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The spice of life: Making bold choices in the kitchen

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There is a running joke in pop culture about the average American (outside of certain immigrant and minority communities) not knowing how to properly to utilize spices and seasonings. Take an app like TikTok – there are pages and pages of videos with Black and Hispanic moms, grandmothers and aunts reacting to cooking videos.

Maybe you were lucky. Maybe you grew up in a house where good cooking and knowing your way around the kitchen and the spice cabinet was a priority. Perhaps you learned perched on your mom’s kitchen counter or straining on tiptoes on a stool by Grandma’s stovetop.

I was expected and taught to take part in the cooking process – I was around a busy kitchen since I was in diapers. Both grandmothers have since been limited by age and arthritis, but they used to cook frequently. My maternal grandmother: large after-church potlucks when all the families still lived local to her home in rural Tennessee. My paternal grandmother: laying out delicious meals whenever we would come to visit.

With a bad hip, my maternal grandmother doesn’t make it around the kitchen well anymore. My other grandma still cooks some around the holidays – she has magic touch that can’t be beat.

My mother is a wonderful cook as well. She was teaching us to cook for ourselves as soon as we were old enough to safely navigate a hot stove. I knew how to make simple things like scrambled eggs in elementary school and picked up more as the years progressed. With the nature of our busy life on the farm, as I progressed into high school, I began to help create family meals, specifically around dinner time.

I was fascinated with the spice rack early on and my family would routinely rib me about my creations. I used the “a little bit of this, a little bit of that” measurement system. All of the great chefs don’t measure, right? The results varied from edible to pretty good to downright awful. The saying is “There are no mistakes, just lessons learned.”

But maybe you didn’t have someone to expose you to those aspects of cooking as you were growing up. Maybe most of your adult cooking adventures thus far have leaned toward the frozen section and takeout and you want to teach yourself the basics of cooking. Anyone can follow a basic recipe – but what can you do for a little extra pizzazz?

(Fun fact: Herbs are the fresh part of the plant; spices are the dried roots, stalks, seeds or fruits of the plant and are almost always dried, not fresh.)

What’s the 411 on the spice situation? Here are some basics you should have in your kitchen.

Note: The content below is adapted from mccormick.com. Consult their website for their exhaustive line of herbs and spices and find the perfect additions for your kitchen.

  • Allspice

Allspice’s flavor evokes a blend of nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon. You can use it in place of any of those spices, and then some. Don’t let its name (or its flavor) fool you: Allspice is not a blend of other spices and comes from the pea-sized berry of an evergreen tree native to the Caribbean and Central America. You can use allspice in a variety of recipes that are sweet or savory, such as cookies, pumpkin pie, spice cake, spicing for sausage and glazes for ham. It’s a key flavor in Jamaican jerk seasoning.

  • Apple Pie Spice

A blend of cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice, apple pie spice is perfect for apple pie as well as oatmeal, French toast, sweet potatoes, fruit salad and mulled cider.

  • Basil – Sweet and fragrant basil complements tomato-based dishes including pizza, pasta and marinara sauce. It also pairs well with vegetables, chicken, pork or seafood.
  • Bay Leaves

Bay leaves add robust flavor all kinds of meat and vegetable dishes, soups and sauces.

  • Cayenne

Cayenne adds a vibrant flavor and fiery spice to any dish. Use it to add a little bit of a kick to soups, chili, salsas and much more.

  • Chili Powder

A necessary component of any Mexican, Tex-Mex or Southwestern dish, it can also be included in meat rubs and marinades.

  • Cinnamon (Ground & Stick)

Cinnamon is a very versatile spice and brings deep, warm sweetness to so many dishes from cookies, pies and coffee to sweet potatoes and spice rubs.

  • Cloves

Cloves are the dried flower buds of a tropical evergreen tree. Some uses for cloves are to stud ham, onions, glazed pork or beef and fruit peels for garnish; to add to pot roast, marinades, poached fish or soups; and in pickling and making pomander balls around the holidays.

Live a little – spice it up!
  • Cumin

Vegetarians love how cumin enriches the taste of vegetable and soups (it’s a great addition to chili). It stands up well to grilled and roasted meat. It’s also an excellent foil for mild, sweet vegetables like pumpkin and butternut squash. Add a dash before roasting vegetables, or stir it into a creamy soup.

  • Curry Powder

A beautiful golden color, curry is used in a variety of different recipes, but it’s most often used in things like curries, pilafs, vegetables, deviled eggs and chicken or lamb dishes.

  • Dill

Dill comes from the dried feathery leaves of a plant in the parsley family, from which we also get dill seed. The herb brings sweet, bright flavor to poultry, fish, potatoes and cheeses.

  • Ground Ginger

Ginger was one of the first spices brought from Asia to the Western world by the spice caravans. Thanks to its warm, spicy flavor, ginger lends itself to both sweet and savory dishes.

  • Ground Nutmeg

Nutmeg adds a distinctive sweet-spicy flavor to a variety of sweet and savory dishes. Around the holidays, you might add it to holiday cookies or spice cakes (or maybe a dash in a cup of eggnog). You’ll find ground nutmeg flavoring sausages, slow-cooked meat and tomato sauces, winter squash and sweet potato dishes and creamed vegetables. You can even shake it onto your next bowl of macaroni and cheese.

  • Onion Powder

Onion powder adds a savory richness to just about any dish, from soups and sauces to vegetables, chicken and hamburgers.

  • Oregano

Oregano is a delicious addition to any tomato dish, eggs, chicken, fish and pork, cooked vegetables, vinaigrettes and more. Consider it a go-to herb for a dash of real Mediterranean flavor.

  • Paprika

Use this versatile spice to add sweet pepper flavor and vivid red color to pretty much any dish. Try it on deviled eggs, pasta salads, goulash and more.

  • Black Peppercorns

Ground black pepper adds an earthy kick and sharp aroma when blended into soups and stews, sprinkled on omelets or rubbed on meat to season it before cooking. Buy yourself a grinder and you’ll never go back.

  • Red Pepper Flakes

Crushed red pepper (also known as red pepper flakes) adds fiery fresh heat and a zesty flavor boost to any dish. It’s the perfect companion to pizza, eggs, pasta sauce, tacos, stews, casseroles, soups and much more.

  • Rosemary

Fragrant with a distinctive piney smell, rosemary is a great companion to lamb, pork and chicken. It’s a frequent component in marinades, barbecue and pasta sauces – and can be added to cooked vegetables like eggplant or zucchini or tomatoes for a unique taste.

  • Saffron

Its vibrant signature hue adds a celebratory quality to everything it touches. While uses are varied, it adds a fragrant, nuanced sweetness to both savory dishes and desserts.

Did you know all of that? I didn’t.

Hopefully this sparked some creative ideas. You know that big family dinner or potluck you have coming up? What culinary adventures can you embark on?

Let’s stretch out of our comfort zone. Let’s cook something bold.

For some additional reading, check out the articles below:

https://www.masterclass.com/articles/a-list-of-the-27-essential-cooking-spices-you-need-to-know

https://www.bonappetit.com/uncategorized/article/must-have-spices-for-your-kitchen

by Andrew Haman

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