A Guide to Buying and Cooking with Winter Spices

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Photo courtesy Jupiter Images
The traditional pie spices (back to front: star anise, allspice, nutmeg with attached mace, green cardamom and cloves, surrounded by cinnamon sticks) deliver warm, wintery flavor to sweet and savory dishes.

Don’t let the lack of fresh produce in winter dampen your love of flavorful food. What the winter pantry lacks in ripe produce, it makes up for in rich spices. Now is the perfect time to allow the sweet scents and warming flavors of allspice, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, ginger, nutmeg and star anise to elevate standby foods. Known collectively as the “pie spices,” these flavors are indeed wonderful complements to pies and other baked goods, but they’re also excellent companions to root vegetables, roasted meats, sauces, gravies and more.

Winter spices offer bold flavors. For pie crusts and savory dishes, use a light touch. Fruits and sweets are better able to stand up to these rich spices, so you can use a heavier hand in pie fillings, fruit custards and other desserts. When flavoring, it helps to think of allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg as sweet; cardamom, cloves, ginger and star anise as pungent; and coriander as peace-making. Be sparing with the pungent spices, and add coriander whenever you want to bring sweet and pungent notes into harmony. Spices’ flavors come from their volatile oils, which dissipate in time as they are exposed to air. All spices should be stored in airtight containers away from extremes of light, heat and humidity. Whenever possible, buy small quantities and grind your own whole spices to ensure fresh flavor.

ALLSPICE is the cured berry of an evergreen tree that thrives in Jamaica (though it is cultivated in many tropical countries). The trees can be fussy if not handled gently, and the Jamaican Ministry of Agriculture is vigilant about protecting them.
Buy it: Look for dark, red-brown spheres with a rough surface. You should hear the inner seeds rattle when shaken. Ground allspice should be rich, dark brown, highly aromatic but not musty, and a bit oily, never dry.
Eat it: Use whole berries if you want to avoid adding a brown tint to foods. Try allspice in sweet baked goods, Jamaican jerk seasoning, tomato and barbecue sauces, seafood, red meat and curry blends.

CARDAMOM is called the “Queen of Spices” in its native India. It comes in brown and green forms. While brown has long been considered inferior to green, its smoky flavor is wonderful when used appropriately, as in Indian tandoori dishes, rather than simply as a substitute for green cardamom. Green cardamom is the traditional winter spice.
Buy it: Cardamom pods should be whole, slightly oily and lime green, not pale.
Eat it: Cardamom is delicious in sweet and savory foods, especially in curries and rice, and with citrus. Ground cardamom loses it volatile oils (and therefore its flavor) quickly. You can get better flavor by adding the whole pods, slightly bruised, to dishes cooked with liquids (remove pods before serving). Or split pods to remove the sticky, black seeds and grind seeds in a coffee grinder.

CINNAMON AND CASSIA are among the world’s oldest known spices. The Roman emperor Nero is said to have burned a year’s supply of cinnamon at his wife’s funeral. Because they look and taste similar, cinnamon and cassia are often confused, and cassia is often mislabeled as cinnamon–both are sweet and woody, but cassia has a bitter quality and an assertiveness that is sometimes preferable to delicate cinnamon.
Buy it: You’ll find cassia labeled as cinnamon, but the difference is obvious upon examination. Cinnamon sticks (“quills”) have rolled-up layers of light brown, paper-thin bark, as opposed to cassia’s fewer, thicker, redder layers. Ground cassia is also darker and redder than ground cinnamon.
Eat it: Add cinnamon or cassia to desserts, stewed fruits, curries, Moroccan tagines, and tea and coffee. It’s a good idea to keep both quills and ground spice on hand. The quills perfectly infuse flavor into liquids, while ground is better for dry or baked dishes. Use cinnamon when delicacy is ideal, as with fresh ingredients, and cassia when a stronger flavor is desired, as with dried ingredients.

CLOVES are the dried flower buds of a tree native to Indonesia. This aromatic spice is found in kitchens across the globe. The word clove comes from the Latin clavus, which means “nail.” Its “nail heads” can be spiked into foods for dramatic presentation.
Buy it: Look for clean, reddish-brown cloves that retain a soft little ball on top and jars containing few stems. Ground cloves lose their volatile oils quickly, so it’s best to grind your own in a coffee grinder.
Eat it: Always use pungent cloves sparingly. Try cloves with roasted meats, baked beans, split pea or bean soups, citrus, stewed and baked fruits, desserts and pickles.

CORIANDER plants provide us with tasty cilantro leaves, as well as coriander seeds, which have a flavor reminiscent of lemon peels. This ancient spice has been found in the tombs of pharaohs and grew in the gardens of Babylon.
Buy it: Look for clean, striped spheres free of stalks. Grind your own for the best flavor.
Eat it: It’s almost impossible to use too much coriander. This agreeable spice combines well with all other spices, and you can use it to temper pungent spices if you’ve used too much. The seeds are great dry-toasted, but use them untoasted in sweet dishes.

GINGER is incredibly versatile with a range of flavors from fresh, zingy and lemony to spicy and hot. It is one of the oldest Asian spices. Gingerbread is said to have been invented on the isle of Rhodes in 2400 B.C.
Buy it: Select firm whole ginger knobs, and store them in an open container as you would garlic or onions. Peel skin before grating flesh. Ground ginger should have a spicy fragrance, but not too sharp a flavor.
Eat it: Ginger’s subtle, exotic spiciness works well with a variety of other seasonings. Use it to complement desserts, roasted vegetables and meats, seafood and stir-fries. Or steep the peeled flesh in hot water for ginger tea.

NUTMEG is the strongest of all the sweet spices. Nutmeg trees produce both nutmeg, which is the seed, and mace, the red-orange web around the seed. While nutmeg is sweet, mace is deliciously pungent. Nutmeg is one of the few spices high enough in oil to create a ground spice that won’t diminish quickly.
Buy it: Look for whole, brown pieces that do not appear to be dried out. When buying ground nutmeg, rely on its aroma–the one that smells the best will also taste the best.
Eat it: Grind your own fresh nutmeg in a nutmeg mill or use ground spice. Sprinkle it over vegetables (especially spinach and squash), red and white meats, seafood, desserts and white sauces. Ground mace is tasty in stocks, sauces and sprinkled over seafood.

STAR ANISE is the most strikingly beautiful of all the winter spices and has a strong licorice flavor. Popularized in the 16th century, it is one of the most recent spices to be spread around the world from China, Vietnam, India, Japan and the Philippines.
Buy it: Look for whole, reddish-brown stars with little splits that contain a shiny brown seed. When popped, the seed should release a strong, spicy aroma. Ground star anise should be fine and dark; purchase it in small quantities to retain freshness.
Eat it: Star anise pairs perfectly with many savory Asian dishes, most famously Peking duck. It also works with fresh and pickled fruits, soups, stir-fries, curries and with pork.

Spice It Up

Sometimes referred to as “apple pie spice” or “pie spice,” this blend is the most popular way to flavor fruitcakes, shortbread, sweet pies and all kinds of delectable pastries. Simply mix together these ground spices:

4 teaspoons coriander seed
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons cassia
½ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon green cardamom seeds
½ teaspoon allspice
½ teaspoon ginger
¼ teaspoon cloves

To impart a deliciously fragrant, sweet spice flavor to cakes, biscuits, cookies and pastries, add 2 teaspoons of mixed spice per cup of flour to the dry ingredients. Fruitcakes, mince pies, and rich or sweet foods require more–up to twice the amount if a distinct spiciness is desired.

–Adapted from The Spice and Herb Bible by Ian Hemphill

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