If it's true that variety is the spice of life, then would the converse be accurate as well, that spice provides life with a little variety?
We are in a bit of a rut if that's the case. When we use spices and dried herbs, we generally cook with what we know or what we can conveniently get our hands on. Or maybe even what's been sitting in the pantry for who knows how long. But increased exposure to global cuisines via restaurants and television cooking shows has made us more aware of and curious about flavors beyond cinnamon and sage.
The recent opening of several spice shops in the Tampa Bay area and the growing inventory at grocery stores and specialty food shops have made seasonings such as the Indian blend garam masala and exotic sea salts more available. Plus, many shops sell spices in bulk, which allows for the purchase of a tablespoon for pennies compared to the dollars plunked down on entire containers.
It's time to start experimenting, and not simply because we have more access to previously hard-to-find or mail-order-only spices. Expanding the pantry could widen your mealtime repertoire, which just might have you cooking at home more, a goal many of us have set for ourselves this year. Just a sprinkle of a chili-lime blend on shrimp or a sweet-savory mix of rose hips, sea salt and peppercorns on chicken could change dinner just enough to save it.
Paul Bailey, who owns the Savory Spice Shop in St. Petersburg with his wife, Joan, has seen a steady stream of buyers and browsers since opening in November. He stocks 400 spices and herbs, selling them in amounts small enough for experimentation. On a recent weekday, the spacious store with the decorative tin ceiling panels and wood floors (toss leftover spices on the floor after you've sampled) had a steady stream of customers looking curiously at the spice blends, impressive variety of paprikas and long shelf of flavored extracts.
Customers seem most unsure about the many curry blends, he says, so that area of the store is stocked with lots of recipes. Among the most popular items at the Savory Spice Shop are the dried chilies, barbecue rubs and finishing salts.
The new federal dietary guidelines have reduced recommended daily sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams a day, which is less than 1 teaspoon. Most Americans consume about 3,500 milligrams of sodium, some of which comes from places you wouldn't expect such as cereal, pudding mixes and spice blends.
Bailey's shop and the Tampa Bay area's three Spice & Tea Exchange shops (Madeira Beach, Tarpon Springs and Tampa) all stock salt-free spice blends. You can also find these at general grocery stores and whole food outlets.
Cathy Paul, owner of the Spice & Tea Exchange in Tarpon Springs, says she has many customers looking for ways to reduce the calories of homemade dishes by adding flavor through spices and also cut their sodium intake. While the exotic salts, such as Himalayan sea salt and fleur de sel, are popular, Paul says some people think they have less sodium. They don't, but they are generally free of additives and less is needed because the flavor is so strong, she says. Often, these are called finishing salts because they are sprinkled on dishes at the end of cooking.
Her most popular products are two blends, Florida Sunshine, a sea salt base with lime zest and peppercorns in a grinder, and Pirate's Bite, which, as its name implies, is "heat with flavor," incorporating dried peppers with cumin and coriander.
Paul says consumers are learning about spices from TV chefs and medical programs. When Rachael Ray or Alton Brown of the Food Network use an unfamiliar spice or herb, she'll get requests for it, especially on Saturdays when people stop by with lists in hand. For instance, she had a jump in interest for Grains of Paradise, the African substitute for peppercorns, after a Brown show. "He used them in an apple pie recipe," she says.
TV doctors also have a big influence, too. When Dr. Oz aired a segment about a blood-pressure lowering tea made from dehydrated hibiscus flowers, requests spiked for the dried blooms. Turmeric, the deep yellow powder used in Indian and Middle Eastern dishes, is popular because there is research that shows it's also helpful in lowering blood pressure and fighting off Alzheimer's disease.
Both Paul and Bailey encourage customers to give new spices and herbs a try. They each are at the ready with advice, and what they don't know, they can find out.
"We are learning a lot from our customers, too," Bailey, a retired banking executive, says. He has been the family cook for more than 30 years and found there was still a lot to know about incorporating spices into his dishes.
His advice? Experiment and follow recipes, something that he's learning to do after years of improvisation.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8586.
. if you go
Savory Spice Shop, 400 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg; (727) 290-9893 or savoryspiceshop.com.
Spice & Tea Exchange (spiceandtea.com)
• 824 Dodecanese Blvd., Tarpon Springs; (727) 491-3030
• John's Pass, 110 129th Ave. E, Madeira Beach; (727) 319-4000
• International Plaza, lower level near Nordstrom, West Shore and Boy Scout boulevards, Tampa; (813) 443-0684.
. About seasonings
Herbs and spices are derived from plant matter, and the difference between them has to do with the part of the plant they come from. Herbs are the leafy part, and botanically speaking come from plants that don't have woody stems (basil, oregano, thyme and dill, for example). They can be used fresh or dried, and the dried versions are ground or in leaf form.
Spices come from the buds, seeds and flowers of plants (mustard, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, saffron), the bark of trees (cinnamon) and roots
(ginger). They can be used whole or ground. They are not often used fresh.
Spices and dried herbs generally keep for about 12 to 15 months. If they've lost their smell, and especially if they have a dusty aroma, it's time to buy new. It's a good idea to label bottles with the purchase date.
Store them in a cool, dark place and away from heat. Don't store spices in the cabinets next to the oven or stove. The heat will cause them to lose their effectiveness.
m These spices are from the Savory Spice Shop in St. Petersburg.
Prices and information are from the website, savoryspiceshop.com, which also handles mail-order purchases.
Black Lava Hawaiian Kai Sea Salt
This glistening salt is mined from the Pacific Ocean and has a slightly smoky flavor. It can be ground and used on chicken, potatoes and seafood. The black color makes a dramatic presentation. $1.85 per ounce.
Native to the Mediterranean and mostly cultivated in France and England, dried lavender flowers are used in teas, spice blends, vinaigrettes and marinades. $3.40 per ounce.
A combination of black, white, green and pink peppercorns from Reunion Island, in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar. The
blend has subtle hot, sharp and floral notes. $2.55 per ounce.
Dried Juniper Berries
Earthy, dried berries are often used in game dishes to balance the strong flavor of the meat. Whole berries are used in pickling, corned beef and sauerbraten spice mixtures. Juniper
berries are a prominent flavor in gin. About $1.95 per ounce.
Pakistan Dark Red Rosebuds and Petals
Used to infuse syrups and sugars for desserts and drinks. Rose petals are also used in Middle Eastern cooking in savory stews and in marinades in India. About $1.95 per ounce.
Lamb in the Pot With Juniper Berries
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, diced
1 celery stalk, diced
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 bay leaves
1 ¼ cups dry white wine
1 cup chicken stock
30 to 40 dried juniper berries
1 teaspoon chopped dried rosemary
3- to 4-pound leg of lamb
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat, add the onion, carrot and celery and cook, stirring, for 8 to 10 minutes, or until lightly colored. Add the garlic, bay leaves, wine, stock, juniper berries, rosemary and lamb and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover with a tight-fitting lid, and simmer gently, turning the lamb occasionally, for 2 1/2 hours, or until the lamb is extremely tender and falling off the bone.
Remove the lamb and cover with foil to keep warm. Add the vinegar to the saucepan, bring to a boil, lower heat to medium and simmer until the sauce has reduced and thickened, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove bay leaves and juniper berries. Season and serve the lamb with the sauce.
Source: The Spice Bible by Jane Lawson (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2008).
Maple Garam Masala Glazed Ham
¼ cup maple sugar
2 teaspoons garam masala (see note)
2 tablespoons orange juice
1 (9-pound) fully cooked bone-in ham (shank or butt end)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
For the glaze, combine the dry ingredients and break up any lumps with your fingers. Add enough orange juice to make the mixture spreadable.
With a long thin knife, score the ham into a 1-inch-wide diamond pattern. Put the ham in a roasting pan and bake for 1 hour.
After 1 hour, remove the ham from the oven and cover the top and sides, as evenly as possible, with the glaze. Press cloves into the points of the diamonds.
Put the ham back in the oven and continue baking for another 1 hour and 15 minutes, brushing with glaze and juices from the roasting pan every 15 minutes. Cover the ham with foil if it starts to get too dark. Remove from oven and set aside on a cutting board to cool for 10 to 15 minutes. Carve the ham, arrange on a platter and serve.
Note: Garam masala is an Indian spice blend of ground black and white peppercorns, cloves, cumin seeds, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, star anise and coriander seeds, among other ingredients. Look for it at well-stocked grocery stores, Indian markets and specialty food shops.
Serves 6 to 8.
Source: Savory Spice Shop
Goat Cheese and Greens Salad
With Lavender Dressing
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon grainy mustard
2 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon dried lavender blossoms
3 cups washed arugula
3 cups mixed baby greens
3 to 4 ounces goat cheese, pinched off into small pieces
1/4 cup sliced almonds, toasted if desired
To make dressing, mix all ingredients in a blender and incorporate well. Set aside.
Mix greens together and place in shallow bowl. Dress and scatter with goat cheese pieces and almonds.
Source: Adapted from food.com.