If the appearance of spices were to reflect their real importance in the history of the world, the bottles of spices would be filled with brilliant sparkling substances such as diamonds, rubies, emeralds and gold. When you open each bottle, a whiff of vibrantly colored, mystically fragrant, magical smoke would slowly billow softly throughout the room. Spices have been the inspiration for trade, exploration, war, and poetry since the beginning of civilization. That ground pepper you shake on your salad was once worth its weight in gold; the nutmeg you grate onto holiday eggnog once fueled a war that gained Long Island for England.
Spices have been important to mankind since the beginning of history. Throughout many periods of history, spices have claimed attention for their mystical properties, either through ingesting or smoking. What mankind has done throughout time to creatively enhance or elevate the perception of his existence is a fascinating subject.
Also, let’s face it, they’re magical. A sprinkle, a pinch, a dab, a dash: a tiny bit can whisk a plate of food from one country to another, one cuisine to the next. And luckily, spices from all over the world are accessible to home cooks willing to venture to the grocery store, or to one of many great spice purveyors online. One of my favorites is: http://www.penzeys.com/ They have EVERYTHING!!
Believe me it took a lot of restraint to whittle my list of favorite spices down to ten. Here are my 10 Essential Spices, plus some of my favorite ways to use them.
1: Cumin: Cumin, which can be used ground or as whole seeds, adds a warm, earthy quality. It’s popular in Indian, Pakistani, Middle Eastern, Cuban, Brazilian, and Northern African cooking, as well as the Chinese cuisines. If using the seeds, which last longer and have a stronger aroma than ground cumin, toast them gently in a dry pan or in the oven to enhance their flavor. Toast the seeds and add them to curries, chilis, stews, and soups; rub onto root vegetables and/or cauliflower with olive oil, salt and pepper, and roast; use in a spice rub with salt and pepper for roasted chicken; add to guacamole, hummus, or another creamy dip. Toss into a stir fry with ground meat and vegetables; season soft-scrambled eggs.
2: Cayenne Pepper: Cayenne peppers are generally dried, ground, and sifted to make the spice known by the same name. The hotness produced by cayenne pepper is caused by its high concentration of capsaicin, which is believed to have many health benefits–detoxing being one of them. It adds a smooth, enveloping heat to any dish, and it is typically the key ingredient in many hot sauces. Use a pinch in hummus and guacamole to add a flash of heat; work into Shrimp Gumbo; toss with roasted vegetables, olive oil, salt, and pepper; sprinkle into salads and salad dressings; carefully work into sauces, soups, chilis, and stews.
3: Red Pepper Flakes: Crushed red pepper flakes are made from various combinations of dried hot chilis, such as ancho, bell, and cayenne. They add a bass level of textured heat to any dish. While many associate crushed red pepper flakes with Italian food, they are also used in Chinese, Cajun, Carribbean, and most cuisines in Latin and South America. Since different blends vary on their level of intensity, make sure to pay attention to the amount you add to a dish. Sprinkle the flakes onto pizza and pasta dishes; toss with roasted vegetables; add to a tomato-based sauce; brighten up a piece of fish or a plate of shrimp; sprinkle onto toast with avocado, salt, pepper, and lemon juice; add to sautéed greens.
4: Smoked Paprika: Smoked paprika, also known as pimenton, is made in Spain from smoked, ground pimiento peppers. It comes in a variety of intensities and flavors: dulce (sweet and mild), agridulce (bittersweet and medium-hot), and picante (hot). Pimenton is a building block of Spanish cuisine, and lends a smoky, earthy quality to meats, fish, and vegetables. Rub onto roasted potatoes and other roasted vegetables with salt, pepper, and olive oil; sprinkle onto fried potatoes; add to condiments like salsa, aioli, vinaigrettes, and romesco sauce; mix with olive oil and marinate feta cheese; combine with salt and pepper to season meats and fish before roasting or grilling; sprinkle onto poached, fried, or deviled eggs. It’s also great rubbed onto grilled corn.
5: Coriander: Coriander seeds are the seeds of what US English-speakers refer to as cilantro. When crushed, they have the similar citrusy, slightly-spicy flavor of their leafy counterparts. Like cumin, you can find coriander in both seed form and ground form; however, since ground coriander loses its flavor quickly, it is best to buy whole seeds and grind them fresh. To enhance their flavor and aroma, you can toast the seeds in a dry pan or oven before use. Work coriander seeds into curries, stews, and soups; toss with roasted vegetables, salt, pepper, and olive oil; use in rice dishes, add to pickling brine; use as an alternative to caraway in rye bread; make sausages with it, as they do in Germany and South Africa; brew into Belgian-style wheat beers; crack with black pepper and use to coat chicken breasts.
6: Ginger: Ground ginger, the ground, dried root of the ginger bulb, adds a citrusy, floral, earthy zing to dishes. It is used most often in baked goods, along with other earthy, aromatic spices like cinnamon and cloves. Fresh ginger, which is sharper than ground ginger and used more often in savory dishes, can be substituted for ground ginger at a ratio of 6:1. Use ground ginger in ginger cookies; add to pies, cakes, and tarts; or use in a savory spice blend for curries, chilis, and soups.
7: Cardamom: Cardamom, a pod-shaped spice, comes in black and green varieties. While both have a floral, resinous smell and taste, black cardamom is smokier and has a coolness similar to mint. Both types of cardamom are used in sweet and savory cooking, especially in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Use it to perfume drinks such as Chai and hot chocolate; toss whole pods into rice as it cooks; grind and use in baked goods, such as cakes, coffee cakes, muffins, and shortbread; make cardamom Doughnuts; use in a syrup to poach fruit; add to a brine for preserving lemons.
8: Cinnamon: Yes, essential for baking, but not limited to! It is an indispensable companion to apples and pears. It is also magic in savory dishes as well, such as meats, tagines, soups, stews and sauces.
9: Chili Powder: Same as curry powder, a convenient blend that replaces many individual jars on the spice rack. Don’t confuse this with ground chile peppers; chili powder usually contains chile peppers plus cumin, coriander, oregano, and many other spices.
10: Curry Powder: Is actually a blend, a convenience food that comes in sweet or hot varieties. Because curry powder can contain more than a dozen spices, the pre-mixed powder available at the grocery store saves lots of space on the spice rack. If you can, buy from a local Indian market; if not, buy the Madras powder that comes in a tin, in the spice section of every supermarket.