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Spice up Your Spice Cabinet

Posted Mar 19 2012 9:59am
03.19.12

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If you’ve ever even glanced at a healthy cooking or women’s health and fitness magazine, you know that one of the best ways to maximize flavor without adding fat is to boost your use of fresh herbs and spices. Talk of the green and herbacious will have to wait until warmer weather helps Contrary Mary’s garden grow, but spices can be addressed all year round. At least since the spice trade ships from India many moons ago started to take advantage of the discovery that the world is round, too.

You’ve most likely obtained some semblence of a spice collection. I would imagine this features the dynamic duo of salt and black pepper, and perhaps also crushed red pepper flakes (can’t eat pizza without ‘em), chili powder, Italian seasoning, cinnamon, cumin and a random 4 oz. container of cream of tartar let over from the time you tried to make snickerdoodles.

But there are some spices and spice blends you might be passing up in favor of the tried, true, and – dare I say it? – ordinary. Today I urge you to look beyond the lemon pepper, move past Montreal Steak, and let Mrs. Dash spend some much-needed quality time with her forgotton Mister. Next time you find yourself near a spice shop, on penzeys.com , or in a bulk spice department at your local natural food store, make sure to pick up these six spices and spice blends you should be using, but probably aren’t.

1. Apple Pie Spice: If you read my blog, you know I have a slight obsession with this sweetly inclined (but not limited) spice blend that I’ve seen come in a few variations, but at its most basic is composed of cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice. It is a bit more difficult to find than Pumpkin Pie Spice, but also more versatile. Not only can you stir it into your morning oatmeal along with a spoonful or two of applesauce and chopped apples, it tastes fabulous sprinkled on oven-roasted cranberries and grapes, and is an intriguing addition to sauteed greens. I make my own version of Apple Pie Spice with added ground cloves to make Apple Pie Granola .

2. Allspice: True to its name, allspice is a spice for all seasons. And occasions. And recipes. Also known as Jamaican pepper, it generally finds its way into sweet baked concoctions. But, much like the cinnamon and nutmeg it blends so well with in the Apple Pie Spice I just told you to buy, allspice can be so much more than sweet. It also adds a subtle bite and aroma to chilis, Moroccan dishes and curries.

3. Ras El Hanout: Meaning “head of the shop,” this Algerian spice blend traditional is composed of the best spices that the shop has to offer. There is no set recipe although I am incredibly partial to this one from Cooking Light, featuring coriander and saffron-and therefore it is very difficult to find sold pre-packaged. But if you can find it, buy it immediately. Or, take your apple pie spice and the cumin you’ve got in your cabinet already, stir in some black pepper and call it a day. Ras el hanout can be used as a rub for meat, to season Morrocan tagines  or African curries, or added to the water in which you cook your rice or couscous.

4. Sumac: A dark, reddish powder popular in Middle Eastern cuisine, sumac has a lemony flavor that adds brightness to meat dishes (especially lamb or chicken), but also roasted potatoes, steamed broccoli or green beans, and olive-oil-infused hummus. It is also a critical ingredient in another spice blend you should not be with it –let’s call it number 4.5, shall we? – za’atar. Za’atar is usually a combination of herbs (oregano, thyme, marjoram), sesame seeds, and, of course, sumac. It’s used in a number of Middle Eastern dishes, but an old co-worker swore it was best mixed with olive oil and spread onto warm pita bread.

5. Smoked Paprika: There are a number of types of paprika, ranging in sweetness and heat, depending on the peppers from which it was ground. My personal favorite is the (traditionally Spanish) smoked version, made from peppers that have been smoked on oak. If you are cutting back on meat, smoked paprika can lend the smokey flavor (without the heat of chipotle) to chilis or rich, tomato-based stews that you might be missing.

6. Chai Spice: OK, I admit, this one is a little unfair, because I’ve only been able to find one “chai spice” on the market, and that was mixed with vanilla and sugar, clearly intended to be utilized as a way of making instant chai tea. And, while I’ve seen recipes that use chai tea bags to infuse broths or liquid ingredients, the chai spice I’m talking about is one of my own creation. I take out the black pepper, which can be a little bit harsh on the palate, but utilize all the other traditional chai spices to create a custom blend that I’ve used to spice everything from yogurt to granola to nut butter . The Chai-Spiced Sponge Cake I made for the Royal Wedding last year was probably one of my favorite baking success stories … ever. And just last Christmas, I created Coconut Chai Doughball cookies that were beyond good. To make your own version, you’ll need cinnmon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, coriander and cardamom, which, by the way, is another spice you should be using. Obviously you’ll have to stay tuned for six more twists on your spice cabinet.

Sarah Pember is an elementary school teacher known in the healthy living blog world (or at least by a handful of people) as Miss Smart. She blogs from The Smart Kitchen , where she spends an absurd amount of time using her food processor, eating nut butter from the jar and searching through her unlabeled, disorganized and overpopulated spice cabinet for something as simple as salt.

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