CARTHAGE, Mo. —
I get pretty excited about spices. They're instrumental in healthy eating. Spices are what make lots of healthy foods taste good. There are differences between herbs and spices, but generally we lump them all in the spice category.
The spice bazaar in Istanbul is where my spice obsession began. I was young, na•ve and completely overwhelmed by the sensory explosion I experienced at the spice market. There was a rainbow of bulk spices as far as the eye could see, and I wanted to try them all. Looking back, I wish I had bought a scoop of each. Unfortunately, I wasn't much of a cook back then, so I smelled everything instead -- much to the chagrin of the shopkeepers, I'm sure.
Thank goodness I learned to love cooking. Spices are what keep cooking healthy food fun. There are a few staple spices that I always have on hand. Celery seed, thyme and marjoram are soup essentials for me. I use cumin and curry like they're going out of style. Although I prefer them fresh, I like to keep dried basil, oregano, dill and fennel on hand, just in case. Cinnamon is a must at breakfast; oatmeal, granola and yogurt would be blah without it.
I was given the gift of spice recently in the form of a Penzeys Spices gift card. I chose to splurge on spices that aren't essentials.
With my kid-in-a-candy-store mentality, I took the Overland Park, Kan., Penzeys by storm. I came away with a small bag packed with pure, concentrated flavor. I bought Vietnamese extra-fancy cinnamon that comes with specific instructions to use a third of the amount of cinnamon you would normally use. I also purchased high-quality Maharajah curry, which is packed with saffron and adds glorious flavor and color to dishes; natural high-fat cocoa powder, which promises to be twice as rich as the stuff from the grocery store; and a little something called Turkish seasoning, just for old time's sake.
Try making your own seasoning packets with some of the spices collecting dust on your spice rack. Taco seasoning, chili seasoning and those other premade rectangles of flavor are full of sugar, salt and artificial junk. Mix your spices and portion them into zip-close bags so they'll be just as easy to use as the packets from the store.
Alton Brown's Taco Potion No. 19
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons hot smoked paprika
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Put all of the ingredients in a small jar and shake to combine. Store in an airtight container for up to a month.
1 1/2 teaspoons chili powder
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, crushed
2 tablespoons dried onion
1 teaspoon seasoning salt
1/2 teaspoon dried garlic
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
Combine all ingredients and store in an airtight container.
Adapted from food.com
Asian 5-spice seasoning
2 tablespoons anise powder
1 tablespoon ground pepper
1 tablespoon ground fennel
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground cloves
1 tablespoon Himalayan or sea salt
Mix all ingredients and store in an airtight container. Use for stir-fry or other Asian-themed dishes.
Summer squash squares
1/4 cup oil
1 small onion, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
4 small shredded squash (about 4 cups)
6 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup fine whole-wheat bread crumbs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon basil
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
3 cups shredded cheddar cheese
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup sesame seeds
1/2 teaspoon paprika, optional
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease a 9-by-13-inch pan and set aside. Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until softened, stirring often, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and squash and cook until tender, 5 to 7 minutes. In a large bowl, combine the eggs, bread crumbs, salt, basil, oregano, pepper and cheddar cheese. Mix well. Add the squash mixture and stir. Spread in the pan and sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese and sesame seeds. If desired, sprinkle with paprika. Bake at 325 degrees until set, about 30 minutes. Let cool for 15 minutes and then slice into squares. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Adapted from penzeys.com
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