“He who controls the spice controls the universe.” ― Frank Herbert, Dune

Spices have played a dramatic role in the development of Western civilization. When the spice trade flowed from ancient times, those who controlled that trade truly controlled, “the universe” as it was known at that time.

Spices today are plentiful and are used mostly as flavorings. However, in ancient and medieval times, they were rare and precious products, used for medicine, perfume, incense, and flavoring.

The flavorings and aromas produced when using spices are essential to most, if not all, recipes.  Perhaps the quote from Thomas Keller (Famed restaurateur and owner of, “The French Laundry”) captures the essence of how spices may help a cook bring recipes to life:

“A recipe has no soul. You, as the cook, must bring soul to the recipe.”

If you’re a fan of, “Starbuck’s Chai Tea” consider that its recipe includes, ground cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, ginger and cloves.  Those ground spices mixed with milk, black tea and honey produces this wonderfully aromatic and complex favorite beverage so widely enjoyed.

However, before I discuss spices, I think it’s important to talk about salt for a moment. Is salt a spice? Well…no, actually. Even though it is probably THE most popular SEASONING as it does boost other flavorings during cooking and helps to season when preparing food, such as in brines or in rubs for grilling.

Salt is technically a mineral; basically a “rock we eat”.  It has had an incredible influence throughout history.  For example, Not only did salt serve to flavor and preserve food, it made a good antiseptic, which is why the Roman word for these “edible rocks” is a first cousin to Salus, the goddess of health.  A soldier’s pay—consisting in part of salt—from which the word, “salary” is derived.  A soldier’s salary was cut if he “was not worth his salt,” a phrase that came into being because the Greeks and Romans often bought slaves with salt.

Spices lend fragrance and taste to cooking and they have healthful benefits. Salt may lift other flavors during cooking or food preparation, but salt can also be harmful to the body if not used in moderation as opposed to spices used in cooking, which are generally sparse in usage by comparison.  And, I think we all know salt in some form pervades almost everything we eat today especially in food where we can’t control the sodium such as in frozen and other types of prepared foods and in fast foods.

Specifically, spices are ‘bits of dry seed, bark and root,’ according to Harold McGee, whose authoritative book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen is regarded by chefs as the bible for understanding the science of food as well as the history of many ingredients.

Purchasing whole spices and grinding them yourself is ideal. Whole spices have a longer shelf life than ground spices (which lose their punch after a year) and fresh-ground spices have a superior flavor. If you want to grind your own spices, invest in a small coffee grinder and reserve it for just this purchase.

Pepper IS a spice – probably the world’s most popular spice.  Black pepper is a berry – as are all varieties of pepper (the spice; not the vegetable, just to be clear) and are grown in grapelike clusters on the pepper plant – a climbing vine native to areas in Asia. The black pepper (which when picked, is allowed to dry and shrink until the skin of the berry darkens) is the most flavorful and most commonly used in recipes.

Aside from black pepper found on most, if not all, dinner and restaurant tables, there are other varieties of this spice. A few of these varieties include:

  • White Peppercorns:
    • Black pepper berries are the same used to make white pepper.  The difference is that they are collected at an earlier stage in their development, but they are harvested at a riper stage. Once the skins are taken away, so is the heat that is characteristic of black pepper. White pepper tends to have more a perfume-like quality rather than having any heat quality.
      • Julia Child always preferred, as demonstrated when she cooked in concert with Jacques Pepin in, “Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home”, television series, to use white pepper primarily when preparing white sauces, vichyssoise, etc. It’s still not clear if she used it because she preferred its milder flavor or more simply – when cooking something white, use white pepper; perhaps a bit of both.
  • Green Pepper:
    • Like black pepper, green peppercorns are picked before they ripen. The green peppercorn is the soft, under ripe berry that is usually preserved in a vinegar or brine. It has a fresh flavor that is less pungent than the berry in its other forms.
  • Pink Pepper:
    • These are not true “peppercorns”, but similar tasting berries often called Pink Peppercorns, Peruvian pepper, Baies Rose Plant, or Peppertree that is native to South America.
      • Pink peppercorns have a sweet, fruity fragrance along with a delicate, sweet, and peppery, but not hot flavor. Their flavor is reminiscent of a mild citrus zest and sweet berry mixture.
      • The flavor of pink peppercorns goes especially well in fruit sauces, vinaigrettes, desserts (such as Crepes Suzette), and combined with other fruit flavors. These peppercorns have a rich rose color that adds an elegant appearance to any cuisine.

And just a final note on pink peppercorns, I ran across this recipe for, “Pink Peppercorn Ice Cream – http://www.cookingchanneltv.com/recipes/creme-fraiche-ice-cream-with-pink-peppercorns-and-lemon-thyme-recipe/index.html”.  It sound sounds interesting to me, so if you should make this recipe, please share your feedback.  I may give it a shot myself and FINALLY use my ice cream machine, LOL!

So on to some commonly used spices!

Cinnamon:

Cinnamon has been popular since ancient times. Egyptians imported it from China in 2000 BC. Romans believed Cinnamon was sacred, and Nero burned a year’s supply of the spice at the funeral for his wife. Finding Cinnamon was a primary motive of world exploration in the 15th and 16th centuries.

  • Cinnamon is the dried bark of various laurel trees in the cinnamomun family. One of the more common trees from which Cinnamon is derived is the Cassia. Ground cinnamon is perhaps the most common baking spice. Cinnamon sticks are made from long pieces of bark that are rolled, pressed, and dried.  Cinnamon imparts a warm, spicy character to cakes, cookies, pies and other desserts.  Use this aromatic spice as a topping for hot chocolate, espresso drinks and classic winter beverages such as wassail, hot cider and mulled wine.
    • Aside from the cinnamon derived from Cassia, there is Saigon Cinnamon. This esteemed spice, considered a favorite in a variety of international cuisines, is prized for its sweet, spicy taste and aroma., Considered the finest and most flavorful cinnamon in the world,
      • This premium cinnamon is also a traditional seasoning for many classic Indian, Greek, Mexican, Vietnamese and Middle Eastern favorites, including chicken, seafood and lamb dishes.

Coriander:

Coriander is probably one of the first spices used by mankind, having been known as early as 5000 BC. Sanskrit writings dating from about 1500 BC also spoke of it. The Romans spread it throughout Europe and it was one of the first spices to arrive in America.

  • This light brown round seed is the dried fruit of the herb cilantro.  Some areas of the world refer to cilantro as coriander, so any references to “fresh coriander” or “coriander leaves” are meant as cilantro.  However, the seed is not interchangeable with the herb cilantro, although they are from the same plant. Confusing, right?
  • Coriander possesses a sweet, almost gentle flavor that may bring to mind essences of citrus peel and sage and it pairs well with seafood, lentils, lamb and curries.

Ground coriander mixes well when simmered with milk, honey and cinnamon and serves as a non-alcoholic alternative to a “nightcap” before bedtime.

Allspice:

Christopher Columbus discovered Allspice in the Caribbean. Although he was seeking pepper, he had never actually seen real pepper and he thought Allspice was it. He brought it back to Spain, where it got the name “pimienta,” which is Spanish for pepper and has no relation to the sweet pepper known as pimento which is used in stuffed olives, etc.

  • The name Allspice comes from the fact that the flavor tastes like a combination of nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves. Jamaica provides most of the world’s supply, though allspice is native to the West Indies and South America.  Allspice is a berry roughly the size of a pea.  After drying, the berries are small, dark brown balls just a little larger than peppercorns.
  • The warm sweet flavor of Allspice lends itself to a wide variety of foods. It is commonly used in both savory and sweet foods. Allspice is used in Jamaican jerk seasoning and in Jamaican soups, stews, and curries. It also is used in pickling spice, spiced tea mixes, cakes, cookies, and pies. Food producers use it in ketchup, pickles, and sausages.
  • Cooking Allspice in a bit of butter can further bring its versatile and lively flavor when adding it to various dough and batters.

Cardamom:

As early as the 4th century BC Cardamom was used in India as a medicinal herb. Greeks and Romans imported it as a digestive aid. In Sweden it has become a more popular spice than cinnamon.

Cardamom is a spice native to the Middle East, North Africa, and Scandinavia. Most recipes usually call for green cardamom rather than the black or Madagascar.  It has a strong, unique spicy/sweet taste, which is slightly aromatic.

  • It is best to buy cardamom still in the pods, remove the seeds (save them, however, since they contain a great amount of flavor) and then grind them on your own which will result in a brighter, richer flavor of the spice.
  • Cardamom is more expensive than average spices so a little goes a long way.  Here is a simple conversion – if a recipe calls for 10 pods that would equal 1 ½ tsp ground.
  • A small amount of Cardamom will add a tempting flavor to coffee cake, Danish pastry, specialty breads, and apple pie.  It pairs well with poultry; rice and even just a dash of it in your regular, daily cup of coffee may be a pleasant and unexpected change.

Nutmeg:

This spice was written about by Roman philosophers and mention of it was found in Arabian literature noting its supposed aphrodisiac qualities.  At one time, nutmeg was one of the most valuable spices. It has been said that in England, several hundred years ago, a few nutmeg nuts could be sold for enough money to enable financial independence for life.

  • Stimulating and robust, Nutmeg is the hard, brown seed from a tropical evergreen native to Indonesia, but it is grown in the Caribbean, especially in Grenada.
  • A pantry staple around the world with its warm, sweet, spicy flavor, nutmeg is widely used for baking, complementing everything from cakes, muffins and cookies to custards, fruit pies and other desserts.
  • Ground nutmeg adds piquant nuances to a variety of savory dishes, including béchamel sauce, creamed spinach, quiches and soufflés.
  • Culinary professionals and home cooks agree that the rich, spicy character of nutmeg is brought out best by grinding or grating the whole seed just before using a recipe calling for nutmeg as its main spice.
    • To enjoy whole nutmeg, use a spice grinder or microplane grater just prior to adding the spice to your favorite recipes
    • However, when preparing foods with many different spices, using pre-ground nutmeg will work just as well.

Cumin Seeds:

Another of the world’s oldest and most popular spices, Cumin is native to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and Egypt. Currently it is grown in many places, as it is rather easy to grow and adapts well to many climates.

  • Cumin “seeds” are actually the small dried fruit of a plant related to the parsley family.  This spice is hotter to the taste, lighter in color, and larger than caraway, another spice with which it is often confused.
    • This distinctive seasoning has a bold, spicy flavor with rich overtones.  Its earthy flavor is featured in many Middle Eastern and Latin American foods.

Cumin plays a flavorful role in a wide variety of global seasoning blends, including garam masala, sofrito, adobo and curry powder.

  • To heighten flavor, toast seeds in dry skillet until aromatic; lightly crush before use adding an enticing warmth and complexity to your favorite dishes.

Cloves:

For me, cloves have always brought to mind the fragrances and warm feelings of holiday occasions.  For example, who can’t remember at least once in their life enjoying a holiday ham studded with these nail shaped, dark, small, but potent powerhouses of flavor and aroma?  Or a bowl of mulled wine, cider or even tossed into a bowl of potpourri?

To be honest, although I enjoy the scent of cloves – in moderation – I REALLY do not like the taste imparted by cloves into foods, but that is just me.  Even as a child and to this day, I flicked them off my holiday ham or flinged them from anything mulled that I was drinking as soon as possible!!

However, I draw the line regarding the smell of clove cigarettes (also known as Kreteks) – UGH!  That odor from those kreteks is beyond unpleasant, in my opinion, but I digress…

The name clove derives from the French word “Clou”, meaning nail, a descriptor of its shape. Upon further research, it was interesting to note that as far back as The Han dynasty China from 206 B.C. to A.D. 220, when it was called “tongue spice;” courtiers were required to hold cloves in their mouths when addressing the emperor.

Once again, among the other spices that were mentioned previously, cloves were among those over which wars were fought.  From the eighth century on, cloves became a major player in European commerce. Wars were fought over exclusive rights to the clove trade, including in the 18th century when the French purportedly stole clove-tree seeds from the Dutch in order to break their monopoly on this profitable business.

Cloves have a sweet, penetrating flavor and can be purchased either whole or ground.

They’re used in cuisines around the globe, where cooks rely on cloves’ warm, spicy flavor and aroma to add distinctive character to a wide range of sweet and savory dishes such as in recipes including apples, beets, lamb and tomatoes.

  • Whole cloves are valued for their intense spicy flavor, which adds sweet heat and are often used when preparing ham as they are poked into the skin on the outside of the ham.
    • This gives the ham flavor and is decorative though I have to admit that in today’s creative cuisine culture (unless one has a earning for the “retro”), studding a ham with cloves, canned pineapple rings and maraschino cherries may have run its course, but again – that’s just my thinking.
      • Plus there are SO many ways to prepare either a fresh or pre-cooked ham now, I would encourage readers, both novice and expert, to take a chance and practice some existing ham recipes that include rubs, marinades and glazes.
      • The internet is full of new ideas to explore!!! I say, “Experiment!”. And who has to say that a ham is just for holiday, right? RIGHT!

At this point, I don’t want to lose you with an overload of information. I could keep going on with information and historical background regarding other spices such as Fennel Seed, Ground Ginger, Mustard Seed, Saffron, Star Anise and an endless array of spices that are available.  For questions about those spices, purchasing and best storage methods, I invite you to send your comments and questions of which I will be very happy to answer.

However, I will mention one last spice, a SPICE BLEND, actually, that a beginner home cook may find useful:

Pumpkin Pie Spice:

This spice is a blend of “warm” spices. Typically ingredients are cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice and mace (Mace is the outer covering or husk” of nutmeg).

Give that cocktail recipe a try and please give some feedback even though it’s not my recipe. It may be something fun for any upcoming holiday parties!

Once again, I hope you found this posting to be informative and a bit entertaining. As always, I invite you to follow my blog by looking for the small, black box located at the lower right corner of your screen that says, “Follow”. That will allow you to receive further postings.

And as I always say, I invite your questions, comments, tips and debates that you would like to share. All of your thoughts are most welcome.

Thank you!

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About joewd1967

Everyone always talks about “finding their passion” in life, right? I have always been one of those people. However, I thought that going through a professional culinary program would be expensive and I didn’t relish the idea of graduating with loans to pay while probably starting with a kitchen job peeling potatoes for 10 or more hours a day at minimum wage. So I just stayed in my comfortable, too comfortable, corporate world as a human resources consultant. The work was interesting for a time and the money was excellent, but all the while a part of me needed to do something to satisfy my feelings of, “What if…?”. What if I had gone to culinary school and followed my passion regarding food. And when I say passion, I don’t mean just dining, but learning about where my food comes from; how is it prepared; how to learn about the best tools used by chefs; how do chefs learn to produce fine food over and over with perfect consistency and how to demystify some things (such as sauces and using more exotic ingredients, etc.) so that they might be more readily understood and usable for the home cook? My curiosity list could go on, but I think you get the idea. I came across the America's Test Kitchen Cooking School On-Line Program - http://www.testkitchenschool.com/?Extcode=N2JCBLOG0 – It offered a 2-week free trial and it gave me access to many lessons starting with Cooking Basics, access to instructor and their direct feedback to me and it just goes on from there. So as I explore this on-line culinary journey, I invite you to come along for the ride via my blog and I hope you will find it as enjoyable and as challenging as I will.
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3 Responses to “He who controls the spice controls the universe.” ― Frank Herbert, Dune

  1. Pingback: “He who controls the spice controls the universe.” ― Frank Herbert, Dune | Welcome To My On-Line Cooking School Journey

  2. Pingback: LOTRO: DUNE | tsuhelm

    • joewd1967 says:

      Thank you for taking the time to read my blog and thank you for your reply. However, I must ask because when reading one’s reply, it can be “difficult” to understand it’s tone. Your reply came across to me as sarcastic (“Deep!”). Was that your intent and, if so, may I ask why? Your honest feedback will help a fellow blogger’s future writings to be more poignant and more interesting. Thank you.

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