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Spice it up

Build a new flavor profile with herbs and spices you’ve always wanted to try

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Mei Parker says her pantry is always stocked with a full range of herbs and spices.
“Chefs are like dogs: We love to please,” says the owner of Chef Mei Personal Chef Services in Fayetteville.
Parker goes to her customers’ homes to prepare a week or even two weeks’ worth of meals for families. She also caters for private parties and corporate gatherings.
“It can be for two people or up to 200 people,” she says of the quantities she serves. “I bring everything — food, pots, pans — other than the kitchen sink.”
And she brings her own herbs and spices.
For family meals, she crafts a “boutique menu” that is fitted to personal tastes after a conversation about food favorites with her customer.
“I try to bring flavors from different parts of the world but to their liking,” Parker says, adding that some ask for a specific ingredient.
In the fall, she favors the “warmest” spices, including star anise, cloves, cinnamon and turmeric. For curry dishes, she combines ginger, cinnamon, cumin or paprika.
“Ginger is one of my favorites,” she says. “In marinates, it tends to break down the muscles of the meat and make it more tender.”
Tarragon is her choice for chicken salads and on seafood.
Parker was born in Malaysia and says her family was always adventurous with food. The mothers and grandmothers would “drag all the cousins into the kitchen. They would start us young, peeling and cutting the vegetables.”
“The table was always filled with different varieties of food,” she remembers, adding that her parents liked to try international cuisines of all types.
For Antonella Scibilia, owner and chef of Antonella’s Italian Ristorante in downtown Fayetteville, there’s little hesitation in naming her favorite flavoring.
“Fresh basil, basil and basil!!!” she writes in an email. “My favorite!!”
In an interview, Scibilia says her restaurant uses about 10 pounds of basil over five days.
Basil and oregano are “really good in salads or sauces,” she says, adding that garlic — of course — is a staple of Italian cuisine.
Tarragon is aromatic and adds a hint of licorice flavor. Mint is a favorite in salads.
“Italians use a lot of mint,” Scibilia says.
“Crushed red pepper can heat up the flavors,” she adds, noting that many customers will say, “Make it extra hot.”
Parsley is an important herb for presentation, she says. She prefers Italian flat-leaf parsley, not the “curly” variety.
Scibilia encourages home cooks to experiment a little with herbs and spices.
“A lot of my girlfriends say, ‘I want to try this or that,’” she says. “I always think things with cooking are so easy. I was raised doing it.”
For beginners, Parker recommends sticking to a recipe at first, then tailoring the flavor to suit their own taste.
“Read a lot of recipes,” she advises. “You’ll see that there are trends in what spices are used so when you go to the store, you know what to stock up on.
“Things have fused so much over the years. You’d be surprised.”
When cooking with fresh herbs, Parker says, use twice as much as you would dry spices because drying intensifies the flavor. And remember that fresh herbs don’t last long; buy enough for just a week, she says. Dry spices, by contrast, last for years.
“I’m not a measurement person. It’s my palette that matters most to me,” Parker says. “And don’t be afraid to experiment. The worst that could happen is, at least you tried it.”

Fayetteville, spices, Mei Parker, Antonella Scibilia