Spice Girl

Some like it hot

There are few food-related questions that give me more anxiety than, “Is it spicy?”
Everyone has their own preference when it comes to spice level. Maybe, like Marilyn Monroe, you like it hot. Maybe, like many Midwesterners, you prefer it as spice-less as possible.

This is why a simple question like “Is it spicy?” or “How hot would you like your order?” puts me in a bit of a panic.

On a spice spectrum from 1-10, I’d likely place myself at a 6.5 or a 7. I have a higher tolerance than my classmate who calls ketchup “spicy” but am a weakling in comparison to my former roommate who believes that it’s only spicy enough, if you’re crying.

Despite my spice-complex, I love experimenting with them while I’m in the kitchen.

Spice up your life

Whether you are looking to enhance the depth and flavor of a dish, combat that pesky cold, or speed up your metabolism, there is a spice or two for you.

Here are a couple of reasons why spices are pretty awesome:

Spices make you healthy – Spices are like superpowers in a jar. They heal. According to WebMD, some spices help protect against certain illnesses including cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.

Spices make your food taste better – When used properly, spices can take your dish to the next level. Adding that teaspoon of cinnamon to chocolate cake batter can make that treat out of this world. Sprinkling some cayenne pepper and a squirt of lime juice to salted popcorn is a surprisingly delicious snack. The possibilities are endless.

Spice world

Odds are, you are already familiar with all-spice, basil, and nutmeg but have you ever used these spices before?

Berbere – There are few foods that I prefer more than injera (an African flatbread) with lentils spiced with berbere. The mix usually contains hot peppers, black pepper, fenugreek, ginger, cardamom, coriander, cinnamon, and cloves and is traditionally used to season slow-cooked lentil, bean, and meat wats (stews).

Cayenne pepper – Not only does this powdered red pepper add some intense heat to your dish, studies have shown that it speeds up your metabolism.

Chimichurri – I’d be shunned by my Argentine friends if I left chimichurri off of the list. Similar to pesto in appearance, chimichurri is a beautiful green sauce made of fresh parsley, garlic, oregano, olive oil, red pepper flakes, and vinegar. It is typically used as a both a marinade and a sauce for meats but I prefer it drizzled on salads and smoked eggplant.

Cinnamon – Given its versatility, it is unsurprising that cinnamon is such a popular spice. It is often used in baked goods, stews, and lattes. But did you know that cinnamon is also used to fight inflammation and to lower blood sugar? Mexican cinnamon is my favorite. It warms my soul.

Cumin – This is one of the superpower spices. Cumin is a good source of iron, manganese, and other vitamins and minerals. It is commonly used in Spanish, Mexican, and Indian cuisines but I am particularly fond of using it in Middle Eastern cuisines. It adds a delicious nutty flavor to homemade hummus.

Harissa – If you like it hot, chances are that you’ll like harissa. Harissa is a Tunisian hot chili pepper paste and it is ridiculously addictive. Drizzle (or pour) it on popcorn, use it to spice up curries and stews, or dip your eggs in it.

Garam masala – This Indian spice mix is a staple in my kitchen. I use it to make curries, soups, and marinades. The combination of cumin, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and peppercorn make a beautiful blend.

Garlic – Not garlic salt. Real garlic. I prefer fresh garlic, simply because I love the smell of it, but you can also find minced garlic and frozen cloves in many supermarkets. Rumor has it that garlic powder exists as well. I’d use this only as a last resort.

Ginger – Growing up, I always associated ginger with my favorite character on Gilligan’s Island. Now, I associate it with cookies. I guess we never really grow up. Generally, I prefer using raw ginger; I typically use a microplane to grate it. If you’re in a bind for time however, feel free to use the powder. Since its flavor is fairly overpowering, use it sparingly. It is great in sauces and dressings, baked goods, and teas.

Gomashio – Commonly found in Japanese food, gomashio is whole, dry roasted sesame seeds with sea salt. Sprinkle it on salads, soups, popcorn, and pasta to add a nutty salty taste instantly.

Herbes de provence – Despite its availability in the U.S., I hadn’t tried herbes de provence (also known as Provencal) before I traveled to Argentina. This spice mixture is typically made up of oregano, thyme, rosemary, and savory. It is often used in marinades and sprinkled on potatoes prior to baking.

Saffron – Despite its hefty price tag, saffron is a spice worth purchasing. Not only does it add a beautiful color and flavor to paellas and aiolis, saffron supposedly helps alleviate symptoms associated with depression and PMS.

Sea salt – Contrary to popular belief, salt is actually good for you! It provides your body with important minerals. The salt in processed food however, should be avoided like the plague. Salt also enhances the flavor of sweet treats and combines well with chocolate, caramel, and ice cream.

Turmeric – This year’s “it” spice originates from India. According to numerous health studies, turmeric helps relieve pain of arthritis, injuries and dental procedures. It is often added to soups and milks where its beautiful golden hue can take the center stage.

Za’atar – Poor Za’atar was last year’s trendiest spice. Fortunately, its versatility has landed itself as a permanent fixture on my spice rack. This Middle Eastern spice mix is excellent sprinkled on pretty much everything: eggs, olives, avocados, fresh bread (brushed with olive oil), and so much more.

You can handle the heat! Learn more!

Eating Well Magazine – Article on 8 of the world’s healthiest spices
Passionate Homemaking – Article on mastering the art of herbs and spices
The Flavor Bible – The title says it all. Purchase it online or at a local bookstore
The Kitchn – Article on 25 spice mixes from around the world
Whole Foods Market– Guide to salt


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