Just imagine how bland our food would be today without the addition of some cooking spice in one form or another. It would be rather difficult to find many recipes that do not contain one or two spices, if not more. Pepper, for example, is a spice most people use every day without giving it a second thought. Without them, there would be no curries, chilli con carne or vanilla ice cream, to name but a few.
Spices are found in many ways, such as seeds, pods, leaves, pieces of bark, roots, berries, etc. You can readily find most of the more common spices in local shops and supermarkets. Most can be bought already ground for use into a powder form in small jars. If you do buy fresh, then only buy a small amount at a time as their freshness does not last long. These smaller shops are well worth popping into if only to smell the aromas.
Do use your spices in moderation. Like salt, you can always add but cannot take away. A cooking spice should be used to subtly enhance the flavour of a dish, rather than leaving an overpowering inedible taste in your mouth.
This is a well-loved spice from India, greatly used to flavour rice.
Fresh chillies are not just used to give the heat in curries, but are found in many dishes throughout the world. If when preparing your fresh chillies you add the seeds, this will give you extra heat in your recipe. Be careful. Always wash your hands well with hot soapy water after handling chillies and avoid touching your eyes. If you have any spare, try flavouring some of your olive oil.
You will find cinnamon sold in small sticks or in a ready-ground form. It is a spice much used in cooking, from flavouring ice cream to vegetables. You may find cinnamon in mulled wine.
A small stud-like spice used to flavour many dishes. Try pressing a few cloves into an onion (clouté) and add to the milk when you next make a white sauce.
These are often found in a ready-ground powder. An important spice in many curries.
Cumin is mostly found in a ready-ground powder and is a spice found in many dishes around the world. It is another important player in curries.
Lime leaves help to add flavour to Oriental dishes. Always remove them from the dish before serving. They are very nice crushed and added to Thai fish cakes, for example.
Maybe not so widely used, mace is rather bitter in taste. I think mace is the covering from around the nutmeg. A touch of mace can be used to flavour some vegetables, such as carrots, for a change.
There are so many types of mustard we can buy. It is greatly used in salad dressings, along with many other dishes. Dijon mustard is great in cooking. Mustard can be bought ready made or in a powder form. You can also buy mustard seeds, which can be used in certain curries or in pickling.
You can buy whole nutmegs, which you can easily grate yourself when required, or you can buy ready-ground nutmeg. It is not that widely used. A touch of freshly ground nutmeg is great in a nice creamed potato for a change or with runner beans. It is great to flavour milk puddings or in fruit cakes, but use it sparingly as it is quite a powerful taste and a little goes a long way.
Paprika is an ideal spice for stew-type dishes. Where would goulash be without paprika? It is great for use as a garnish — a little dusting to finish a dish. Also, you can buy a smoked paprika usually from Spain. It is more reddish in colour and hotter than standard paprika.
Peppercorns are sometimes used whole or crushed to coat meat such as steak or lamb. Many of us use it everyday from pepper mills on our foods.
This may be very expensive to buy, but a little goes a long way. It is the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus and it takes thousands of flowers to make a few grains of saffron. Always on the look out for any bargains where saffron is concerned. It has a lovely delicate flavour and a light yellow colour. Saffron will make your risotto a little bit special.
Star of anise
A slight flavour of liquorice, you will find this spice in five-spice powder. Star of anise is a nice spice to add to a bouquet garni when making some stocks.
Sold in its ground form, turmeric is a rather bitter spice used mainly for its yellow colour rather than its flavour. It is found widely in curries.
Vanilla is sold in long thin pods or as small bottles of essence. Fresh vanilla pods give a wonderful flavour to many desserts and custards. It is quite expensive to buy, so do not waste them. When you have used the pods, wash and dry them well in a very low-heated oven for about an hour or so. Then they can be used to make vanilla sugar or cut into very fine strips and used as a garnish on desserts.