This tour of herbs and spices concludes a whirlwind spice cabinet tour that commenced last week.
Horseradish — Once grated, the damaged plant cells of the horseradish root emits enzymes that give this plant its deliciously bitter heat—it's terrific with soup, fish, or beef, among many other pairings. Fun fact: about 85 percent of the world's horseradish is grown in southwestern Illinois.
Lavender — This soft-spoken and gorgeous plant is possibly best known for its use as a flavoring for crème brûlée, a mild dessert which can take on and show off the lavender plant's gentle floral flavor. It's a great flavor accent for both honey (created when bees feed off of its plentiful nectar) and sugar.
Lemongrass — Appearing liberally in curries and soups (particularly those from Thailand), lemongrass has a fresh, strong, bracing citrus-like flavor.
Mace — Made from the red, waxy coverings of nutmeg seeds, ground mace has a delicate nutmeg-like flavor that works well with cookies and cakes, and in cream sauces. In some countries, it's made into jam or candy.
Marjoram — Pine and citrus are the dominant notes of this perennial herb, which is a type of oregano. It's a natural complement to lamb, beef, and veal; it's even great with game hens.
Mint — It comes in numerous varieties, grows like a weed, and is one of the most awesome weapons in the gourmet's arsenal. Mint's best known for its use in teas and other beverages (think "juleps"), but it's terrific with savory dishes, and makes a potently powerful jelly.
Nutmeg — A great spice to grind fresh by planing whole nutmegs on a microplaner -- this yields a spice with a lot more kick than the pre-packaged stuff, and is perfect for topping eggnog.
Paprika — Dried bell and/or chili peppers can be ground and smoked to create paprika, a spice most associated with Eastern Europe in general (and Hungary, specifically -- it's found in goulash, among other specialties. It's usually available in mild, spicy, and extra spicy varieties -- the latter of which are known to be pretty merciless.
Pepper — Also known as black pepper, this is the world's most-traded spice. While beyond common and highly affordable today, the outrageous price of pepper in the Middle Ages is one of the factors that lead the Portuguese to seek a sea route to India. It's best when ground fresh from whole peppercorns.
Sesame — Probably best known in North America as a bagel topping, sesame adds a wonderful sense of texture and mild, nutty flavor to foods as diverse as salads, kebabs, and Japanese noodles. Sesame seeds can also be formed into candy by using honey as a binder.
Star Anise — Although unrelated to the spice anise, star anise shares a chemical compound with its namesake that gives it its trademark flavor. It pops up in Eastern food as varied as pho and chai, and enhances the flavor of meat.
Turmeric — Related to ginger, the rhizomes known as turmeric turn into a spice that's earthy and a bit mustard-like. Its mild flavor and bold color make it a great choice to impart a deep yellow color into food, and it's an integral part of North African cuisine such as tagines.