The Art Begins Here

Spice is Lively…

Growing up in the middle of Ohio and surrounded by farmland, the only spices I was aware of were salt and pepper. The salt was simple and it came in one flavor – iodized.  It had a cute little girl with an umbrella on the package. Cute indeed. Fancy, indeed not.

With a local apple orchard nearby, we loved to make apple pie.  So cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves pretty much rounded out our spice collection.  We didn’t need today’s spice drawer organizers. Everything fit on one little shelf.

We didn’t need fancy. While the food was good, it had one purpose, which was to feed the family. There was no art in it. Spices would have been expensive, which was out of the question, and we really didn’t know how to use them anyway.

But times have changed. I left the small town and most of its cooking style behind. Table salt and pepper will no longer do. Flakey sea salt and freshly ground Tellicherry peppercorns are a must.  I can’t cook without those two staples. Simmering the color out of the green vegetables seems criminal now. My eyes want color and my tastebuds want complex flavors.  So it is important to have fresh quality ingredients, including spices, on hand.

Today, there is a new crop of spice boutiques popping up around the country. With their help, spices are even fresher and more fragrant and more colorful than those found in the grocery store. Their selections are almost overwhelming. Cinnamon is no longer just cinnamon. Now you need to choose between Ceylon, Chinese, Vietnamese, or Indonesian Cassia Cinnamon.

But wherever you find your spices, don’t let them age and fade from neglect in your spice drawer.  Pull them out and play with your food.  Create your own palette of color.  Sprinkle them on raw meats before grilling or add them while sautéing onions for instant color and flavor.  Start with these:

  • Turmeric – sweetly fragrant; turns sauces a sunny yellow (add a teaspoon while sautéing onions); used in many eastern dishes
  • Paprika – hot/bitter or sweet versions lend a hearty flavor and rich sienna color; popular in Hungarian dishes
  • Saffron – the stems are red but add a yellow/orange color to sauces (crumble a few stems into broth for instant color and flavor); used for bouillabaisse and paella
  • Curry – an intoxicating fragrance; turns sauces golden yellow and adds intense flavor; common in Indian cuisine
  • Flakey sea salt – we used Maldon Sea Salt at Le Cordon Bleu and in all of the hotels I’ve worked in, but it has become trendy and pricey.  I have found cheaper alternative brands for flakey sea salt that are just as tasty.  I can’t cook without it.
  • Tellicherry whole peppercorns – fresh and hot; invest in a grinder for freshly ground pepper as it makes a world of difference; try toasting the peppercorns in a dry pan and then grinding.  You’ll be amazed.

Store your spices in a cool dark place to keep their color bright and their fragrance strong.  Most books tell you they are good for 6 months.  I think it’s impractical to replace your spices that often, so store them properly to get the most out of them.

Try these recipes:

Habañero and Yellow Pepper Soup with Sweet Lime Cream

Vibrant Chard and Chorizo Soup

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