Perhaps the most important area in the kitchen is your special stash of spices. Spices (along with their special friends, herbs) turn "ingredients" into a "delicious meal." Spices can define where a dish comes from or at least, what cuisine inspired it. They can change a dish from savory to sweet. Spices can turn a type of food you dislike into one you can eat.
One of the few things I remember from junior high history is how popular pepper was in Europe once it was brought back from the east, as illustrated by a learning device called "Newscast from the Past" where a commercial for "Pepper! From the Holy Lands!" demonstrated how a pile of black pepper could make a big maggoty piece of meat palatable. Yum!
If you want to do any sort of cooking at all, it's important that you have at least a minimal spice rack. So here is the scoop on some basic spices you may want to include.
- CARDAMOM: Cardamom is a member of the ginger family that is native to India. The best way to purchase cardamom is in whole pods. The pod contains about 17 to 20 seeds. Cardamom can also be purchased ground. Ground cardamom is more convenient, but whole cardamom is more aromatic and flavorful, since the seeds begin to lose their essential oils as soon as they are ground. The flavor is in the seeds, so before using cardamom pods, you must crush them with a mortar and pestle.
- CAYENNE PEPPER: Cayenne pepper is a hot and spicy powder made from various chiles. Cayenne pepper contains volatile oils, which means it will lose flavor after a few months. Flavor may vary with different brands of the pepper, so unless you know your own cayenne, you may need to start small and adjust the amount you add to a dish upwards gradually, tasting as you go.
- CHILI POWDER: Chili powder is actually a mixture of dried chiles, garlic, oregano, cumin, coriander, and cloves, or some variation thereof. You can find chili powders made only from chiles in ethnic markets, usually identified by the type of chile used (i.e., ancho chile powder). Because chile powder is a blend, it benefits from being "bloomed" first. Cook the powder for a minute or two in a little butter or oil. This is easy if you are sauteing or sweating vegetables--just add the spice to the pan when the veggies are almost ready).
- CINNAMON: Cinnamon is an ancient spice and comes in the form of either Ceylon cinnamon or cassia, which is what you usually find in American markets. Ceylon cinnamon is milder and sweeter than cassia. Cinnamon is actually better bought ground, although it's good to have some sticks around for infusing cinnamon flavor into hot liquids.
- CLOVES: Cloves look like little nails, and their name comes from clavus, the Latin word for "nail." Cloves are actually the dried, unopened flower bud of a tropical evergreen tree. Cloves are very difficult to grind yourself. Believe me ... I once spent the better part of a day trying to grind cloves and cinnamon sticks for these cookies I made once and it SUCKED. So buy ground clove for using in general, although you can keep whole cloves for making spiced liquids or those old-timey orange ball things.
- CORIANDER: Coriander is related to the parsley family. The seeds are what you'll keep in your spice cabinet. The delicious delicious leaves, known as cilantro, are what you'll keep in your veg drawer to put in pretty much everything. If you're me. Coriander seeds don't taste much like cilantro, but they have been in use since ancient times. They are used for pickling, for mulling wine, in baked goods, curry blends, soups and many more. Some say that the leaves are an acquired taste, but I loved them instantly and can still remember when I first tasted them-in a Mexican restaurant, on a lunch break from my summer job in 1993. I wasn't much of a Mexican food person before that, except for quesadillas, but cilantro changed my mind. For the seeds, buy them whole and toast them a little before using. For the leaves, store them in a glass of water, stem down, with a plastic bag over the leaves in the refrigerator for up to a week, changing the water every two days.
- CUMIN: Cumin dates back to Old Testament times. Cumin seeds are the dried fruit of a plant in the parsley family. Cumin is best when purchased whole and toasted and ground before using. It should be stored in a cool, dark place for no more than 6 months (as with most spices).
- CURRY POWDER: Curry powder is ubiquitous in Indian cuisine. Real Indian curry powder is freshly ground each day by the cook and results vary from cook to cook and region to region. There is no standard formula for curry powder and it may contain a blend of a variety of different spices. Most commonly used are cardamom, chiles, cumin, fennel seed, fenugreek, nutmeg and turmeric, which is what makes the powder yellow. Curry powder comes in two general varieties, standard and "Madras," which is hotter. As with chili powder, curry powder should be bloomed. Store curry powder in an airtight container, no longer than two months.
- NUTMEG: Nutmeg comes from the Spice Islands and is the seed of an evergreen tree. It's flavor is warm, spicy and sweet. Nutmeg is sold whole or ground, but it's far better to buy whole nutmegs and grate them as needed. The Microplane zesters and graters are great for this.
- PAPRIKA: Paprika is a powder made by grinding red pepper pods. The flavor can be mild or can be pungent and hot, depending on what type of pepper is used and how much of the white veins are ground with the pepper. Hungarian paprika is generally the best, and I have heard wonderful things about Spanish smoked paprika as well.
- SAFFRON: Then, of course, there is saffron, the hand-harvested stigma of a small purple crocus. This is the world's most expensive spice. Each flower has only three stigmas, which must be carefully picked and then dried. It takes over 14,000 of these stigmas for one ounce of saffron. Luckily, saffron is pretty intense, so you only need a little. In fact, you SHOULD only use a little, as too much will create a metallic flavor. To use saffron, crush the threads with your fingers just before adding them to a dish. Store airtight in a cool dark place for up to 6 months.
- PEPPER: Last, but certainly not least ... pepper! From the holy lands! Once upon a time peppercorns were so precious they were used as currency. Most of the explorers and land discoveries of the 15th century existed because of pepper. Pepper is used around the world and not only imparts a kick to the flavor of your dish, but stimulates gastric juices and aids digestion. Pepper comes in black, green, and white peppercorns. The black is the strongest flavored, picked when the berry is not quite ripe and dried. White pepper is allowed to ripen, then peeled and dried. White pepper is used in light colored sauces or dishes where you do not want the dark flecks of pepper to show up. There's no excuse not to buy whole peppercorns as you can easily find them prepackaged in a pepper mill. They can be stored in a cool dark place for up to a year. Ground pepper will keep its flavor for about 4 months.
-Keith Dresser, "Spices 101," Cook's Illustrated, Nov. & Dec. 2006
-Food Lover's Companion, Third Edition
-Images from Koehler's Medicinal Plants