Cooking with spices
Spices add sweetness, spice, and complexity to all kinds of dishes from breakfast through to desserts. They can transform a one-dimensional dish into something truly special – whether it be to give an aromatic note in the background or to drive the flavour of the dish.
They also have numerous health benefits so aside from the joy of eating them, they’re often good for you too – bonus! You don’t need to feel restricted to using spices associated with their traditional cuisine. For example, Szechuan pepper is mostly used in Asian cuisine, however, its citrusy heat (the peppercorns aren’t actually spicy but have a numbing effect) can be used for other things – such as seasoning peanuts instead of salt, or substituting chilli flakes for Szechuan in a dry rub for meats. And while cumin is found in Middle Eastern or Asian dishes, it can be used in other places – my favourite being mixed with a little salt to sprinkle over a hard-boiled egg.
Sweet spices can also be really useful when transitioning to a low-sugar diet. Cinnamon, cloves, vanilla and cardamom are all examples of spices that can give a dish a sweet undertone. You can add cinnamon to yoghurt instead of honey, cloves to baked recipes or cardamom to hot drinks. There are others that may not immediately appear sweet but you might find growing in your garden – use lemon verbena or mint in sparkling water or unsweetened iced tea for refreshing drinks.
Below are some of my favourite spices and suggestions on how you can use them – some that you hopefully haven’t thought of before!
The key to turmeric is knowing that a little goes a long way. Turmeric is a rhizome, and just like its relative ginger, it grows underground as a root. Fresh turmeric is wonderful but dried, ground turmeric tends to have more frequent uses in the kitchen. It adds colour and a little earthy sweetness to a dish, but it can be bitter, so generally, 1/2-1 teaspoon is enough for most dishes.
- Add 1/2 teaspoon to an omelette or scrambled eggs
- Sprinkle a little with salt over popcorn
- Add to hummus
- Add a teaspoon to a homemade stock
- Melt with butter until sizzling and drizzle over hot soup
Cumin belongs to the parsley family and the plant is harvested for its seeds. It adds a fruity heat to dishes and is a good partner to dishes with chilli. For the best flavour, buy seeds and grind your own powder if required in a spice grinder.
- Mix ground cumin with salt for sprinkling over hard-boiled eggs or grilled lamb
- Toast seeds in a little olive oil and toss with steamed green beans.
- Make a spice crust for fish with wholemeal breadcrumbs, cumin seeds, lemon zest, salt and pepper
- Add to a homemade aioli
- Make a pumpkin soup with cumin to modernise a traditional recipe.
Cinnamon is made from the bark of several tree species where it’s peeled, dried and then sold as the bark or ground. The bark or ‘quills’ can be used in stews where they slowly infuse the dish, and ground cinnamon can be used in a variety of both sweet and savoury dishes.
- Toss cinnamon with sweet potatoes before roasting
- Use in a sugar-free pancake recipe where the batter is sweetened using grated pear. The cinnamon will also add to the sweet flavour profile.
- Add to a salad dressing instead of honey
- Coat a lamb shoulder in with butter and cinnamon before slow-roasting (be generous with the cinnamon!)
- Add to cashew milk with plenty of ice for a refreshing drink.
By Victoria Thaine,