The New Year is a time for resolutions and renewals. No better culinary resolution than to weed out old herbs and spices from your spice rack. Because, face it, some of those bottles haven't been touched since the beginning of time -- that is, since you brought them home from the store.
In general, both herbs and spices should be stored tightly sealed in a cool, dry, dark place. So take them down from above your stove -- easy reach often makes for stale herbs. As a rule, the color of dried herb or spice is a fairly good indication of its strength. So if your tarragon or basil is looking more like the color of mowed grass, it's time to invest in new ingredients. The same goes for spices such as paprika or red chili pepper; the redder the color, the sharper the flavor.
Herbs like cilantro and chervil, however, are never good dried to begin with; their flavor is too delicate and when dried they fade. They are best bought fresh.
Only peppers can really be stored for many years without loss of quality. The length of time that spices stay potent depends on their form. In general, whole peppercorns can be stored for five years or longer, whole spices for two years, and ground spices and blends six months to a year.
If you have an herb garden, it is possible to dry your own herbs. You can hang them in bunches in a warm, dry room. Be sure to cover them loosely with paper to prevent dust from settling on them. Or you can dry them on trays in your oven, set to very low (150 degrees), turning it on and off until the drying is complete. (If you have a gas stove, just the pilot light is often enough to dry.)
Some people prefer to freeze fresh herbs rather than to dry them. Remove the leaves from the stalks and wrap them tightly in plastic wrap or pack them tightly in a small jar and place in the freezer. They will keep for up to a year.
So this week, instead of thinking big and ending up not keeping your resolution, think small and quick; weed out the old herbs and spices and try the recipe below with what remains.
Express Lane List: steak, black peppercorns, white peppercorns, shallots, cognac or brandy, whipping cream, green peppercorns, dijon-style mustard STEAK WITH FOUR PEPPERCORNS (4 servings)
2 sirloin or New York steaks, 1 1/2 inches thick, or 4 thick filet mignon steaks
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1 teaspoon whole white peppercorns
1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon butter
3 tablespoons minced shallots
1/3 cup cognac or brandy
2 cups whipping cream
1 teaspoon green peppercorns (freeze-dried preferably)
1 tablespoon dijon-style mustard
Trim the steaks of all fat. Wrap the black, white, and Sichuan peppercorns in an old kitchen towel, place on a chopping board and pound with the bottom of a heavy skillet until crushed. Press the crushed pepper into both sides of the steaks.
Place a heavy skillet (an iron one is a good choice) over medium-high heat. Pour in the vegetable oil and, when it just begins to smoke, add the steaks and cook 3 to 4 minutes on one side. Turn and brown the other side. When well browned, check for doneness. If necessary, lower the heat and continue cooking.
When they are done to your liking, remove the steaks to a warm platter and cover with foil to keep them hot while you make the sauce. Wipe out the skillet with a paper towel and let it cool slightly. Add the butter and minced shallots and cook over medium heat for a few seconds. Add the cognac or brandy. Simmer until the liquid has nearly evaporated. Stir in the cream and green peppercorns (drained if canned), simmer for 5 minutes, until the cream has thickened to a sauce consistency. Whisk in the mustard and remove from the heat. Taste, and add salt if needed.
Large steaks should be sliced diagonally to serve. Pour some of the hot sauce over the steak slices, spooning any loose peppercorns with it. Extra sauce can be served separately at the table.
Adapted from: "The Von Welanetz Guide to Ethnic Ingredients" by Diana and Paul Von Welanetz (Houghton Mifflin, 1982).