When we say we want to “spice it up,” whether that’s our career, our marriage or our food, it means that we want to make it better, more interesting, more exciting.
Spice is a big draw of Indian food, a cuisine in which spices are used in a manner that can only be described as astounding. The food culture in India may be the one that has mastered the marriage of food and spice more than any other. With a mind-boggling range used in traditional Indian cooking, and the utilization of rarely seen types like asafetida, charoli and nigella, it feels like an adventure to eat, because it is. Excellent food — whether we’re talking from regions as wide-ranging as India, Ecuador or the United States — is accomplished with the confident, deft use of spices.
While spices are an important element of great cooking throughout the year, there’s something about this time of year when our attention turns more fully to them. From mulling spices simmering on the stove on a snowy Saturday to a line-up for preparing the Thanksgiving feast, they make a world of sensory difference.
Many local craft brewers also use a variety of spices in their seasonals and special releases. Left Hand Brewing Head Brewer Ro Guenzel, for example, used serrano, chipotle and ancho peppers in the brewery’s pepper porter, Fade to Black Volume 3, first released in 2011 and re-released this year. Like many other pumpkin ales, Left Hand’s 4 Foodies Pumpkin Beer used no less than six spices — Cassia cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, galangal root, Jamaican allspice and cubeb berries — to achieve its complex flavor. There is no question spices make our food and craft beers better, more interesting and more exciting.
Savory and sweet spices like sage, rosemary, cinnamon, clove, star anise and nutmeg come out in their full glory in classic holiday dishes like turkey, mashed potatoes, roasted vegetables and pies of all kinds. A sprinkling of sage — fresh or dried — on mashed potatoes and this star side elevates. Create a dry rub of sage and rosemary or mix it with high quality olive oil for a marinade, and the turkey will shine. Literally, with olive oil.
When asked about spices in general, Dan Hayward, owner of Boulder’s Savory Spice Shop, says he’s always interested in their history — and how they’ve been shaped by history.
“The history surrounding the spice trade is quite fascinating and complex, especially when considering how certain spices have been adopted into various cultures,” he says. “For example, allspice berries were discovered in Jamaica by Christopher Columbus, brought to Europe and then traded with Arab spice merchants. You will find this spice used in many Middle Eastern dishes.”
Spices have been used for everything from medicine to magic. They enjoy a long and storied history, once considered to be some of the most valuable items available for trade — a fact spice traders both scrupulously and unscrupulously took full advantage of. Spices we take for granted now — like cinnamon and black pepper — were luxury items available to only the wealthiest. Cinnamon originating from Sri Lanka and black pepper from India are considered the first to appear on the spice scene in 2000 B.C. — literally ancient history. They held significant value at that time — value as great as gold or silk. Spices like clove and nutmeg, both from Indonesia, followed. Latecomers include spices such as allspice and vanilla. And by late, we’re talking the late 1400s and early 1500s. Just this year, archaeologists discovered the use of spices in Europe from as far back as 6,100 years ago after finding residue, in silica, of the garlic mustard plant on pottery fragments in Germany and Denmark.
The wealth of entire cities like Venice can be traced back to the spice trade, due to its location on routes between Europe and Asia. When entertaining, the wealthy would pile spices high on huge entry tables and sideboards as a show of wealth. The humble nutmeg sparked a war that helped England win Long Island. Even today, spices hold attraction and intrigue culturally — witness the New York Southeast Asian restaurant named Spice Market. The conical piles of spices found at markets from Istanbul to Marrakech are tourist attractions in and of themselves. So many gorgeous colors. So many enchanting smells. So many possibilities.
On the practical side, Hayward says it’s important for spices to stay as fresh as possible.
“Spices have a shelf life,” he says. “Ground spices are at their peak from six to nine months. Whole seeds and spices can last for years. Also, spices should be kept cool, dry, dark and sealed.”
When asked what three spices people should have in their kitchen, if they could only have three, Hayward says, “A good multi-purposed salt like Himalayan Pink Sea Salt (high in minerals), a high-quality peppercorn like Tellicherry peppercorns from India (well-rounded flavor, mellow) and a good herb blend like our Herbes de Provence.”
Just think of all the time and trouble explorers like Vasco da Gama, Columbus and Hernán Cortés had to go to in order to get their hands on spices. How lucky we are now, to just drive, walk or bike downtown, and have our pick of spices from all over the world. Both Savory Spice Shop, an outpost of the Denver-based company, and Penzey’s, with headquarters in Wisconsin, have shops filled to overflowing, just waiting for our own explorations.
Chili Seasoningby Christine Vazquez
cup chili powder
1/2 cup cumin
1 T black pepper
3 T paprika [if you can find bourbon-smoked, all the better]
2 T garlic salt
1 T onion powder
1 t red pepper flakes [can do up to a tablespoon of these, depending on how spicy you like things]
1 T parsley
This makes enough for a few meals, plus a 1/2 pint Ball jar to store. I call it chili seasoning, but it’s great in other things, like guacamole and hummus. You could also use it as a dry rub for white meats — chicken, pork, turkey.
Christine Vazquez is a food, copy and all kinds of other writing writer, most known for her work on her Hungry blog, www.hungryinboulder.wordpress.com.