A quick guide to the spices of life
US west coast editor Elyse Glickman learns that when it comes to how we eat and cook, having a variety of spices within reach makes life better. While spices make food more expressive and exciting, we’re becoming increasingly aware that some of them add an extra punch of nutritional value, immune boosting and digestive improvement—all important things to consider when sheltering in place during the pandemic as well as future cold and ’flu seasons
Although it is always fun to get home cooking tips from experts (chefs, restaurateurs or specialty food entrepreneurs, etc.) and, by extension, their mothers and grandmothers, we should learn to get to know them beyond the wonderful flavours they add to a recipe. And by this, they also mean how to shop for them, store them and use them correctly.
‘When shopping for spices, look for companies like Spiceology, which grinds them in small batches and ships them direct,’ says chef Tony Reed, who traded high-profile executive chef roles at trendy Spokane, Wa. eateries Nudo Ramen and Gordy’s Schezuan for the post of director of food service at Spiceology, whose products are also available to home cooks via the website. Whether one cooks for two or two hundred, there are some basic rules of thumb to follow to ensure quality, consistency and perfect results every time.
Reed recommends shopping ‘around the aisles,’ not in them, when sourcing healthy ingredients for a given recipe, adding fresh ingredients are often the most nutritious option. Those avoiding in-person shopping in favour of Instacart or another grocery delivery service can get the same quality of produce and ingredients by choosing items and amounts based on the number of people in the household and what happens to be in stock. Although over-buying is never a good idea, you can research a variety of ways to preserving and stretching the use of your ingredients during the time of shortages.
‘Spices start to lose their health qualities and flavour the minute they are ground,’ Reed cautions. ‘Case and point, our ground cumin is a rich golden brown colour. If you put it next to other companies’ cumin, you’ll see the difference immediately with some of them others looking almost white! Once you get your spices in hand, make sure to store them in a dark, cooler area of your kitchen to maintain the quality.’
Stephanie Harris-Uyidi, creator of the US international travel-adventure-cooking TV series, The Posh Pescatarian: Appetite for Adventure! on the Z Living Network, knows spices can be a real lifesaver in the kitchen. While her professional mission is to share the benefits a plant-based diet supplemented with fish through her show, books and website, she knows well-selected and cared-for spices add extra excitement when it’s needed most.
‘Everyday meals can get a little boring unless we make a deliberate attempt to spice things up,’ affirms Harris-Uyidi. ‘As a good music soundtrack can help make things interesting, a savoury spice blend can make any dish more interesting and exotic dish. What I love about my version of the Turkish Baharat spice blend and the Spice House’s garlic and herb Mediterranean spice blend is that it allows my family and guests to experience the flavours of the Mediterranean anywhere. As I prescribe a Mediterranean style of cooking, these spices are essential pantry staples. I also find that cooking with internationally inspired spice blends gets the conversation started about current events, places that we’d like to visit or just how good home cooking can be.’
Harris-Uyidi also stresses that the flavourful garlic and herb mix is also salt free, making it easier for home cooks to use less sodium and still get a tasty result, whose benefits include lower blood pressure and reduced bloating after the meal. The Spice House’s blend also includes lemon juice, a source of vitamin C. Her Turkish Baharat spice blend, meanwhile, blends cumin (a rich source of iron), mint (with eye health-enhancing vitamin A) and antioxidant-rich oregano.
Sandy Wolner, a registered dietician nutritionist who serves as The Pampered Chef’s food and trend innovator, says spices and spice inspire creativity as you may be grappling with making the most of what you have at home between occasional supermarket visits or shortages of certain foods. She believes the line’s Garlic & Herb Rub, Tex-Mex Rub and Three Onion Rub are essential pantry staples.
‘The Garlic & Herb Rub, a fragrant blend of garlic, basil and rosemary, is flavourful without being overwhelming and perfect if you don’t have fresh garlic on hand,’ she says. ‘It is great for seasoning proteins, but also delicious on vegetables, popcorn, garlic bread, eggs, pasta, potatoes and in salad dressings. The Tex-Mex, which is not typical taco seasoning, blends cumin, cinnamon and chili pepper, with the cinnamon adding extra depth and spice to the blend. While it’s the perfect shortcut to making flavour-packed tacos, burrito bowls and fajitas, it’s great for soups, rice, veggies and dips with Mediterranean influences. For example, you can spice up sour cream or Greek yoghurt to create a dip or sauce with little effort and lots of flair.’
The Three Onion Rub, meanwhile, is a good go-to when you don’t have fresh onions on hand, according to Wolner, noting any recipe’s flavour profile becomes more complex and sophisticated thanks to the rub’s various types of onions. Even with a pantry staple like this which revs up dips, chicken, steaks, hamburgers and vegetables, one needs to be mindful to the blend’s shelf life and storage requirements. Wolner recommends home cooks invest in a ‘herb keeper’, especially when fresh-picked herbs will produce a better result than the dried spice rack variety. ‘Built with a stable water reservoir, slotted basket and slim design, this container lets you keep your favourite herbs fresh for longer,’ she says. ‘The removable insert lets you store two types of herbs at once so that your homemade meals stay unique and flavourful.’
‘One of the secrets to keeping spices fresh is to buy them from markets that have a high spice turnover, which means that they are most likely carrying fresh stock,’ adds Harris-Uyidi. ‘[I also suggest buying] whole spices in small quantities, as this allows you to keep spices for three to six months with success.’ •
The cook’s medicine cabinet
Reed and fellow Spiceology affiliated chefs Matt Brousard and Sally Roeckell are no strangers to spices’ multi-tasking history as healing ingredients and flavour agents. Although they stress that dried and fresh forms of many spices deliver health benefits (including some that will increase resistance or mitigate symptoms of colds, ’flus and other viruses), how you cook with them has as much of an impact on those benefits as how you store them. For example, if you fry or grill food with spices in the mix it decreases the antioxidants slightly. On the other hand, simmering or stewing foods with spices actually heightens the antioxidant levels of spices—and therefore, immunity and the body’s ability to fight off any relevant symptoms.
Turmeric: fights inflammation
Cayenne pepper: eases pain, reduces appetite and may have anti-cancer properties
Ginger: can treat nausea and has anti-inflammatory properties
Garlic: boosts heart health
Paprika: may promote vision health, reduce inflammation, improve cholesterol, lower blood sugar, have anti-cancer effects
Cumin: promotes digestion and may help with diabetes, improve blood cholesterol, promote weight loss and fat reduction, and fight inflammation
Coriander: rich in immune-boosting antioxidants and may help lower blood sugar, benefit heart health, protect brain health, promote digestion and gut health, fight infections and protect your skin