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Spices

The history of spices goes back as far as the history of civilization, and maybe then some. Trade wars, territorial battles, fortunes made and lost, all have characterized the spice trade over the centuries.

Originally, spices were important to cover up the flavor of spoilage, since before refrigeration and fast transportation it was very hard to keep food fresh. I guess it shows that even when you have to gag it down, it might not kill you. But we would rather use spices other reasons.

Spices come from the tropics, and are made from various parts of plants: seeds, flower buds, flowers, bark, roots, and fruits and berries. The flavors might be sweet or peppery, and the intensity will depend on the freshness of the spice. Many cooks appreciate the bold flavor of fresh spices, and grind their own from the whole berries or leaves, using mortar and pestle or spice grinders. Most of us, however, use ground spices as they come in little cans and bottles.

Some can substitute for each other, like cinnamon and nutmeg. You decide which you like better, or you can alternate for variety. The amounts in recipes are only guidelines, and you need to realize that you can vary the spices and the amounts to make yourself happy. When you find what you like for a particular recipe, write it down.

Here's a list, which is not complete yet, but will give you an idea of which spices are useful for what kinds of uses. If your budget is limited, as I explain in the Pantry page, just add to your collection from time to time. They are usually pretty inexpensive.

Allspice

    Contrary to what some people think, allspice is not a mixture of a bunch of spices. It is made from the fruit of a tropical tree that belongs to the myrtle family. The flavor, however, does seem like a mixture of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. It is very good used in dishes that cook a long time, like stews. It's also used in baking; no pumpkin pie should be made without it.

Annatto (Achiote)

    These bright red seeds are from a shrub that grows world-wide in warm climates. It is used both as a dye and as a spice. It is used in Mexican and Spanish (achiote), French (roucou), Italian (annatto), Phillipine (achuete), Agrentine (urucu), Indian (latkhan, sendri) and Caribbean (bija, foucou). The Mayan Indians used it a war paint. It's used as a food coloring agent in butter, cheeses, rice, and cooked dishes, like Cooking Dude's Chicken Loco. It has a warm peppery flavor with a little hint of nutmeg. For most cooking applications, the seeds need to be ground up into a powder.

Cardamom

    Cardamom is made from the seeds of a plant native to India. It is an important part of curry powder. However, it is in wide use throughout the world. Scandinavians use it in baking, and in meatballs and cabbage rolls. Arabs serve cardamom seeds to put in their coffee. If you want to experiment with it, add a little to sweet potatoes. It is sometimes also combined with almonds for flavoring pound cake. It's also good in gingerbread and in spicy pickles.

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Cinnamon

    This is the bark of an evergreen tree, which has loose bark like a birch. You can either buy it in the form of little bark rolls, or, as more common, ground into a powder. A variety of cinnamon called cassia is usually what we actually buy, because it is stronger in color and flavor than cinnamon. Cinnamon goes well with chocolate, so adding a pinch is usually a good idea. I fondly remember cinnamon toast as a kid; Mom would sprinkle a little sugar and cinnamon on buttered toast for a real breakfast treat. It's also good on applesauce, or sprinkled on a glass of warm milk before bed.

Cloves

    Cloves are the dried flower buds of an evergreen tree. Ground cloves doesn't retain flavor very well, so the buds themselves are generally used. If you need ground cloves, grind them with a mortar and pestle or an electric spice grinder. Putting cloves in a baked ham is probably the most common use, but there are many others. Some people like ground cloves sprinkled in ice tea or cold cranberry juice. Cloves are also good with baked apples and boiled onions. Sweet potatoes and squash are improved with a pinch of cloves.

Coriander

    These are the seeds of the cilantro plant. It is one of the flavorings (in addition to juniper berries) in gin. It is also one of the ingredients in curry powder. Coriander is used to flavor soups and stews, particularly goose and pork. You will also use it if you make homemade sausage.

Curry Powder

    There are many recipes for curry powder, and in India, housewives and cooks frequently make their own from a favorite family recipe, and sprinkle some on almost all foods. If you want to make curry powder, start with this recipe and then modify it to your taste:

    3 tablespoons black peppercorns
    4 tablespoons coriander seeds
    2 tablespoons caraway seeds
    1 tablespoon cumin seeds
    1 tablespoon whole cloves
    2 tablespoons cardamom seeds
    1 tablespoon cinnamon
    1/4 teaspoon ground hot chile pepper

Mix the ingredients and grind in a mortar and pestle or an electric grinder or blender.

Try some curry powder sprinkled on boiled cabbage and potatoes. In addition to these ingredients, you might like to add some grated gingerroot, ground turmeric, and some crushed garlic.

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Ginger

    Ginger is the root of a plant native to China, and is one of the most important spices used in Chinese food. Pieces of the root are peeled and dried, and then grated as needed in recipes. In some markets, particularly oriental markets, you can buy fresh gingerroot, and peel it and grate it yourself. It is much more pungent and flavorful this way. Since you don't use very much at a time, you should consider freezing it. Then as you need some, you can cut off a piece, peel it and grate it without even waiting for it to thaw. In addition to Chinese recipes, you use ginger in gingerbread. When the recipe calls for one or two teaspoons of ground ginger, you can use 1 teaspoon of fresh grated gingerroot to replace it. Ginger is also good on buttered carrots and with white sauce served with fish.

Mace

    Mace is the covering of the kernel that holds the nutmeg seed. It naturally has a nutmeg flavor, and can be substituted for nutmeg if necessary.

Nutmeg

    Nutmeg is the dried seed from the fruit of an evergreen tree. It adds flavor to bland foods like custard, milk, eggnog, and tapioca. In France, chefs use it with fresh spinach. Because freshly-ground nutmeg is so much better, nutmeg grinders that hold five or six seeds are common now in cooking supply stores.

Pepper

    Here we are referring to the seed of a tropical vine, not the vegetable family that includes bell peppers and chile peppers. This is one of the oldest and most important spices, with a history that goes back more than 5,000 years. Both black and white pepper come from the same vine, the difference being the time spent on the vine before harvesting and drying. You can buy pepper in whole berries, or peppercorns, which you use either whole in recipes or in your pepper mill. You can also buy fine ground and coarse ground pepper. Cooking removes some of its flavor, so you normally add pepper later in the cooking schedule. White pepper is not quite as potent as black pepper, and you can use it where you don't want the pepper to show too much, as in mashed potatoes. In general, although it adds its own flavor to some extent, its main function is to bring out and enhance other flavors in the dish.

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Saffron

    Saffron is made from the dried stigmas of a crocus flower. It is the most expensive spice, and you'll notice that the saffron bottle in the spice section of the market usually has the saffron threads in a little paper envelope inside the bottle. But you also use it sparingly; a very small pinch will flavor and color a dish of rice, for example. It is mainly used in rice and seafood dishes, such as Spanish paella and French bouillabaisse.

Sesame

    These are the seeds from a tropical herb. They are used in baking, and are often found sprinkled on top of hamburger buns. They are also very good toasted in the skillet and sprinkled on salads and baked potatoes. Oil made from the seeds is important in oriental cooking, and a lighter version is used in the Middle East.

Turmeric

    Turmeric comes from the rootstalk of a plant related to ginger. The stalk is dried and ground into a powder. It's been used for centuries as a dye, and to add color to mustard and pickles. It is also an important ingredient in curry powder. Turmeric can be used in recipes to replace saffron for color, but the taste will be different. A little turmeric mixed with flour before roasting or barbequing chicken will give it a beautiful golden color and a pleasant taste.

Vanilla

    Vanilla comes from an orchid native to Mexico. It's fragrant blossom only lasts a day, and then comes a cluster of long green pods containing the vanilla beans. Cortez brought it to Europe from Mexico, and everyone started drinking hot chocolate flavored with vanilla. We mostly buy the extract in bottles, but the beans in the pod are also frequently available. Vanilla is one of the most popular flavorings in the world, and is used by most home bakers and cooks as well.

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