A well-stocked spice cabinet is essential for cooking meals with plenty of flavour that will fit easily into your daily SmartPoints® target, whether you're using an everyday spice like black pepper or an exotic blend that instantly transports you out of your kitchen to India, the Middle East or the Mediterranean. The main purpose of using spices in your cooking is to enhance flavour as well as aroma, with the added bonus that many spices offer nutrition and health benefits. Building a spice collection can be overwhelming as the choices are near endless, but the following suggestions are a great place to start as they have plenty of universal appeal and versatility in the kitchen.
Buying and storing spices
Buy spices in small quantities from stores with high inventory turnover. Specialty shops and natural food sources are ideal for buying freshly ground spices. Heat and light are the enemies of dried spices, so be careful to store spices in a cool dark place. Store spices in small glass or metal jars that have been labelled with the contents as well as the date the spice was purchased in order to keep your collection properly rotated.
Used primarily as a spice for baking in Canada, cinnamon can be bought in either ground form or as cinnamon bark (often labelled as cinnamon stick). High in antioxidants and known for its anti-inflammatory effects, cinnamon is much more versatile in its uses than given credit for. A classic pairing with sweet potatoes or yams, cinnamon also adds subtle warmth to curries, chilli, and ground lamb dishes. Good quality Ceylon cinnamon bark from Indonesia is worth the extra money if you can find it. Aromatic and deeply earthy, cinnamon bark can be broken up into smaller pieces and added to a rice pilaf or a mellow curry.
Commonly found in Mediterranean, Mexican, and Middle Eastern cooking dried oregano can be used in recipes that range from salads to grilled meat. Dried oregano's mildly bitter flavour complements the intensity of lemon, garlic, and tomatoes but also marries well with olives, eggs, grilled artichokes and feta cheese. Oregano contains high levels of antioxidants and is known to help with digestion, giving you yet another reason to add it to your favourite recipes.
Curry powder is not a single spice, but a widely varying blend of spices that can include coriander, black pepper, cardamom, cumin, and turmeric. Turmeric, the spice that gives curry powder its vibrant yellow colour contains high amounts of curcumin, a powerful antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties. Make your own custom blend by toasting whole spices over low heat in a skillet before grinding into a fine powder either with a spice grinder or a mortar and pestle. Try adding curry powder to poached chicken salad or butternut squash soup for a new twist on an old favourite.
Available as a ground spice or whole nutmeg, this popular spice comes from the seed of the Myristica fragrans tree found in Indonesia. In Canada ground nutmeg is mainly used as a baking ingredient. Its comforting warm flavour is an ideal addition to cakes, muffins, and cookies. Whole nutmeg is a small splurge but the difference in quality of taste is substantial. Use a microplane to grate small amounts of whole nutmeg over roasted cauliflower, creamy pasta dishes, and cheese sauces for an unforgettable food experience.
Lovers of spicy foods will most likely have cayenne pepper in their kitchens already, whether it's in the form of a ground powder or hot sauce. Capsaicin, the active ingredient in cayenne pepper, has been shown to reduce appetite as well as aid in pain relief. If spicy foods are new to you begin with very small amounts of cayenne pepper and adjust to taste. Eventually you will grow to appreciate the kick of cayenne and larger quantities can be used. Add a pinch of cayenne to lemon or lime juice, olive oil and crushed garlic for an easy marinade loaded with flavour for fish, chicken or pork.