29 January 2014

What to do with Old and Outdated Spices and Herbs

Bulk herbs and spices from the market in old Cahors, France.
On a particularly frigid afternoon earlier in January, I finally cleaned out my spice cupboard.

I'm not sure why I put this chore off for so long, as it is not especially unpleasant. I probably had at least 100 jars of varying sizes, most dating back to my early days of blogging. Experts say purchased ground spices are only good for a year or two (their volatile oils begin to dissipate after grinding), and recommend you purchase whole spices instead, grinding them on an as-needed basis.

I have often ignored this advice, but I won't in the future. Retiring early has forced me to think twice about unnecessary purchases (did we really need four jars of peppercorns?).

To grind spices, I usually use a mortar and pestle, but there are many spice grinders on the market. If you have a coffee grinder, that can also be used to grind spices.

Cleaning out a spice cabinet is a half-day job in my kitchen. But I was highly motivated to do the job in order to justify buying some new, salt-free mixes from Penzeys, a Wisconsin vender I have been using for more than 20 years.

I emptied out at least 50 percent of my spice collection, recycling most of the bottles, and only tossing out the mixes that contained salt.

I don't like wasting anything.

What can you do with old spices, past their expiration dates and no longer fragrant and flavorful? Plenty, as it turns out.

Use them as carpet refresher. Here's a simple recipe I used and it really made my house smell good, much like herbs de Provence:
  • 2 tablespoons culinary lavender
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
  • 1 tablespoon rosemary
  • 1 tablespoon ground thyme
  • 1 tablespoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 cup dried peppermint tea leaves
Combine in a small jar or bowl; shake to blend.

I used the mix on the carpet in our TV room, which gets a lot of traffic. It reminded me of the essential oils used by massage therapists to create a relaxing ambiance. I made more, and will use it whenever I vacuum.

I also made some squirrel repellent, which I use near the bird feeders in our back yard. Squirrels don't like hot spices, but birds ignore them.

I blended:
  • 3 tablespoons cayenne pepper
  • 3 tablespoons dried red peppers
  • 2 tablespoons chili powder
I used it on and around our feeders and have not observed squirrels chasing birds away for several weeks now. It made the back yard between the kitchen window and the horse barn smell wonderful.

I also use old spices - but nothing containing salt - in my compost, along with coffee grounds and tea leaves.

Discarded herbs and spices may also be used in candle making or soap making, or in tea dyes and other organic dyes. See this link for some additional ideas.

Here is a handy chart for determining how long you can keep spices before they "go bad" or are less potent. Here's another one that includes flavor packets and extracts.

Now that my cupboard is clean, I find I am using spices and herbs more frequently in my cooking.

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25 January 2014

Boeuf Bourguignon



For about a ten-year period, winter in Wisconsin held off until the end of January, and was usually gone by the end of March. Several years, we had 70-degree days in mid-March. There was usually a spring blizzard or two, but the snow never stayed around long.

It seems 2013 was an exception. Spring didn't make an appearance until early April, and winter checked in just after Thanksgiving. We began eating heartier fare earlier in the season. Of course, I've gained a few pounds. But being retired gives me more time to exercise and prepare my own meals. No more grabbing lunch on the go.

Early retirement has also allowed us to experiment more in the kitchen (and shop around for bargains). We began 2014 with Boeuf Bourguignon, a particular favorite of my husband.

On our first visit to Paris nearly a decade ago, we ordered Beef Bourguinon at an over-priced bistro near Notre Dame Cathedral. It was delicious and, we thought, well worth the cost.

It's not a quick dish to prepare, thanks to the pearl onions, but it is easy. We took our inspiration from this cookbook.

Beef Bourguignon

  • 2 pounds round of beef, cubed
  • 2-2 slice bacon
  • 4 good-sized carrots, sliced
  • 3 dozen pearl onions, peeled 
  • 8 ounces fresh mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 teaspoon chopped garlic (about two small cloves)
  • generous handful fresh thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup Cognac
  • 1 bottle good red wine (we used Merlot)


For the seal:

  • 1 cup flour and enough water to make a paste


Pre-heat oven to 200 225 degrees.

Line a small stockpot or cocotte (make sure it has a cover) with bacon grease and carrots, onions, mushrooms, thyme and garlic. Add the meat, and continue to layer until all ingredients have been used. Don't forget to salt and pepper each layer to your individual taste (for me, that's easy on the salt). Top with bacon strips.

Pour in the cognac and wine. Make a paste of flour and water and seal the pot lid to keep steam from escaping. Place the stockpot or cocotte in the oven and cook for six hours. Do not remove the lid during cooking.

When the lid is removed, a wonderful, savory aroma is released. Serve with egg noodles and a green salad. A chewy baguette is a nice addition for those who are not watching carbohydrate intake.

This was such a hit, it's on the menu for tomorrow.

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