Spice up your Cooking 101

Have you ever been transported to India by a single bite of shrimp saag or to southern Spain with a nibble of paella?

I have.  Each time I have a life-changing meal, my inner chef fires off the questions.  What’s in this?  Why are the flavors perfect?  How can I replicate this at home?

Over the years I have found that the common thread in my phenomenal meals list is quality spices.

There are more culinary spices than can be listed in a single blog post.  Though commonly used interchangeably, spices are not to be confused with herbs.  Herbs are obtained from the leaves of herbaceous plants, while spices are generally collected from roots, bark, seeds, and flowers of plants.  I will begin with a brief summary of the most common spices and their uses or suggested pairings.


This is probably the most common and recognizable spice.  It is derived from the bark of trees of the  cinnamomum genus.  Cinnamon is a spice that can be used in both sweet and savory foods.  It goes well with vegetables such as eggplant for a middle eastern flair.  Americans however commonly use cinnamon in baking.  Examples include: apple pie, oatmeal raisin cookies, gingerbread.


Ginger is a root originating in south Asia.  It has a strong hot spicy taste, making an interesting addition to many soups, curries, and stir fries.  Western cuisine uses ginger in a variety of sweets including: ginger snaps, ginger bread, ginger ale, and candied ginger.  Pickled ginger often accompanies sushi.  Steeping ginger in water also makes for a great calming stomach tea.


I have posted previously about saffron (saffron quinoa risotto), so I’ll be brief. Saffron is most often used to accompany grains, as in paella or risotto alla milanese.  Saffron is particularly good when added to seafood dishes such as bouillabaisse.


Not plain, not boring, not generic.  Vanilla is a pod grown best in tropical climates.  We tend to use vanilla in desserts and most commonly in ice cream.


Cumin is probably my favorite spice.  In its culinary form, it is the seed of the cuminum cyminum plant native from the east Mediterranean to India.  From Tex-Mex to chicken tikka to the cumin aioli I tried at the farmers market today, cumin is good in all things savory.  Cook it with eggplant for my Moroccan inspired Kahrmus.

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