New Twists on Everyday Spices

As we seek healthier eating habits while dealing with tighter budgets, cooking and eating at home is more attractive than ever. If you’re an at-home cook looking for an easy way to expand your culinary horizons, you might try creating some new taste sensations in familiar dishes by using new versions of your favorite spices to liven up family favorites.

Here are some to consider:

Cinnamon is an especially popular spice that comes from the bark of an evergreen tree. For an even sweeter seasoning, try Vietnamese cinnamon. Compared to the more familiar Indonesian types, Vietnamese cinnamon has a distinctly sweet flavor and exceptionally high volatile oil content, the key flavor component. Gourmet cooks rate it as the highest-quality cinnamon in the world. Try using it in everything from oatmeal and baked goods to desserts, beverages and savory dishes.

If you love heat in your food, you’ve probably learned the ways of cayenne. Cayenne adds color and flavor to Southwestern salsas, Indian chutneys, Thai curries, Mexican enchiladas, Chinese stir-fries, Texan chili con carne, Cajun hot sauce and many other recipes. But for a smokier flavor, try chipotle peppers, which are actually dried, smoked jalapeno peppers. Their smoky-sweet flavor is often used in Southwestern and Mexican dishes. Add a dash to liven up everything from chili to barbequed fare.

Freshly ground black pepper is popular in a wide variety of foods, works well in combination with other herbs and spices and is commonly found in spice blends. To change things up, try using Sichuan (Szechuan) pepper instead of black pepper to add an exotic twist to recipes. Gourmet Sichuan pepper is grown in China and offers an unusual, pungent flavor that begins as warm and lemon-like with woodsy overtones and finishes with a more intense bite. It intensifies the flavor of fish, poultry, cheese, and vegetables.

You’ve probably been using vanilla extract to flavor all kinds of desserts, beverages and other dishes. One way to ramp up the flavor is to switch to vanilla beans instead of using the liquid extract. Simply substitute one vanilla bean for each teaspoon of extract, cooking it with the liquid used in the recipe and then removing it. The most common type of vanilla, Bourbon vanilla beans, are grown in Madagascar and are very aromatic with a full, rich taste. But to bump up the flavor, try Papua New Guinea vanilla beans, cultivated in the lowlands of the Pacific Basin. They have a fruitier taste than that of the Bourbon beans, with some notes of cherry that add a deep, longlasting flavor to ice creams, frosting, and many beverages.

Nutmeg is the dried seed of the fruit of an evergreen, which most often comes in ground form. However, nutmeg, like many spices, loses both flavor and aroma after it’s ground. Instead, buy whole nutmeg and grind it yourself using a special nutmeg grater or a fine grater. Grinding it fresh produces a much more robust and fresher flavor. Warm and sweet, nutmeg adds depth to desserts, cheeses, savory dishes and a variety of vegetables. Don’t forget to sprinkle it on eggnog, mulled wines and punches. Mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes are delicious with a light dusting of nutmeg, too.

With just a few simple substitutions like these, you can go beyond the everyday with your spices and create a whole new meal experience. You’ll be amazed at the difference small changes like these can make — and you’ll have fun bringing new, creative flavors into your cooking.

Don’t forget, it’s easy to try these spices by buying from the bulk section, because you only buy the amount you need.

Here’s an easy recipe that allows you to experiment with some varieties of the spices above.

Pumpkin Parfait

Ingredients:

1/2 cup pumpkin purée
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons milk
2 teaspoons sugar
6 ounces lowfat vanilla yogurt
1/4 cup granola with raisins

Directions:

In a small bowl, stir together pumpkin, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, milk, and sugar. In 2 small bowls or ramekins, layer the pumpkin mixture and yogurt. Sprinkle with granola.

Layer in a parfait glass for a fun visual treat.

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