Monday, November 20, 2006

The Spices of Life

Without thinking about it, you probably reach into your spice cabinet at least once a day. Hard to believe, but spices were once rare, expensive commodities. In fact, men went on quests in search of these elusive flavor enhancers (and we all know that one of those searches lead Columbus to the New World). Today, with the growing popularity of Mediterranean, Mexican, Tex-Mex, Cajun, Creole, Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines, spices are more popular than ever. And happily, they are easily accessible. But we still consider spices precious indeed. After all, what would life—and eating—be like without a little spice? Spice up your life and your meals!

How to Use Spices

Keep these guidelines in mind when buying, storing and using spices.

  • Always buy spices in small amounts.
  • Most spices don't need refrigeration—you can store them in a cool, dark place (but keep them away from heat).
  • However, some spices (especially red-colored ones like chili powder, cayenne pepper and paprika) should be refrigerated to prevent loss of color and flavor. You should also refrigerate or freeze oil-rich seeds such as poppy and sesame to prevent rancidity. And in hot climates you might want to put all your spices in the fridge to guard against infestation.
  • Check spices twice a year for freshness—discard bottles which have little or no scent.
  • Most spices will stay fresh for six months to a year. To help keep track of things, write the date on the bottle when you buy a new spice so you will know when it's grown old.
  • Remember that whole spices stay fresh longer than ground. You might want to invest in a small coffee grinder, small food processor, pepper grinder or mortar and pestle for quick grinding.
  • A great way to boost the taste and aroma of many spices is to toast them. Here's how: Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat until hot. Add spice; toast 2 to 5 minutes or until spice is fragrant and lightly browned, stirring constantly to prevent burning. Remove from heat and use immediately.
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment with spices by adding them to your favorite dishes (start with a small amount, then add more if you like the result).
Basic Spice Glossary

The dried berry of the allspice tree smells like a mix of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg—but it’s a spice all its own. Use in baking, pickling and sausage.

Anise Seed
This close cousin to fennel seed has a subtle licorice-like flavor. Use in liqueurs, cakes and cookies.

Basil’s light licorice/clove/mint-like taste is important in most areas of the Mediterranean, but it is also highly prized in Thailand, where a similar variety is called “holy basil.” Blends well with all other herbs. Use in all Italian and tomato dishes, scrambled eggs, soufflĂ©s, omelets, Welsh rarebits, roast beef, pork or veal, meat pies, casseroles, and stews, herb stuffings, vegetable juices, seafood cocktails, tomato, orange, or butter sauces, French and Russian dressings.

Bay Leaves
The leaves of the bay laurel tree. The main sources are California and Turkey. Watkins uses Turkish bay leaves (also grown in surrounding countries), generally considered to be more flavorful than the larger California variety. Essential for soups, stews, poaching liquids, casseroles and sauces.

This relative of gingerroot is available ground or in pods of about 20 seeds. The sweetish, hottish flavor is popular in Scandinavian dishes as well as East Indian cooking.

Cayenne Pepper
Though technically an herb, fiery hot cayenne pepper is usually grouped with spices in the kitchen. Made from ground dried hot chilis, cayenne is popular in Mexican and Southwestern dishes.

Celery Seed
The fruit of the wild celery plant is sold whole, ground or mixed with salt. Its strong flavor is good in fish dishes and salads.

Chili Powder
Although many associate this product with Mexican cooking, chili powder originated in Texas for use in chile con carne. A salt-free, balanced blend of ground mild chile peppers, cumin, garlic and oregano. Use in chili, Mexican dishes, eggs, omelets, sauces, soups, cottage cheese, rice, meat, fish, cocktail sauce, gravies, stews, vegetables.

The leaves of the coriander plant, cilantro is also known as “Mexican parsley” or “Chinese parsley.” Its flavor is totally different from the seeds, which are used as a spice, mostly in curry powders. Cilantro is a popular flavoring herb and garnish essential to salsas, Latin, Indian, Middle Eastern and Asian dishes; great in vegetable dishes, with meats and fish, and most tomato dishes.

An important baking spice, the dried bark of a member of the laurel family is sold whole and ground. It is especially delicious with apples.

The dried flower buds of the clove tree are sold whole or ground and used in pickling spice, baked ham, mulled wine and baked goods.

Coriander Seed
From the coriander plant (a member of the parsley family), coriander seed has a slightly tart, citrusy flavor. It’s sold whole and ground. Try it in East Indian and Mexican dishes.

Cumin Seed
An essential spice with an assertive flavor, cumin is used extensively in Mexican cooking and is a main ingredient in prepared chili powder. Available whole or ground.

Curry Powder
A ground blend of as many as 20 spices, Curry Powder is one of the world’s oldest spice blends.
It originated in England and was designed to give the characteristic flavor of Indian curry cookery, which became popular during the British colonization of India. It has grown to be used as a single spice in Western kitchens, and is very popular in the Caribbean as well. Use generously in Indian and Caribbean curries, and sparingly in Western dishes such as eggs, deviled eggs, fish, shrimp, parsley, meats, vegetables, rice, French dressing, white sauce, fish chowders, soups, salted nuts, and sweet pickles.

Dill Seed
It wouldn’t be a pickle without this fruit of the dill plant. Sold whole, the seed flavors breads, salads and seafood.

Fennel Seed
The licorice-flavored seed of the fennel plant perks up pork, pasta, bread and seafood.

Five Spice Powder
This ancient and intriguing blend comes from China and Vietnam, where it has long been used
to add a warm flavor and mysterious fragrance to a variety of stir-fries and other dishes. Especially great for chicken, pork, and a variety of stir-fries. Contains Watkins famous Black Pepper and Cinnamon with other spices.

Oriental cooking just wouldn’t be the same without this flavorful root. Ginger is grated and sliced and added to meats and vegetables. Ground, it’s used in baking.

Italian Seasoning
A traditional blend of Italian herbs and spices makes superb spaghetti sauce and main dishes. Add to plain tomato sauce to give authentic flavor to most pasta dishes; also great with meats and vegetables.

This member of the mint family is closely related to oregano; in fact, oregano is a wild version of marjoram. The gentler, sweeter marjoram is preferred in the cuisines of France and parts of Italy, as well as in traditional American dishes like corn chowder. Excellent with chicken and turkey, stuffings, vegetables, beans and bean soup, corn chowder, and most tomato dishes. Use in place of oregano for a milder taste, or combine with it for balance on pizza or in sauces. Also blends well with basil, thyme, and most Mediterranean herbs.

The seed of the mustard plant is sold whole, ground or as a prepared condiment. Whole, the pungent flavor is used in East Indian dishes. The ground form seasons meats and salads.

Nutmeg is the pit of the nutmeg fruit (part of the shell is another spice, called mace). A delicate spice, sold whole or ground, nutmeg is used in sweet and savory dishes.

A wild variety of marjoram, although a bit stronger and with a pleasant bitter undertone.
Widely used in Greece and Italy, with a stronger, cruder version grown in Mexico.
Best known for its use on pizza; also excellent in pasta sauces, pork, veal, fish, vegetables, dressings, gravies, seafood, poultry, grilled tomatoes and all tomato dishes, white sauces, ground beef and pork, Greek, Italian and Mexican dishes, chili, egg dishes, and salads.

A spice made from ground, dried peppers, paprika’s flavor ranges from sweet to incendiary. Sweet paprika is used mostly for coloring; the fiery hot sort is used in Hungarian dishes.

This delicious, nutritious herb has a refreshing taste that goes extremely well with garlic, onion, lemon, and any herb. Although dried parsley has often been called flavorless, you’ll find ours to be a pleasant surprise. Add to butter sauces for meats, poultry, fish and vegetables, scrambled eggs, stuffings, soups, chowders, salads, and dressings.

Pepper berries are grown on a vine. The same plant produces both white and black pepper—white peppercorns are just riper than black ones. Buy whole and grind for best flavor.

Poppy Seed
The mature seed of the poppy flower is sold whole and in paste form. Use in both sweet and savory baking.

Red Pepper Flakes
These crushed dried red chiles, mostly from cayenne-related varieties, are the famous table seasoning in pizzerias. Because they include the seeds, they are very hot. Highly versatile, and used in most cuisines throughout the world. Use in pickling, chowders, gumbos, pizza and spaghetti sauces, and in making sausage; also excellent for meats, seafood, eggs and egg dishes, soups, cheese dishes, sauces and gravies, vegetables and vegetable juices, curries, creamed dishes, souffles and croquettes.

The name “rosemary,” derived from Latin, means “dew of the sea”—appropriate because the herb thrives in the dry climate and salty sea spray of the Mediterranean shores. Its pungent minty/evergreen flavor is a favorite in Italy and Provence, especially in dishes simmered with wine, olive oil and garlic. At its best with roasted or grilled lamb, pork, poultry and game; also excellent with potatoes and vegetables, stews, marinades and breads. Lends a surprising twist to apple jelly and poached pears.

This Mediterranean herb got its name because of the ancient belief that it strengthened the memory and imparted wisdom. Dalmatian sage, the world’s best variety, comes from the area that is now Albania and Croatia. Excellent in poultry stuffing, especially with onion; its flavor and digestive properties make it perfect for pork, sausages, goose and other rich meats; also enhances risotto, chowders and tomato sauces.

Sesame Seed
One of the oldest spices, sesame seed is sold whole, or ground into a paste called tahini. Use in candy, baking and Middle Eastern and Oriental cooking.

Originally native to Siberia, Tarragon is best known for its use in French cuisine; the very best tarragon is grown in France. Its bittersweet flavor is reminiscent of anise, and it is most widely used as a flavoring for vinegar. Complements chicken and fish dishes, lobster, beef and lamb, as well as salads and dressings, mustard sauces, and the classic béarnaise sauce.

One of the great European culinary herbs, and perhaps our most versatile. Closely related to oregano, with a stronger, more balsam-like flavor that has made it a favorite far beyond its Mediterranean origins—from the British Isles to North America to the Caribbean. Excellent with meat, fish and poultry, tomato dishes, stuffings, stews and sauces, vegetable juice, clam juice, seafood cocktails, cream and cottage cheese spreads, clam and fish chowders, marinades, gravies, vegetables.

Adapted from

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