Q: How long can I keep a spice mix that I made myself? I've heard that when they're mixed they could become toxic. I made some Herbs de Provence and didn't use the whole amount.
A: There's no reason they would become toxic unless you combined some fresh with some dried herbs. In that case the fresh ones could add enough moisture to the mixture that the dried ones would mold.
Any moldy mixture of herbs should be discarded because the mold might be toxic. Mold toxins are not the kinds that would give you classic food poisoning symptoms. But with repeated use of moldy foods, over time the toxins can build up in our systems. Several mold toxins have been tied to liver and other cancers, at least in lab animals and in surveys
of areas where moldy food is often consumed. So eating foods that are not supposed to be moldy is never a good idea.
Even foods that should be moldy, such as blue or Camembert or Brie cheeses, should be discarded if there is obviously a different kind of mold on it — pink or yellow spots on a normally white cheese, for example.
On the other hand, some herbs have been found to be actively protective against microbes. Rosemary extract, for example, is known to protect against some kinds of bacterial growth and against oxidation in ground meat. That doesn't mean it won't mold, and it doesn't mean that eating lots of rosemary will prevent disease. But some herbs resist molding much longer than others. And someday we might be using herbs for more than just flavor.
In the meantime, there's no reason why you can't keep a mixture of dried herbs for months or longer. Eventually they'll lose their flavor as do all herbs, but they won't become toxic.
Q: I tasted some delicious spiced pears at a friend's house. She gave me the recipe, which involved canning them. I didn't want to do that, so I just put them in the refrigerator. But while mine are similar, they are certainly not as good as the ones she had. They're softer and taste more sweet, less spicy. Would canning them make that much difference? I thought canning would make them softer, not firmer. Or did she just not give me the full recipe?
A: I have a spiced pear recipe, too, that I love; they are so delicious! But before you blame your friend, there are some other reasons that might explain the differences.
The texture difference is probably due to the kind of pear you used. You're right that canning would make them softer, not firmer. But Bosc and Seckel pears are usually much firmer than the more common Bartlett. If you used Bartletts and she used Boscs, you would notice the difference. If you used yellow-ripe Bartletts, the way we usually eat them, the spiced pears would be much softer, too. They can get almost mushy after boiling in the spiced syrup. So try again with a firm pear or, if you can find them, a firmer variety of pear. It won't matter if you use red or green Boscs; both are firm.
As for the flavor, that difference can be partly explained by not canning them. Canning fruit in a spiced syrup does help to drive the flavors into the fruit. So just simmering and refrigerating them will not give you as much flavor.
The other thing that might explain the flavor difference is that spiced pears and all quick-pack pickled foods really need a couple of weeks of rest after canning to let the full flavors develop. A quick-pack pickle is when a fruit or vegetable is canned in a flavored brine or syrup, with or without simmering first. The salt, sugar, vinegar and flavorings are expected to penetrate as the jars sit on the shelf.
If you don't want to can the pears, let them sit in the refrigerator for at least a couple of weeks if you want to get the best flavors. Put them in a covered container or a jar — glass is probably best, so that they don't pick up flavors or leave a flavor in a plastic container. They'll be safe and will taste much better if they get to rest those couple of weeks.
A final thought of something that would affect the flavor is how fresh your spices were. Fresh cloves and cinnamon, fresh ginger rather than powdered, will make a big difference in final flavor. But give them another try, because they are delicious.