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Allspice – This spice from the West Indies gets it’s name from the fact that it tastes like cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg with a hint of pepper all rolled into one. Because of it’s varied flavor it fits well in any dish that you want to add a sweet, exotic flavor to. While popular in the Carribean in savory food it hasn’t really taken off in North America for savory dishes until recently. It is readily available in whole berries, which is best or ground and is commonly used in baked goods, pickling mixtures and stews. I also use it added to alfredo, chicken or veal cutlets, chili, asparagus, carrots and French toast.
Anise – These seeds are native to the Middle East and the eastern part of the Mediteranean. They’re a relative to cumin, caraway and dill. And like dill, fennel and star anise it has a licorice type flavor although much milder than those. It’s mainly used is cookies and baked goods or wherever a licorice taste is desired.
Annato – Also called achiote, annato is a small seed from a tree native to South America. Although it has a very slight bitter and peppery flavor, it’s mainly used for adding color to dishes. And though you can buy it whole, I find it’s best to buy it ground as it’s hard as a rock and will eventually break your grinder. It is widely used in Latin American and Carribbean cuisines , but is also a common coloring agent used commercially. Use it in rubs, rice and stews for color.
Clove – These small, dried, unopened flower buds are from a small tree native to Indonesia. They contain an oil called eugenol which is what gives them their unique flavor. They taste and smell like…cloves. Can’t give a better description than that. From India and it’s use as a basic ingredient in garam masala, China in five spice powder, to Europe and North America and it’s use in sweets , baking and ham, this spice truly has a worldwide presence. It’s best to buy whole and ground as needed as it loses it’s flavor quickly once ground.
Coriander – These dried seeds come from the same plant that provides the herb cilantro. It has a sweet fagrance along with the flavors of citrus, pepper and a hint of clove. They are used extensively in the Middle East, India and North Africa to add flavor to meat, vegetables, stews, sausages and curry. In North America and Europe you’ll commonly find them in pickling spices, baked goods and various rubs for meats. It’s best to buy whole seeds and toast them in a dry skillet before grinding to get the best flavor.
Cumin – These dried seeds come from a small plant native to the Egypt. The spice has been used for over 4000 years throughout the Mediteranean, India and China even being found in the tombs of Pharaohs. They are related to parsley, dill, fennel and caraway but have a very unique flavor all their own. It’s been described as hot caraway with a with a slight bitterness, but I can’t imagine what Mexican food and chili would be like without it’s warm flavor. It’s an essential spice to the cuisines of so many cultures such as Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese and India where it’s a basic ingredient in garam masala. Use it to spice up everything from stews and pot roast to barbecue rubs and meatloaf.
Fennel seeds – These are the dried seeds of the fennel plant that although native to the shores of the Mediteranean are now found widely all over the world. They have an a distinct anise-like flavor and smell which is fully released after dry toasting them to release their oil. They’re an essential ingredient in Indian and Kashmiri cooking along with it’s use in Greek and Italian food. What would an Italian sausage be without it? Try toasting them in a skillet before grinding them up and using them to flavor a pork roast for something different.
Nutmeg – This seed comes from an evergreen tree called Myristica, the most sought after variety being Myristica fragrans which is native to the Banda Islands of Indonesia or the Spice Islands as we know them. The tree is now commomly grown in the Carribean, Malaysia and southern India. The fruit from this tree gives us the dried seed called nutmeg but the outer dried reddish covering of the seed also is the source of mace. While both nutmeg and mace have a similar taste and fragrance, mace is much milder but adds a bright orange color to dishes. Nutmeg is common in cookies and baked goods but is also widely used in savory dishes as well such as green beans, brussel sprouts and potatoes. I use it often with veal and chicken cutlets (see Bolognese Chicken Cutlets) and with cream sauces. It adds a sweet undertone and really enhances certain cheese sauces.