Q. What is the difference between herbs and spices?
-- Pat Mountain, Colorado Springs, Colo.
A. Herbs and spices add flavor, aroma and color to food. Both are available whole and ground, fresh and dried.
The difference is in their origins. Spices come from the seeds, stems, pods, berries, bark, roots, buds or fruits of a plant. Herbs, on the other hand, come from the plant's leaves.
Spices are commonly sold dried, either whole (ginger, nutmeg, peppercorns and caraway seeds are examples) or in powder form. For the best flavor, buy whole spices, then roast and grind (or grate) them right before using.
Storing spices properly -- away from heat and light -- goes a long way toward preserving them. For convenience, people often keep spices in a rack above the stove, but there is actually no worse place, since this exposed them to both light and heat.
Spices should be stored in a cool, dark place such as a drawer, pantry or cabinet, in tightly sealed jars. Some spices, such as paprika and cayenne, tend to attract bugs and are best refrigerated.
Properly stored, spices have a shelf life of six months to a year; after that, their flavor deteriorates quickly.
Herbs are sold both fresh and dried, though the dried varieties often bear little resemblance, in scent or flavor, to fresh. Fresh herbs are nearly always preferable, though unfortunately, they aren't always available. If substituting dried herbs for fresh in recipes, use about one teaspoon dried leaves for each tablespoon fresh chopped herbs.
Dried herbs should be stored in the same way as spices. Fresh herbs will usually last about a week in the refrigerator (place the stems in a glass of water and cover the leaves loosely with plastic wrap, for best results).
The care of pewter
Q. How do I care for pewter? I have an old pewter milk pitcher that has more sentimental value than real value, but I'd like to keep it in good shape.
-- Dianne Smith, Temple, Texas
A. Pewter, whether antique or modern, has a lovely, muted luster that is actually quite easy to maintain. Unlike silver, pewter doesn't tarnish, so regular polishing isn't necessary -- or recommended, as some polishes can damage the metal's finish.
The best way to clean pewter is to wash it by hand with soap and water, then thoroughly dry it. Pewter will develop a dark spotty patina over time; this is natural and considered by collectors to be a desirable and charming characteristic.
No pewter should ever be put in the dishwasher or the oven -- unless you want to destroy the piece. Pewter melts at 450 degrees Fahrenheit.
Pewter is an alloy of metals, including tin, copper, antimony, bismuth and, in some cases, lead. Though it has been around since Roman times, we often associate it with colonial America.
Initially brought to the New World as a luxury item, pewter quickly became commonplace. The functional metalware was a staple in 18th century homes, used for everything from teapots to baby bottles. Pewter eventually lost its place as a household necessity, overshadowed by affordable ceramics and silver plate. By the mid-20th century, its production all but ceased.
There's been a surge in the popularity of antique pewter as a collectible recently. Values vary widely, from a few dollars to upwards of $100,000, depending on when and where a piece was made, its rarity and its condition. But for many of us, pieces with family history or sentimental meaning are worth the most, their imperfections and signs of age only adding to their charm.
Q. I had an oil-based polyurethane finish put on my white oak hardwood floors. Should I wax them, or can I leave them as they are?
-- Brenda Phillips, Manchester, Calif.
A. Oil-based polyurethanes, as well as water-based urethanes, are very resilient protective finishes for wood floors. They fall into the category of "surface" finishes -- meaning they coat the surface of the wood (as opposed to "penetrating" finishes such as stain or linseed oil, which soak into the grain).
A coating of wax will protect a urethane finish, but it is not necessary. It's a good idea to wait a bit and see how the finish is holding up to the day-to-day traffic in your house before deciding to wax. Many manufacturers do not recommend waxing on top of polyurethane, as the floor can become quite slippery, and once the wax is applied, the floor cannot be recoated with the polyurethane.
To keep an unwaxed polyurethane-finished floor looking its best, vacuum once a week to eliminate dirt and dust, then damp mop with a solution of one part white vinegar to eight parts water. With careful treatment, the finish should last three to five years before it will need recoating.
If you do choose to wax, you will enjoy a finish that will last many years longer, though not without maintenance. Frequent buffing and twice yearly rewaxing will be required.
Questions should be addressed to Martha Stewart, care of New York Times Syndication Sales Corp., 122 E. 42nd St., New York, N.Y. 10168. Questions of general interest will be answered in this column; Martha Stewart regrets that unpublished letters cannot be answered individually.