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12 Spices You Need to Know About

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Use a new spice and you open a new door to flavor. It's easy to let spices sit around for months (or heck, years) without being used, but there's a lot of culinary awesomeness being overlooked when you do.

What follows is part one of a whirlwind tour of the spice cabinet, with an eye toward getting some of the wallflowers back out onto the gastronomic dance floor. (Note: here I'm using "spices" as a general term to mean "flavor-enhancing botanicals," so the net has been cast a bit wide.)

Allspice -- Not a spice blend as you'd think; it's the dried unripe fruit of a plant called Pimenta dioica. It was named Allspice by the English in the 17th Century -- they thought it tasted like a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Try it in a Tom & Jerry on a cold winter night.

Bay Leaf -- Sharp and pungent, bay leaves lend depth to dishes like soups and stews. They can scratch the digestive tract or cause choking, however, and therefore should be removed after they've imparted their flavor but before a dish is eaten!

Black Cumin -- Great for crafting your own liquors or lending depth to baked goods such as naan or sweet rolls.

Caraway -- Sometimes called Persian cumin, caraway seeds are famous as the spice that gives rye bread its distinctive flavor, but they're also terrific when added to liqueurs, cheeses, and curries.

Cardamom -- The pods of cardamom are among the most versatile of all spices -- they can be used to enhance the taste of both sweet and savory dishes, and can be made into cardamom oil. It comes in two main varieties, green and black.

Chili Powder -- A blend of the ground, dried fruits of chili peppers and other spices (plus salt), chili powder is one of the backbones of global cooking, and varies pretty wildly in terms of flavor and intensity. Your garden-variety supermarket cayenne is a good starting point, but to kick things up another notch or two, check out some more exotic chili blends at your local Asian or Indian supermarket. It gives chili at least some of its distinctive kick and depth.

Cinnamon -- While there are several varieties of cinnamon (including cinnamomum verum, or "true” cinnamon), they all make a profound contribution to breakfast baked goods from coast to coast. North African cooking shows us the true range of cinnamon's powers, but it's also excellent in savory dishes, particularly with chicken or lamb.

Cloves -- An extremely strong spice sometimes associated with Christmas, cloves are also the base of what Americans call "chai" or "chai tea," a deeply spiced tea that's often served as a latte. If you've only ever had chai from a mix, try making it from scratch -- it's delicious.

Dill -- A perfect accompaniment to fish (as the Scandinavians have discovered), dill weed has been cultivated since the late Stone Age. The fresh plants are often used to flavor salmon and soups; the dried seeds are an herb that taste somewhat like caraway.

Fennel -- The bulb, greens, and seeds of the fennel plant are all used in cooking, where they provide a mild anise-like flavor. In Pakistan and India, roasted fennel seeds are eaten as an after meal breath freshener. In Lebanon, it’s used to make a special kind of omelet called ijjeh. It's also a key ingredient in Italian sausages.

Galangal -- Thai curries, tom yum, and tom kha gai soups wouldn't taste right without galangal root, which has an earthy and citrus-like flavor to it. It's great when used alongside ginger, but lacks the same heat.

Grains of Paradise -- Another spice (like allspice) that sounds like a blend but isn't, the Grains of Paradise plant is a species of the ginger family; its seeds are ground up to provide the spice's characteristic earthy kick. These days, the Grains are relatively rare, but often turn up in beers.

Next week: 12 more spices.
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