reno-Tahoe region as a consultant for the Martis Camp project, and he never looked back … except when it comes to his chile habit.

Frost began Reno Chili after ordering 200 pounds of green chiles from New Mexico and sharing them with friends who got equally hooked on their freshness and flavor. He began sharing his knowledge on the kicky fruit through a blog he created. He’d learned much about preparation and chiles’ tremendous health benefits from his mentors.

For instance, Frost explains that fresh green chiles have immense nutritional benefits, thanks to their high vitamin C and capsaicin content. Capsaicin stimulates the endocrine system and helps release toxins from the body, aids digestion, and increases oxygen flow and metabolism, among many other helpful properties. And they aren’t limited to just the green variety.

So with the help of business and life partner Julia Gillespie, a recipe for love also was forged: Frost began experimenting with chile-driven spice blends in his kitchen. Reno Chili focuses on showcasing the distinctive, flavorful elements of each type of the expansive array of chiles used in his creations.

One of the best examples is his Adovado blend, a salt-free mélange of eight chiles and seven seasonings that together provide a mouthwatering version of a traditional Mexican dish. Frost’s Austin Steak Rub, inspired by Texas steakhouses, punches up any protein with three types of peppers and other spices, while his salt-free Tangerine Hibiscus Rub pops fish or chicken perfectly with a bit of the tropics.

“Recognizing nuances of chiles is like becoming a wine expert,” Frost says. “Then you learn how to blend them in certain proportions, so it’s pleasant to your palate.”

He also gives much credit for Reno Chili’s success to the area’s food-obsessed community, saying it has “allowed us to make a mark and difference in people’s lives.”

 

The Heart of a Dish

Certified master gardener-cum-spice blender Diane Weidinger launched Heart Rock Herb & Spice Co. after receiving rave reviews of how she flavored her dishes. A lover of cuisine, Weidinger had been teaching cooking classes at the Thunderbird Lodge near her Stateline home and often used fresh lavender from the garden in her dishes.

Photo courtesy of Diane Weidinger

One particularly snowy year, lavender was scarce, so she found a recipe on the Internet for ras el hanout, a Moroccan spice blend that she made using sourced lavender and rose petals. Her friends and students loved it, suggesting she sell her tantalizing creation.

Today, 11 years later, she makes and sells around 80 blends. Heart Rock’s offerings include the results of endless kitchen experimentation and Weidinger’s fresh, homemade interpretations of grocery store blends.

Her Tahoe Blend is a taste-bud-popping mix of lavender and citrus with rose buds and a touch of curry. It’s her go-to for quick appetizers such as barbecued shrimp, with the spice blend placed underneath the shell.

She explains that her blends can transport you around the world. When tasting dishes made with Heart Rock’s blends, layers of flavor pop in your mouth, each opening your eyes a bit wider while anticipating the next.

“I make the blend for you, so you can enjoy a very flavorful, easy meal,” Weidinger says.

She also creates gift baskets and travel spice kits from her expansive line of blends.

Weidinger says that ground spices have a short shelf life. She suggests smelling your spice blends upon purchasing and getting to know their nuances so you can gauge when they’ve turned. Also, buying in smaller quantities, such as her small-batch blends, helps you avoid food waste and save money.

These spicy entrepreneurs can help make your life a little easier in the kitchen, while helping you cook up some flavorful dishes sure to leave guests asking, “What did you put on that?”

 

Fish Tacos in Cabbage Cups

(courtesy of Denise Ray, owner, Mama Ray’s Kitchen in Reno. Serves 4)

4 cod filets, or ½ filet per cup (halibut and tilapia also work well)
Mama Ray’s Poultry Rub (contains pink Himalayan salt, cracked pepper, dried minced garlic, basil, lemon peel, and thyme)
1 cup nonfat plain Greek yogurt or coconut yogurt
Juice of 2 limes
1 tablespoon green onions, minced
1 tablespoon cilantro leaves, chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste
8 cabbage leaves, or cups
For toppings: Sliced red onion, slivered carrots, chopped tomatoes, sliced jalapeños, grated sharp Cheddar cheese, salsa

Sprinkle cod with Mama Ray’s Poultry Rub.

In a cup or small bowl, combine yogurt with juice of 2 limes, salt, and plenty of pepper. Add minced green onions and cilantro.

Grill or sauté fish. Once done, flake fish or cut into small pieces, add to cabbage leaf cups, then top with red onion, carrots, tomatoes, jalapeños, cheese, salsa, and your white sauce. If you like it spicy, top off with hot sauce.

 

RESOURCES

Heart Rock Herb & Spice Co.
Heartrockherbandspice.com

Mama Ray’s Kitchen
Mamarayskitchen.com

Reno Chili
Renochili.com

Natasha Bourlin, founder of Passport & Plume, loves nothing more than to convey inspirational stories and travel the globe. Reach out to her, and reach your readers. Dog lover.

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