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Wednesday, September 29

The Spice of Life!!

When I was younger, I loved watching my grandmother cook.  She had an almost encyclopedic memory for what spices were best with which dish.  I feel very lucky to have learned from her.  Not only on how to use spices and herbs, but how to store them, and more importantly, when to replace them.  Did you know that spices have a shelf life?  Like any other food, you are able to tell by the flavor and color if the spice is old, and should be replaced generally every 6 (at the longest - 12) months. Many of my spices don't last nearly that long, as I use them far before they would get old.  Well, today was spice cleaning day, which means a trip to the grocery store. 

While you might think you're just doing some shopping, when you are on that spice aisle, you're actually gazing at history. Herbs and spices are more than just aromatic, flavorful accents to dishes. They are symbols of economic trade, ancient cultures and political power.  Civilizations traded in spices more than 4,000 years ago. Five hundred years ago in what was known as the Age of Exploration, explorers sailed the seas in the hopes of finding the fastest trade route from Europe to Asia. Europeans had become enchanted with the exotic seasonings from the Far East.

Ah, enough with history.  You're probably asking...which spices are the best to have on hand?  Well, today I will present you with the spices which I feel EVERY kitchen should contain, and why.  I'll say up front, you won't find salt on this list.  Of course, since salt isn't a spice (it's actually a mineral), it really doesn't belong here.  Besides...I SERIOUSLY doubt if anyone doesn't already have that.

Fresh basil is used best for salads and pesto. Dried basil is best used for slow-cooked dishes such as crockery pot dishes, stews, soups, and even casseroles.


Bay leaves are used in soups, tomato and sea food dishes. You know, my grandmother never made a soup without a bay leave in it. Many Indian, Turkish and Italian dishes contain bay leaves as they are aromatic and woodsy. I buy them whole to simmer, but remember, they are not something to digest, so remember to look for them when the dish is finished cooking and remove them. I love that extra flavor a bay leaf gives.

Every good cook requires chili...whether in the form of chili powder, chili pepper flakes or, when in season, chili peppers! Chili adds a real kick to any dish, for many ethnic dishes: Thai, Korean, Mexican/Southwestern dishes of meats, soups, stews cocktail sauces, eggs and seafood dishes. As I am North American, my favorite is a Chili Stew. Crushed red pepper flakes are probably the most popular to use.

Cinnamon is warm and spicy, and used in desserts, pastries, puddings, fruits and spiced beverages. Cinnamon is also popular in Greek, Middle Eastern and Mexican meat dishes, sweet potatoes, carrots and squash/pumpkin. When cinnamon is used in beverages, the whole cinnamon stick is used for mulled wines, and the powdered form is used to top coffee lattes and hot chocolate.

This potent warm, tasty spice is a favorite in North America for pastries, curries, masalas. It is also used in Chinese five-spice blends, in chai teas, and for pickling. Years ago, cloves were thought to be a help in easing the pain in toothaches. I am so fond of the aroma of cloves.

Cumin is a warm, earthy flavor which comes in seed form and ground form. Cumin is a crucial savory spice for Mexican, Indian, Middle Eastern, Indonesian,  North African, and Asian foods. Cumin seeds can be used to infuse rice dishes, and breads, or ground for cheese dishes, devilled eggs, stews, soups and chili, beans and cabbage dishes.

Curry powder is a combination of many sweet and savory spices. True Indian cooks prefer to make their own curry, but the prepared blends in stores have become most popular in North American cooking as we try to create Indian dishes.  Curry powder blends often include coriander, cumin, chili, turmeric, ginger, and mustard, as well as some sweeter spices such as fenugreek, cinnamon, and cloves and cardamom. There are many different varieties.  Curry is used with meats, sauces, stews, soups, fruits, eggs, fish, seafood, poultry, creamed and scalloped dishes. My favorite is curried rice with poultry, but I must admit, I will use curry on almost any dish!

Nutmeg provides complex, sweet vanilla-like undertones to baked goods. Nutmeg compliments almost any dish that uses cinnamon. Nutmeg is sweet, but powerful and used in most baking of loaves, pies, cakes, as well as custards, creamed dishes and white sauce. A Christmas favorite is egg nog flavored with nutmeg. It is also used in fruits, vegetables, ice cream, hot milk drinks and frostings. I love the aroma of nutmeg.


Oregano is a strong and aromatic spice used in both European and Mediterranean cultures. Oregano is a favorite in pasta sauces, pork, veal, fish, vegetables, seafood, tomato dishes, white sauces, ground beef and pork, Greek, Italian and Mexican dishes, chili, pizza, egg dishes and salad. With so much of a variety, one can see how a healthy kitchen cupboard must have oregano.

This flavorful, resinous, pungent herb is used in many European and American dishes. It marries well with many types of meat, such as lamb, poultry (my favorite), game meat, poultry stuffing, potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots and squash, zucchini and quick breads.

Thyme has a balsam-like flavor. It does not have the range as many other herbs and spices, but it still plays an important part in traditional French, Italian and American dishes. I use it with meat, fish and poultry, tomato dishes, stews, clam and fish soups, gravies and vegetables.

There is an entire catalogue of herbs and spices that we could load your cupboards with (I could name at least another 10 or so), but I think that I have given you the basic ones to cook healthy, hearty, and nutritious meals. These are over and above salt and pepper. As time goes on, and you learn more healthy cooking while creating your scrumptious meals, you will add new spices and herbs. Just remember to always make certain your spices and herbs are fresh.  ENJOY!!!


Global Tastes & Travels Inc. said...

You forgot my favorite herb - tarragon

Karen Wingo said...

Global, I'm SOOO sorry about that!! You're absolutely right...tarragon is an excellent herb!! Sounds like I'll be doing another list soon...THANK YOU!!