The spicy details Knowing how to choose, use and keep spices will enhance your culinary life.

January 14, 1998|By Dallas Morning News

Salt and pepper were once so easy to comprehend.

But salt's gone uptown, and forget plain black peppercorns; now there's a rainbow to grind: green, white, pink.

It's the same story across the spice shelf, as cooks venture beyond a tidy row of tins chosen to fit a rack.

But how to get beyond the basics? There are, after all, dozens of spices, herbs and other flavorings out there.

With that in mind, we've assembled a guide to some misunderstood flavoring gems. We also list sources that specialize in spices, plus how to store your finds.

Grind fresh, when appropriate, for best flavor. And be willing to go boldly where you've never gone before, to create flavors that are uniquely yours.

Ginger

Use fresh ginger in cooked main dishes, such as fish; dried ginger for pickling; and ginger powder for baked goodies. Crystallized (or candied) ginger comes coated in sugar and keeps indefinitely. Pickled ginger turns pink and spicy; no sushi tray would be caught dead without it. Store fresh ginger in the freezer.

Nutmeg and mace

Popular for sauces and desserts, nutmeg and mace taste similar and here's why: They're two parts of the same plant. Mace is a membrane that surrounds the whole nutmeg. It's so difficult to grate that it's usually sold ground. Nutmeg comes either way. Ground nutmeg is the easy route, but gourmets buy nutmeg whole and grate as needed.

Fennel seed

Small, greenish-brown seeds come from "common fennel," one of two fennel types, and are used to flavor cookies, Italian sausages, roasts and liqueurs. Florence fennel, the other type, is a celery-like plant with leathery foliage and a bulbous base that's eaten as a vegetable, sauteed or raw in salads.

Peppercorns

A peppercorn is a little berry; the color is determined by how it's picked and handled. Black, the most common, has been fermented and dried. White has had the black husk removed; it's the choice for cooks who want to keep the color of mashed potatoes or cream gravy pure. Dried green peppercorns have a subtle flavor. Pink, which come from a different plant, are used more for color than their mild flavor. Fresh green peppercorns are rare.

Cinnamon and cassia

When you buy cinnamon at the supermarket, you may well be getting cassia. Both come from the inner bark of tropical evergreen trees, have similar flavor and are used interchangeably. But aficionados insist that cassia -- darker, stronger, less expensive -- is inferior to true cinnamon. Sold as ground powder or as bark.

Paprika

Ground from red pepper pods, paprika ranges from mild to hot, and from bright orange to deep red -- and is a natural with chicken. Most supermarket paprika is mild. Look for Hungarian paprika, a deeper red and considered to be superior. Hot paprika, available at ethnic markets, can be very hot.

Curry powder

"Curry" is not a spice at all, but rather an Indian dish of meats and sometimes vegetables seasoned with a blend of spices. Curry spice blends include turmeric, cumin, coriander, mustard seed and chilies. The curry powder you buy in the grocery store is a combination geared to the Western palate; more authentic blends come from markets that specialize in Indian, Asian or West Indian food.

Ground chili

This is dried ground peppers -- not to be confused with chili powder (a blend of spices used to make chili, the stew). Powdered jalapeno is manageably hot; habanero powder is like gunpowder. Chipotle (smoked jalapeno) is a nice middle ground. Use in recipes or sprinkle on popcorn and pizza.

Coriander/cilantro

These are the same plant. Whole seed or ground, coriander goes savory (chicken, soups, curries) and sweet (spice cake). Fresh coriander you might know better as cilantro, the tangy parsley-like green that perks up Mexican guacamole, Thai salads and Indian dishes.

Epazote

This love-it-or-hate-it herb is reputed to make bean-eating a more socially acceptable habit. Pendery's sells it dried, by the bunch; crumble the stalks right into the pot and hope it works. Some nurseries carry young plants in the spring.

Horseradish and wasabi

Fresh horseradish is a gnarly-looking root. Grate its milky interior for a hot and spicy garnish to meats or vegetables. But once the root is cooked, the heat goes away. Bottled grated horseradish keeps longer. Green Japanese horseradish, or wasabi -- dry powder or moist paste -- comes from a different plant but is also ultra-hot. It's served with sushi and other Asian dishes.

Lemon grass

You don't eat it. Lemon grass, which gives a lemony tartness to Southeast Asian foods, is sold in Asian markets and upscale groceries. Look for tight, firm leaves. Cut off the dried leafy top of the stalk and peel the outer leaves to reach the tender core. Cut into pieces and use in soup and tea; remove before serving.

Saffron

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