Food for Thought: Spice It Up

Monday Author:  Susanne Skinner

“Once you get a spice in your home, you have it forever. Women never throw out spices. The Egyptians were buried with their spices. I know which ones I’m taking with me when I go.”   ~ Erma Bombeck

Let's Spice It Up, Spices, Food for ThoughtSpices transform any meal by adding a wide range of nuance and flavor, from a bit of sweetness to full-blown heat. Although we eat first with our eyes, spices give up enticing aromas that influence how we think and feel about the meal we’re about to eat.

Spices are just dried seeds, roots or flower buds. Herbs come from leaves of plants and used fresh or dried. A chili pepper is dried fruit and the middle eastern spice known as sumac is a dried berry. Choices range from delicate to bold, offering something for everyone’s palette.

Cooking with spices can be intimidating, but a little experimenting broadens your repertoire and rewards you with a delicious flavor journey.

Unlock The Flavor of Food

In my cooking universe spices are front and center for sweet and savory dishes. My husband and I practice healthy eating, and we both agree that healthy eating does not equal bland taste. Fresh food presents a canvas waiting for added flavor and I am not afraid to step outside of my spice comfort zone to find it.

I look for recipes offering complimentary flavor profiles (think basil, oregano and rosemary) as well as those singling out a specific spice, like paprika, for the dominant taste.

Don’t dismiss salt and pepper; these common but often overlooked seasonings are essential to most recipes. Experiment with new varieties and bring added depth to the seasoning table. Consider branching out and discovering the many ways these two seasonings vary the taste of a recipe.

A note to bakers:  Kosher salt is recommended for baking; however different brands have different levels of salinity. I prefer the Diamond Crystal brand for baking because Morton’s is about 1.5 times saltier. Make sure to adjust your recipe, as most quantities are based on Morton’s salt.

Spice Blends

spices, spice blends, hot, salt, pepperIn addition to standalone spices, there are blends that create unique flavor combinations. If you have a favorite store-bought blend, a quick Google search will likely turn up several recipe options. You don’t necessarily save money, but you will taste the difference and know exactly what’s in the jar!  Also, you can scale them to smaller quantities that don’t go to waste.

You can purchase bulk spices in some of the larger grocery chains and they are readily available online. Steer clear of the spice aisle in the store whenever possible, it’s expensive and not necessarily your freshest option.

Grind Your Own Spices

I have a high-quality coffee grinder I found at a thrift store that I use just for spice grinding. It’s the perfect tool to create a single spice powder and for blending several spices together.

It’s important to thoroughly clean it each time it’s used, or your homemade taco seasoning will have back notes of Morocco blend.

Blending your own spices is easy and the finished products yield bright, fresh flavors.  A general rule of thumb for measuring is one part whole spice yields 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 parts ground spice.

Sweet and Savory

Sweet and Savory, spice blends, cooking, bakingFood trends come and go, offering unique (and sometimes bizarre) pairings that capture our attention for a hot minute. I’m thinking of pineapple pizza and maple bacon jam. Even beer gets in on the act by adding everything from citrus peel to chili pepper.

Blending sweet and savory spices is not a new concept, and an adventurous palate can uncover some new and delicious results. The above-mentioned Moroccan spice blend combines cinnamon, allspice, ginger, cayenne and cumin—and it works.  A perfect example of how these sweet and savory spices come together is this delicious Moroccan  Lamb Kefta.

The Outliers: One-of-a-Kind Spices

Ethnic recipes often call for spices we don’t normally have on hand. When I’m making an investment in an unusual or pricey spice, I look for the smallest size available. This can be driven by cost, like Saffron, infrequent use like Sumac, or specific ethnic recipes like Za’atar.

After I make a purchase, I look for recipe options to expand the use of that spice. For example, saffron’s primary use is middle-eastern cooking, but its unique flavor also shines in bread.

A word of caution when purchasing spices:  check the origin and authenticity. True Za’atar is a blend of hyssop, sumac and sesame seed but today most za’atar blends are herbs like oregano, marjoram, and thyme—not real za’atar, This is because the za’atar plant is a protected species, only harvested at certain times of the year to prevent extinction.

Homemade Vanilla

Vanilla beans continue to rise in price, but they’re a level up for bakers who want to make homemade vanilla. It’s worth the investment and let’s be honest, the store-bought brands aren’t cheap or high quality. Make your own to discover what you’re missing.

I make both Tahitian and Madagascar vanilla and my favorite web site for ordering all things vanilla, including the beans, is Beanilla. Buy the best beans you can afford and the cheapest vodka you can find. This recipe gives step-by-step instructions and produces intensely flavored vanilla. I let mine sit for at least four months –two months longer than the recipe recommends.

Online Resources

The taste, smell and texture of quality spices reflect the finished product. If you’re new to cooking with spices this chart offers a good introduction to flavor profiles and uses.

Don’t be intimidated by unfamiliar spices and bold flavors. Start slowly, tasting after each addition to keep the ingredients balanced. Discover unique aromas and taste experiences in each meal you prepare.

Spices, spice blends, sweet, savory, online resourcesMail ordering spices is an excellent purchasing option. These three companies do not disappoint; all of them offer excellent value for money and quality ingredients.

In cooking as in life, spice it up!

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About Aline Kaplan

Aline Kaplan is a published author, a blogger, and a tour guide in Boston. She formerly had a career as a high-tech marketing and communications director. Aline writes and edits The Next Phase Blog, a social commentary blog that appears multiple times a week at aknextphase.com. She has published over 1,000 posts on a variety of subjects, from Boston history to science fiction movies, astronomical events to art museums. Under the name Aline Boucher Kaplan, she has had two science fiction novels (Khyren and World Spirits) published by Baen Books. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies published in the United States, Ireland, and Australia. Aline’s articles have also appeared on the Atlas Obscura website. She has been an active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America since 1988 and is a long-term member of the Spacecrafts science/fantasy writers’ group. As a tour guide, Aline leads architectural and historical walking tours of the city for Boston By Foot, ghost tours for Haunted Boston and historical bus tours of the city. She lectures on Boston history and has appeared in the Boston Globe, as well as on TV for Chronicle, an award-winning television program that broadcasts stories of New England. As a lecturer, Aline has spoken at Brandeis and Tufts universities for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. She has also addressed as service organizations and local meetings. She is a graduate of Northeastern University in Boston and lives in Hudson, MA.

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