Definition of Spices
Spices are bark, buds, seeds, flowers, or fruit of trees and plants used to flavor food and drinks. (Herbs, as you may recall from last week’s post, are leaves of plants that die back to the ground each year.) They can be used whole or ground, alone or in combination with other spices and with herbs.
Some flavorings that are commonly believed to be spices are actually combinations – curry for example. Curry is actually generic term for combinations of various spices used in Southeast Asian cooking and there is no single “recipe” for what constitutes curry. In fact, as one of my favorite spice experts, Monica Bhide, points out, the curry mixtures used in India vary by region and it’s easy to create your own curry at home.
My Favorite Spices
For me, cinnamon is the ultimate comfort spice - a reminder of cookies baking and hot cider with cinnamon sticks cooking on the stove. I love all the delicious ways you can pair it with nutmeg, cloves, and brown sugar. Also my dad used to bring pieces of cinnamon bark home from his spice-grinding business, which I found wondrous. Have you tried Mexican hot chocolate infused with cinnamon? Simply divine.
You may think that I picked this spice because of its name, but that’s not the case. I love cumin because it is versatile and a staple in 3 of the ethnic cuisines, I love best: Middle Eastern, Mexican and Indian. If you roast cumin seeds for a few minutes in a dry pan, stirring them frequently, then crush them in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder, you’ll get an aroma that will send you straight to spice heaven, which you already know if you've tried the whole roasted cauliflower or the roasted cauliflower and cumin dip recipes. The picture right after the spice name includes (from left to right) cumin commercially curshed to a powder, cumin seed, and roasted seeds crushed in my mortar and pestle.
I chose fennel because the seeds are a secret ingredient in my favorite Italian tomato sauces. If you haven’t tried it, when your sauce is simmering on the stove, add just a few fennel seeds. (Don’t add more than a few or your sauce will taste vaguely of licorice.) I also love the vegetable that fennel comes from and serve it raw for a snack or appetizer, baked with cheese sauce, and braised with a bit of wine.
I chose ginger because it is both a cooking and baking spice. Paired with garlic, ginger is common in Chinese cooking. (Yes, I know that Chinese cooking varies by region.) With the Wok Wednesdays group, using Grace Young’s Stir Frying to the Sky’s Edge, I’m learning how to properly use it in stir-fry and getting lots of practice slicing and chopping the root. For baking, I much prefer fresh ginger to powdered, but I do recognize that good powdered ginger has its place, especially for gingersnaps. I’m also a huge fan of candied or crystallized ginger, which I use in baking and eat all by itself. The sugar that is created in the process is also great for tea. I make the candied/crystallized ginger with David Lebovitz’s easy recipe.
It’s so common that some might overlook it. But where would most of our favorite savory dishes be without freshly ground pepper? Peppercorns and a decent peppermill are a necessity for me. By coincidence, it turns out that this month, Monica is featuring pepper as her spice of the month. I wish that Sichuan peppercorns were really pepper, so I could include them in this category, but they aren’t. (They are actually seeds from a different plant.) In any event, there are plenty of different types and colors of “real” peppercorns and they provide a spicy “base” for most of my savory dishes.
What spices do you love? I’ve got plenty others in my spice drawer and I’ll highlight some others as I cook my way through the year.