The Spices of Life

 Spices of Life

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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—we only need to venture to our local supermarket to discover new ways to spice up our lives, and our meals! But we still consider spices precious indeed. After all, what would life—and eating—be like without a little spice?

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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
Allspice 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.
Cardamom 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.
Cinnamon 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.
Cloves 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.
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.
Ginger 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.
Mustard 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 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.
Paprika 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.
Pepper 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.
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.

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