Taking a step beyond salt and pepper, exotic spices can up the ante on great meals. The dishes that follow take their cues from as far away as Morocco and Thailand—and taste as good right at home.
Mustard Seeds (1), Cardamom Pods (2), Tamarind Pods (3), Cinnamon (4), Fennel Seeds (5), Tamarind Paste (6), Zahtar (7), Cloves (8), Saffron (9), Dried Red Chilies (10), Curry Powder (11), Toasted Sesame Seeds (12), Lemongrass (13)
Experimenting with the Variety of Spice
If your spice know-how begins and ends with crushed black pepper, have no fear. Your local grocery store's spice aisle probably stocks many types, such as cinnamon, cloves, and thyme. If you can't find a lesser-known spice, you might want to try an online retailer, like Penzeys Spices or the Spice House. Ethnic markets are another good bet (and their prices are sometimes better). While you can't always substitute dried spices for fresh (or vice versa), a good rule of thumb is that you will need less of the dried version, which usually has a more intense flavor. If you get serious about spicing up your diet, you may find it useful to get a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder (a coffee grinder works, but you may want to reserve it for spices alone). Here's a quick primer on the spices used in these recipes:
Mustard seeds (1): Brown mustard seeds (also labeled black) are more piquant than the yellow ones. Use them to give barbecue sauce bite.
Cardamom (2): Flavors both savory and sweet dishes; you can use whole pods, just the seeds, or ground cardamom.
Cinnamon (4): Try cinnamon sticks—made from the bark of fragrant trees—in drinks and broth, or use the ground spice (which is more flavorful) with grains, drinks, and fruit.
Tamarind (6): Though tamarind grows on trees as a pod, you'll more likely buy this tart spice in paste form.
Clove (8): This sun-dried flower bud gives off an intense flavor, so use it sparingly. Garnish ham or beef with whole cloves or shake ground cloves onto sweet potatoes.
Saffron (9): These crimson threads—dried stigmas of a flower—are the most expensive of all spices, since they're harvested by hand. You don't have to use many of the tendrils to impart the spice's aroma (and signature color) to dishes like risotto, soup, and bread.
Curry (11): The Indian favorite, a mixture of assorted spices, can be spicy or sweet, mild or intense. Try adding it to meat dishes.
Lemongrass (13): Southeast Asian cuisine makes liberal use of this light, lemony plant in soups and chicken and fish dishes. Fresh is tops when it comes to taste.
Sumac : Sourced from a scarlet berry and favored in Middle Eastern dishes, sumac imparts a tangy citrus flavor.
Thyme: You can often find fresh thyme in supermarket produce sections, but if you strike out, shake the dried version over pretty much anything—just use less than you would fresh.