Spices and Herbs

Spices and herbs. Without them dining, and eating in general, would be a dull affair indeed. Spices and herbs are what make food palatable, luxurious, even exotic. The men and women of the late Middle Ages experienced this at first hand. Since the fall of the Roman Empire they had been bereft of spices and herbs. It was the Muslim East that contained all the great spice stores. Medieval man lived on foods that had been preserved by salting or drying. That's it. One of the main reasons Christopher Columbus sailed for the New World was in order to find a direct route to what were called "The Indies," or the Spice Islands south of Indonesia. Any country who controlled the spice trade at the time controlled the world. In the contract charter for Columbus' voyage, it was agreed he would get ten percent of any profits from gems, gold, silver or spices that he found. Spices were listed alongside gold and silver. That's how important they were. Spices were used as a measure of currency. They were used to pay mortgages and fines, to buy property and to pay taxes,.

Today spices can be found at your local market in any variety. But some of us are still stuck in the salt and pepper rut. We may even add oregano to a dish once in a while. But ever consider using balm, a perennial garden herb with a sharp lemon scent? Or mincemeat spice (a mix of cloves, allspice and cinnamon used to flavor cakes, cookies and sauces)? There's more to spices than you think. Below is a listing of common and not so common herbs and spices and their uses.

Allspice - The dried berry of pimento trees found in the West Indies. Used as a condiment. The name is due to a flavor that resembles a mix of nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves.
Anise - The fruit of a small annual plant which dries into the form of a seed. Best varieties are grown in Spain, Mexico and India; and used in breads, cakes and cookies and as a flavoring for medicine and licorice products.
Basil - An annual plant whose leaves are dried, ground and powdered. Cultivated in Western Europe and used to flavor stews, sausages, soups and sauces. It combines well with tomatoes.
Bay Leaf - The aromatic leaf of the sweet-bay or laurel tree. Dried whole and used to flavor soups, meats and pickles.
Capers - The flower buds of Capparis spinosa grown in Mediterranean countries. Pickled and used as a condiment.
Caraway - A biennial herb with an aromatic fruit known as caraway seeds. Marketed whole or ground and used in breads, cookies, cakes, candies, salads and cheese.
Cardamon - The aromatic fruit of zinziberaceous plants grown in Ceylon, India and Central America. Sold in a whole pod, as whole seeds, or ground seeds, and used as a condiment.
Cayenne pepper - Powdered pod and seeds of various capsicum peppers that yields a hot, savory flavor. Used in meat and gravies, and grown mainly in Africa. In it one of the chief ingredients in Tabasco sauce
Celery Seed - Seed of a small plant similar in appearance and taste to celery. Used whole or ground to flavor soups, stews, cheese, pickles and salads.
Celery salt - A mixture of ground celery seed and fine white salt. Used in meats and salads.
Chervil - A plant with aromatic leaves used to flavor soups and salads.
Chili Powder - A mixture of ground red peppers, cuminseed and other spices. Used as a base for chili sauce and other spicy dishes.
Chives - Similar to green onions (scallions) though smaller and milder.
Chutney - A spicy pickle of compound fruit and seasonings.
Cinnamon - The inner bark of Cinnamon zeylancium (the best grows in Ceylon). It has a very mild flavor though Cassia cinnamon grown in the Far East has a more full-bodied flavor. Sold in sticks or ground.
Cloves - Sold whole or ground. The flavor buds of a tree grown in parts of the Caribbean, Zanzibar an Madagascar.
Coriander - An herb with aromatic seeds. Used for cookies, pickles and meat products.
Cuminseed. Dried fruit of Cuminum cyninum. Used for favoring meats, sausages and pickles, and as an ingredient in curry powder.
Dill - An annual herb grown for its aromatic seed. Used in pickles and sauces, and grown mainly in India. It goes great with scrambled eggs.
Fennel - Seeds of a ground herb used to flavor sauces and apple pie. It has a fragrance and taste similar to anise. Its young stalks are also used as a salad green.
Ginger - The root of a herbaceous perennial grown in semi-tropical countries. It also produces white ginger which is the scraped and peeled rootstock of the plant, often candied.
Leeks - Strong flavored plant similar to onion.
Mace - The stuff around the nutmeg kernel. The aroma is similar to nutmeg but has a different flavor. Sold whole as "blades" or ground and used to flavor sauces, gravies and cakes.
Marjoram - A fragrant annual of the mint family whose leaves are dried or used fresh or powdered to flavor soups, salads, meats and stuffings. It is grown in Northern Africa and Chile though the best grade comes from France.
Mint - A fragrant plant whose leaves are used, fresh or dried, to flavor soups, vegetables, fruits and beverages (think of a Mint Julip).
Mustard - A plant whose seeds are used either whole or ground. Its usually combined with spices and vinegar to make prepared mustard (the type you buy in the supermarket).
Nutmeg - The fruit kernel of the Myristica tree grown in the Caribbean. The whole fruit resembles an apricot in shape and size. The outer husk is the mace (see above), and the seed is the nutmeg. Sold whole or ground.
Paprika - A sweet red pepper which is dried and ground after seeds and stems are removed. Its mild flavor goes good with shellfish, fish and salad dressings. The best brands come from Hungary and Spain.
Parsley - A biennial herb used to flavor meats, vegetables and salads. It is also frequently used as a garnish.
Pepper - The king of spices. In olden days pepper was used a tonic, a stimulant, and even as an insect repellent and an aphrodisiac. It's made from peppercorns which are the dried berry of a vine, Piper Nigrum. Black pepper is made from the whole berry. White pepper is made from what is left of the fully ripened berry after the outer coat had been removed.
Pimento - The fleshy fruit of the Spanish paprika. In the Caribbean, pimento is used to describe large green peppers. The Spanish pimento is often canned or stored in jars and used in vegetable dishes and salads.
Poppy Seed - Seed of one variety of the poppy plant (but not the opium poppy---so don't get any ideas). Used for breads, rolls, cakes and cookies. Oil is also extracted from the poppy seed and used in salads or frying. Mostly imported from Central Europe.
Rosemary - An evergreen plant whose flowers and leaves are used to flavor and garnish fish, stews and sauces.
Saffron - The most expensive of them all. The residue of a flower similar to a crocus, gives a rich-orange yellow hue that is used to flavor foods and meats and to give color.
Sage - A perennial of the mint family. The leaves are dried and used in stuffings and meats.
Savory or Summer Savory - Annual of the mint family. May be used fresh or dried in sauces, stews, stuffings and croquettes. It is a major ingredient used in prepared poultry seasonings.
Scallions - Small green onions
Sesame - An herb whose seeds are used to flavor rolls and cookies. After baking the flavor resembles toasted almonds.
Tarragon - A perennial herb. Its leaves, either fresh or dried, are used to flavor salads, pickles and vinegar.
Thyme - The leaves of an herb, either powered or dried, which is used to flavor meat, poultry and clams.

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