Apple pie needs cinnamon and nutmeg.
Spaghetti sauce needs oregano and basil. Curry needs, um, curry
powder. Perhaps the cheapest and easiest way to turn an OK meal
into a memorable dish is by using spices. A dash here and a pinch
there will go a long way.

Amita Madan

While at first spices may seem a little pricey — four or
five dollars for a jar of powder — a little bottle will last
for a long time and will flavor up innumerable meals. Properly
stored away from light and moisture, good spices can last a year or
two. All ethnic dishes have their favorite spices. Here are a few
basics:

Asian spices

I cook a lot of stir-fries and rice dishes. Perhaps the most
valuable spice is ginger. Found in both fresh root form and dried
and ground powder, ginger adds a nice kick to any meal, rounding
out the taste with a distinct fresh flavor.

While I prefer grating the fresh root, it is hard to beat the
powder for convenience. Add about one teaspoon or more to a
stir-fry along with some soy sauce and a little water.

Along with ginger, another valuable Asian spice is the
licorice-like flavor of star anise. Used like a bay leaf, star
anise should be cooked in the sauce, but then removed before
eating. Alternatively, you could use fennel seed, which has
basically the same flavor.

Coconut milk is not a spice, but worth mentioning. A can of
coconut milk added to a stir-fry adds a nice creaminess to the
sauce and keeps things from getting too dry.

Italian seasonings

Italian spices often come not from the intensely flavored seeds
of plants, but rather dried leaves. Basil, oregano, parsley, sage,
rosemary and thyme are all from dried leaves. Unfortunately, when
drying, the leaves often lose a lot of their distinctive flavor.
Preferably, I use the fresh leaves if I really want to make a great
meal. But in a pinch the dried stuff is invaluable.

Rosemary and potatoes blend perfectly, either in mashed potatoes
or with sautéed small redskin potatoes cut in half. When
using a pre-made tomato sauce like Ragu or something, feel free to
make it a little more distinctive by first adding some
sautéed garlic and then adding oregano and basil. It’s
remarkably hard to overdose with these relatively mild spices. For
a good general taste improvement, at the very least invest in a jar
of premixed “Italian seasoning” that includes most of
the spices mentioned above.

Mexican spices

Really there is only one and everyone should have it: chipotle
pepper powder.

Made from dried and smoked jalapeno peppers, chipotle pepper
powder adds a deep smoky, warmly spicy addition to any Mexican
dish. It’s a little hard to find, but if you like tacos and
such, you need this spice. I add a generous tablespoon or two to a
can of refried beans, heat it and use it as a base for tacos,
fajitas and quesadillas. If using hamburger meat, add it just the
same.

Not just a hallucinogen

I’ve been told that when consumed in great quantity,
nutmeg is mildly hallucinogenic. While I’ve yet to test this,
I do know that nutmeg is an under-utilized spice. Sure it has a
place in pies and desserts. But it can also be a wonderful addition
to savory dinners. Try sautéing some onions and walnuts.
Once they are cooked, add a bunch of spinach, wilt it in the pan
and melt in a bit of good white cheese. Add some milk if it is too
thick and add a teaspoon or more of nutmeg. It makes a nice
flavorful side dish to accompany a starchy wholesome main dish like
pasta.

Cumin

It sounds like a dirty word, but cumin can be your best friend.
An indescribable taste, cumin is a valuable addition to Middle
Eastern and Indian fare. It can be used alone without accompaniment
from other spices. Try it with sautéed eggplant cubes or
rice and beans. Sprinkled over sautéed broccoli, it gives
off a wonderful aroma.

These are just a few of the thousands of spices that can
complete a dish. I don’t advocate going out and buying a full
spice rack tomorrow. Instead, find one or two spices you want to
try and slowly build a spice collection.

Typically, I try to buy one new spice every other time I go
seriously food shopping, so about once a month I have a new spice.
The expense is minimal and, within a short time, you’ll have
the basics.

Spices can be intimidating. Too much can spoil a meal. But
spices are also much more forgiving than people realize. A little
experimentation goes a long way. Cooking is a lifelong learning
process and the lessons are pretty easy to remember. If you use too
much spice once, you are unlikely to ever overuse that spice again.
With that in mind, go out and use spices to your heart’s
content. But don’t overdo it on the nutmeg.

— If you would like to hear more about the
hallucinogenic properties of common household goods, contact Jess
at
“mailto:jpiskor@umich.edu”>jpiskor@umich.edu.

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