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The Spices of Life, Continued

by John Raven, Ph. B.

Last month we got up to speed on salt and black and white pepper, and we hit cinnamon a lick or two. We will continue with the Christmas spices.

Allspice is not a mixture of spices, but a reddish, tropical berry that is dried and ground. It's very useful, and it tastes like a mixture of all the Christmas spices. If you can't afford cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, etc., just pick up some allspice. Goes will with tomato-based sauces in addition to holiday sweets.

During the holidays, nutmeg is often found on top of a cup of eggnog. Nutmeg and its sister spice, mace, come from the seed of a tropical fruit. The seed is dried. The outer covering of the seed is mace; the inner kernel is the nutmeg. Mace is rather delicate, but nutmeg is very strong. Just a little goes a long way. The Germans use nutmeg in various meat products. It's one of those either-you-like-it-or-you-don't deals. I prefer my nutmeg in the fruitcake.

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Cloves are the dried buds of a tropical (notice that most of the spices are of tropical origin) evergreen tree. The buds are hand harvested and dried, which makes them rather expensive. Cloves have a warm, sweet taste. A very individual taste. Whole cloves are a must for the holiday ham and sweet pickles. Ground cloves can give a sweet barbecue sauce a very individual taste. Holiday sweets use cloves in most recipes. There used to be a clove-flavored chewing gum on the market. Was really different but good.

Ginger is rootstock. Used fresh, it is found in most all Oriental cooking. Dried and ground, it can fit in to most any recipe. Ginger is probably the most used spice after salt. After all, ten million Chinese can't be wrong. Ginger is what makes gingerbread taste like gingerbread. It also fits into many sauces and condiments.

Mustard is the dried seed of the mustard plant -- another ancient spice used in most cultures. Mustard comes in three colors, white, brown and black. The darker the seed, the stronger the taste. Our yellow salad mustard is from the white seed. By itself, mustard has very little taste or aroma, but when it's mixed with liquids it comes alive with flavor. It goes well in most barbecue sauces.

Celery seed comes from wild celery. Used whole or powdered, it adds a pungent taste to dishes. Use too much, and it becomes bitter. Goes in your holiday stuffing, and I find it very good in potato salad. Another good addition to most barbecue sauces. Just don't overdo it.

Bay leaf is the leaves of the bay or laurel tree. Any good stew or soup will benefit from a bay leaf. It also comes ground. As with celery seed, a little goes a long way.

Sage is a member of the mint family. There are dozens of varieties. It's usually used dried in robust meat dishes. It's very pungent and, like celery seed, can become bitter when over applied. Sage is an essential ingredient of breakfast sausage and poultry cookery.

Thyme is also a member of the mint family. Used fresh or dried, it marries well with other seasonings. It's considered essential by some folks in seasoning poultry.

Rosemary is an evergreen plant, the needle-like leaves of which are used for seasonings. Fresh or dried rosemary goes along with sage and thyme to spark up meat dishes. It's very pungent. Rosemary is used in many pork recipes.

Oregano is yet another member of the mint family. You have your choice of Mexican or European oregano. The Mexican variety is the stronger of the two. You just can't cook Italian without oregano. It is also a prime seasoning of chili. Chef Paul Kirk warns us that oregano becomes bitter with cooking, so you add it near the end of the cooking cycle.

Cumin and comino are one and the same, cumin being the term for ground seeds of the comino plant. Comino was introduced in the United States in the 1700's by the Canary Islanders who were settled at San Antonio. It is the signature flavor of chili, and is what makes the delicious aroma. The comino seeds can be used whole, but are more attractive when ground. To really get the whole flavor of cumin, toast the comino seeds for a few minutes in a heavy skillet, and then grind them to powder before adding to your chili. Cumin is found in most Mexican and or southwestern recipes.

We could devote a whole article to chili powder, but for this time we will just give the essentials. Chili powder is the ground, dried fruit of the chile plant. The variety found most often is the ancho. The ancho grows about the size of a bell pepper, but is pointed on the end. Its color will range from bright red to nearly black. It has a mild but pungent flavor. That is, it won't scorch your mouth. The chili powder you see on the shelves is actually a chili blend. Along with the ancho, it contains garlic, cumin, oregano and salt. Pure chili powder is now available at most southwestern markets. It is just that -- pure chili powder. The best is New Mexico Red, a bright red, mild powder. It is very useful for composing your own chili blend.

Cayenne is what you get when you buy Red Pepper. Dried and ground into a fine, red powder, cayenne can set your taste buds on fire. It has what the chili professionals call "after bite". That is, you don't feel the heat for a couple of minutes and then -- Wow! Used in proper proportions, cayenne adds zip to any meat, soup, stew or what have you.

If you want a really hot addition to your spice rack, look for some chile pequín powder. The chile pequín is the tiny red pepper that grows wild in the Southwest. It has a fine flavor, if you can get to it through the heat.

In wrapping this up, I'd just like to say that we have barely begun to explore the possibilities of spice. One of the secrets of the professional chili cooks a few years ago was the double grinding of spices. Someone reasoned that the smaller the spice particle was, the easier it gave up its flavor. So the chili chefs would mix their spices and then run them through a spice grinder a couple of times to get the finest grains possible. It works.

There is also the technique for obtaining a cumin booster for chili. Comino seeds are roasted and then boiled in distilled water to release their essential oils. The liquid, after being strained, is put in the icebox, and when the essential oils collect on the top, they are skimmed off and added to the chili just before turn-in time.

When cooking just remember that "spices are the variety of life."

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