When I was a a young padawan looking to stock my first kitchen, I bought one of every spice the grocery store offered. I figured it was a good investment.
I figured wrong. Whole spices keep up to one year, says The Splendid Table‘s Lynne Rossetto Kasper. But ground spices only last three to six months, meaning I could have taken the cash I laid out for my spice cabinet and flushed it down the toilet.
These days, I go for a more streamlined approach. You’ll always find baking essentials (cinnamon, allspice, ginger and cloves) in my spice drawer. Ditto heat enhancers like ground cumin, cayenne and sweet paprika.
But other than oregano, you’ll rarely find dried herbs. They’re usually musty by the time they hit the grocers’ shelves, Kasper says. And I find them pale imitators of their fresh brethren — particularly the strident taste of dried mint, basil and cilantro.
Still, variety is the (ahem) spice of life. So I rotate a handful of more unusual spices in and out of my repertoire. Here are my current six favorites (let me know yours!) and the ways I like to use them.
1. Cumin Seeds: Intensely smoky, kind of nutty and a delightful addition to meat and vegetable marinades. I like to whisk a tablespoon of these into olive oil and lemon juice, then pour it over summer squash straight from the grill. Cumin seeds are particularly good paired with sweet vegetables like corn. Mix them with butter, salt and pepper, then slather over corn-on-the-cob. Or use them as the final touch on sour cream-topped baked potatoes.
2. Ground Cardamom: This pungent spice pulls both sweet and savory duty. Its citrusy, floral-like aroma and taste make it a natural complement to cinnamon. I like to add 1/2 teaspoon or so to zucchini and pumpkin breads. It’s also lovely dashed into tomato-based soups or a simmering pot of lentils.
3. Ground Coriander: An exceptionally subtle spice that kicks up beef and chicken marinades. Coriander, cardamom and cumin are excellent playmates, as seen in this recipe, a family dinner and party staple at our house:
Spiced Beans (adapted from Gourmet magazine)
Heat 1/3 cup olive oil in a large skillet. When shimmery, stir in 1 tablespoon ground cumin, 1/2 tablespoon ground coriander, 1/2 tablespoon ground cardamom, 1 teaspoon ground ginger and a 1 1/2-inch-long cinnamon stick. Cook until the spices are fragrant and golden, about 2 minutes.
Add 1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes (undrained) and 2 15-ounce cans chickpeas or black beans (drained and rinsed). Simmer, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in 1/2 cup chopped parsley and 1/4 cup chopped mint.
4. Curry: Sure, this Indian spice is delicious in traditional curries, but it’s also wonderful when roasted with butternut squash and apples or sauteed with onions and garlic, then stirred into couscous. Its sweetness makes it a lovely addition to mayonnaise for an unexpected twist on turkey sandwiches and deviled eggs.
5. Fennel Seeds: With their subtle anise flavor, fennel seeds are a natural pairing with pork. I love to slather them over marinating pork chops and tenderloins. But I also turn to them whenever I make vegetarian pizza and pasta sauces. Their meaty undertone packs a rich, savory hit.
6. Smoked Paprika: We aren’t in Hungary anymore, Toto. Smoked paprika hails from Spain and adds a deeply smoky, almost chocolatey flavor to dishes. Saute it with olive oil, onions and garlic, then puree with roasted vegetables for a soul-satisfying soup. Add it to chicken and beef marinades. Or use it as the finishing touch to twice-baked potatoes. One caveat: Don’t substitute it for sweet paprika! Do, and you’ll end up tossing dinner out the door. (And that’s not worth any amount of money!)