Every kitchen has pots and pans, dishes, cleaning materials, and, of course, food. Fruits, vegetables, cereals, bread, grains, dairy foods, and fish and meats are used to prepare the family meals. To add a desired savor to the foods we eat, spices are often used.
Most spices grow in tropical countries. They are made from the bark, roots, seeds, flower buds, and fruit of many plants. The flavor of each is different. Some spices are mild. Some have strong tastes.
Spices are almost as important for their delicious aromas as for their flavors. The smells of warm gingerbread, pumpkin pie, or apple crisp only increases the delight of eating these desserts.
Spices also make food more attractive. A dash of saffron or turmeric, besides adding flavor, makes a pale soup or casserole a lovely yellow shade. When paprika is mixed with the flour in which chicken, fish, or beef is coated, the meat turns a golden brown when fried or broiled.
Perhaps pepper is the spice used most in the United States. Pepper seeds are red when first gathered, but turn black and spicy when dried. For milder white pepper, the berries ripen longer, and then the outer part is removed.
Cinnamon is made from the inner bark of branches of the cinnamon laurel tree, which grows in Sri Lanka and other tropical countries. The bark, peeled from the tree in April and November, curls when it dries. It is usually sold as ground cinnamon, very small curls, or in sticks.
Two spices come from the fruit of the nutmeg tree. As the fruit, which looks like a golden pear, ripens, it hardens. When it splits open, a scarlet membrane that partially covers the kernels is revealed. The scarlet membrane, when dried, is the spice mace, and the kernel is a nutmeg.
Ginger is a spice made from the roots of the ginger plant. Ginger tea has been used for centuries as an aid to digestion. Candied ginger is liked by many people, and so is ginger ale.
There are many other spices. Cloves are dried flower buds. Allspice comes from a dried pimiento berry. Mustard and coriander both come from seeds. The best-known seed spice in the United States, however, is vanilla.
When Europeans arrived in America, they found the Indians of Mexico cultivating a climbing orchid. The plant’s pods, or beans, containing very tiny seeds, were cured and used to flavor chocolate. The pods were taken back to Europe where, for years, they were used only in chocolate. Today vanilla flavoring is used in cakes, custards, puddings, ice cream, sauces, and many other dishes.
Vanilla beans can be bought in many spice shops today, and the same bean can be used over and over. Baked in bread pudding or cooked in a sauce, the bean need only be rinsed and dried on waxed paper before being used again.
Spices help to make our foods pleasing to look at, to smell, and to eat. Try one of the following food experiments:
Roll cubes of sugar in cinnamon and then grated orange rind. Push each cube into middle of a plain muffin before it is baked.
Mix 1/2 cup maple or corn syrup with 1 tablespoon butter and 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger. Pour over fresh, canned, or frozen fruit.
Bury vanilla bean in jar of sugar. Wait two weeks for sugar to absorb flavor. Use sugar to sprinkle on cupcakes, cookies, or fruit.