Spice me up
December 19, 2013 4:31 PM   Subscribe

Can you help me meet and learn about spices, but the minimal cooking version?

I'd like to learn about spices (as in the novelty in food or drink is great) and I know little to nothing.

But I really don't enjoy and am not likely to cook. I can boil, fry, put things in a george foreman grill.

If it requires elaborate tools or ingredients (excluding spices) or requires things beyond a few steps, it probably won't happen.

A plus would be that it can appear impressive, but novelty and minimal cooking are still on the top of the list (ie, can't find it now but I saw a description in one of these posts about cardomom powdered spice plus rice plus pods so it looked impressive but flavor was from the powder form).

I did find a couple previous questions about cardomom and saffron, but they are not necessarily focusing on easy to prepare/minimal cooking type foods.I am also assuming that there are many more spices that I haven't even heard about for that matter.

If you have seen blogs or posts that would be useful for this, please point to that, too. I did look through Amazon but the spice books were often either 1) woo woo/non science (it doesn't have to have science, but I don't chapters devoted about magical properties) or 2) elaborate recipes and descriptions, which was too much.

If you know good places to get spices, this would be helpful, too (I did find Penzeys online based on previous posts). I'm in NYC and I would be willing to journey to a burough, provided that I know what I'm looking for and why.

Hoping to end up with answers that I can try for the next few years.

As always, thank you in advance.
posted by Wolfster to Food & Drink (26 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
My favorite online reference is Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages
posted by gimli at 4:39 PM on December 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

What do you usually eat?

Usually you add spices to food.

If you do a lot of plain pan-fried or roast meats, spices are great to rub into the meat or put under the skin. If you cook a lot of plain ground beef and the like, you can add spices directly to that. Chili powder and cumin are great for that, if you do tacos or chili.

One of my favorite uses of spices is to add cumin to a grilled cheese sandwich (with good cheese; does not go well with Kraft slices). Just sprinkle directly on top of your cheese.

One thing that's great to do with the more sweet-oriented spices (for example clove, cardamom, and ginger) is to make chai. I actually sent my secret quonsar my best friend's ultra-traditional chai recipe as part of my gift, so I'm reluctant to type it here. But I'm open to sharing it with others via memail or by popular demand. It's definitely not "cooking" intensive: if you can boil water and steep tea, you can make chai.

You can also sprinkle spices on hot buttered popcorn.
posted by Sara C. at 4:51 PM on December 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

In terms of acquiring the spices, Kalustyan's (in NYC) is excellent, and I also regularly purchase spices online from World Spice in Seattle (they do an excellent job sourcing/describing/etc) -- also, apparently their owner has published a book titled The Contemporary Encyclopedia of Herbs and Spices which may be worth a look.
posted by j.edwards at 4:51 PM on December 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Cumin gets a lot of use around here. We also add paprika to a lot: mixed into breading or batter for fried things, sprinkled on meat for a goulash-type flavor, on eggs for a bit of interest.

Montreal steak seasoning is also a great all purpose blend. We usually put it in mashed potatoes or on veggies cooked various ways
posted by brilliantine at 4:59 PM on December 19, 2013

If you're able to travel to a Penzeys in person, they are awesome. They have containers out of all of the items in the store, and you can walk around and sniff things and read about the spices and contemplate life. Highly recommended.

They also make some awesome spice blends that would be great for grilling. I love Northwoods for meat and oven potatoes, and the Pizza Sprinkle and Sandwich Sprinkle are both terrific at their respective jobs.

It looks like the nearest one to you is on Long Island, but if you find yourself near one of the stores, it's well worth visiting.
posted by pie ninja at 5:00 PM on December 19, 2013

This might be more cooking than you ever do, but smoked paprika on french fries is DELICIOUS. If you ever fry up bland starchy stuff (home fries, latkes, potato wedges, probably also arancini), you really can't go wrong sprinkling on some smoked paprika.
posted by Sara C. at 5:02 PM on December 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

finecooking.com has some advice on how to bloom your spices. It's quick and easy and definitely worth it.
posted by zinon at 5:02 PM on December 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

More on the Adding Spices To Potato front, you can also add curry powder to mashed potatoes.


Such delicious

So flavor
posted by Sara C. at 5:04 PM on December 19, 2013

I also have a feeling you could add spices to boxed macaroni and cheese and it would be glorious. Not exactly sure what I'd put in there, though. Cayenne? Garam masala?
posted by Sara C. at 5:09 PM on December 19, 2013

Have you thought of incorporating fresh herbs? They are not unlike spices (I say this because back before I used to cook much, I had a "plant pieces that you use to flavor foods" category in my mind which I sometimes called "herbs" and sometimes "spices".)

So you can get fresh herbs at the grocery store - some places have big bunches in bulk, even some rather downmarket places. You can also get tiny boxes of fresh herbs. If you keep them in the freezer, they will last longer.

You can add fresh herbs to mayonnaise - dill mayonnaise, for instance, or basil. You can add fresh chopped herbs to a simple salad dressing. You can put basil leaves in a salad or on a sandwich. (Fresh basil is amazing.) You can put fresh herbs in scrambled eggs with cream cheese (or in an omelet). You can mix them in with olive oil for a light pasta sauce. You can put mint in with melon pieces and it's really good! You can drop a bay leaf or two into soup or beans or pasta sauce (actually, thyme and savory are also good for this) to give a little more kick to a storebought product.

If you have a blender, you can make all kinds of really easy spreads and dips with canned/jarred artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, nuts, etc - and you can jazz those up with herbs and spices. A blender is a great investment for this purpose - homemade dips are so easy and yet no one makes them. You can even just take a couple of little jars of marinated artichoke hearts, for instance, and blend them up and you've got a dip/pasta sauce/sandwich spread. You can blend olives with garlic and oil into tapenade.

So for instance, say you buy some raw cashews. Soak a cup of them in water for an hour, blend in a blender with some olive oil and add any of the following: garlic, paprika, cumin, chili, nutritional yeast, salt, pepper. And presto, you have a sandwich spread/dip. It isn't really "cooking" but everyone will be impressed.
posted by Frowner at 5:12 PM on December 19, 2013 [8 favorites]

I think the biggest trick is to make sure you gently heat the powdered spice in a liquid or oil before you do anything else with it. Just mixing a pinch of dry whatever--cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg--into something doesn't really make the spice bloom. (Baking is different, of course.)
posted by Ideefixe at 5:14 PM on December 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Dill weed. Dill weed. Dill weed. It's an herb, not a spice, but it will do wonderful things to anything that involves tomatoes, cheese or eggs. I even made up some fried potatoes today with hot paprika and glorious, glorious dill weed. Fresh or dried, it is still a lovely flavour that will sneak up on you sideways.

On not quite preview: Frowner is right about dill mayonnaise. What Sara C. is looking for in boxed mac and cheese is dill weed (and some paprika of any sort, and some drained yogurt instead of milk when you mix it up.)

And do not get me started on nutmeg. It's not just for sweet stuff, but works with greens (spinach soup with nutmeg!), eggs (again) and tourtière.
posted by maudlin at 5:17 PM on December 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

BTW, dill seed is very nice in the right place, but it mainly tastes of pickles and will overwhelm delicate dishes where, in contrast, dill weed sneaks in and gives it a sweet kiss.
posted by maudlin at 5:19 PM on December 19, 2013

For a less overwhelming spice store in NYC try Suillivan St Spice & Tea Co.

+1 on the smoked paprika. It is great in soup, too.

Have you tried the Thai curry paste in a jar. Just sauté some veggies and protein. Add a can of coconut milk, a bit of water and a few Tablespoons of curry paste. Simmer and serve. Easy and (I think) impressive.
posted by newsomz at 5:20 PM on December 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Do get a reasonable quality pepper grinder, fresh ground is just a different level. (Penzys has maybe a half dozen different whole peppers available)
posted by sammyo at 5:20 PM on December 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

I love every spice blend I have ever had from the Savory Spice Shop. If cooking deliciously spiced foods is your goal (as opposed to becoming a Mistress of Spices), you may want to buy and try a few. They have every possible individual spice too, but using their blends can effortlessly up your cooking game.
posted by Wordwoman at 5:26 PM on December 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm not thread sitting, but every answer so far is wonderful and includes some aspect that I do not/did not know about.

Frowner's answer is also very helpful because had absolutely no idea that there was a difference (I thought the leafy things were spices [vs herbs] that I just didn't understand) and those suggestions to do with herbs are far more than I even imagined.

I may eventually splurge and try getting a blender and/or grinder, but will see how initial trials/experiments go in terms of food and prep.

Thank you and I'd still love every suggestion possible.
posted by Wolfster at 5:29 PM on December 19, 2013

Yes, if you do nothing else, a pepper grinder will elevate the flavor of your foods tremendously. I also bought a salt grinder last year and I find that I have to be so careful not to oversalt things now -- it really shows me how little flavor there is in pre-ground salt. I've had a nutmeg grinder for years because I put a small amount of freshly ground nutmeg in my whoop-de-doo mac & cheese, and I can't imagine doing so with dried ground nutmeg. Grinder grinder grinder!
posted by janey47 at 5:42 PM on December 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

I also have a feeling you could add spices to boxed macaroni and cheese and it would be glorious. Not exactly sure what I'd put in there, though. Cayenne? Garam masala?

I guess it doesn't show me off to my most highbrow advantage to reveal how much I know about this important subject, but cumin is the go-to here. Dried (or for that matter jarred) mustard also works great.
posted by escabeche at 5:57 PM on December 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you like to grill stuff, there's tons of spice mixes you can try on grilled meats. I'd start there.

You say you can boil --- do you like beans? They're a pretty good neutral medium for experimenting with spices. Open a can and rinse 'em off, then dump in a pot, add the stuff below, and simmer for an hour or so:

Black beans --- bay leaves, onion, cumin, oregano, epazote, pinch of salt, 1/2 bottle beer (extra credit: chop up a slice of bacon and brown it off in the bottom of the pan before adding the rest of the ingredients)

Red kidney beans --- onion, oregano, two cloves of garlic, spoonful of tomato paste, goya saizon OR smoked paprika + cumin, 1/2 bottle beer. (extra credit: add chopped chorizo).

White beans --- rosemary and bay

I know you're saying simple methods are very important to you. But if you're getting into spices, you should know that a lot of the flavor of spices comes in the form of natural oils, which can evaporate over time. This means two things:

1) whole spices retain much more their flavor and keep it much longer, so for absolute best flavor you're better off buying whole and grinding just before you use them (Takes literally 20 second to do this in one of these)

2) Toasting spices --- which heats up the oils and releases their aroma --- will do a helluva lot to improve flavor also. Pretty much every Indian food recipe starts with toasting spices either dry or in oil as a first step, and the sub continent knows from spice.

Whatever you do, have fun with it. Think about cuisines/dishes that you like and start off with some grill mixes from those cuisines (herbs de provence, italian seasoning, Cajun rubs, Old Bay). You'll find as you get into it that pretty much every cuisine in the world has a set of core spices and aromatics that pop up in most every dish --- and once you learn to recognize your favorite notes, you'll be able to play your own tunes.

I also have a feeling you could add spices to boxed macaroni and cheese and it would be glorious. Not exactly sure what I'd put in there, though. Cayenne? Garam masala?

When I do homemade mac n' cheese, I usually put a dash of cayenne, thyme and mustard in with the bechamel. Might omit the mustard for boxed -- the chedder is milder and might not stand up to it.
posted by Diablevert at 6:18 PM on December 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Store the spices in a dark, dry place.

Most health food stores have spice bulk bins, which are handy.
posted by sebastienbailard at 7:36 PM on December 19, 2013

This is the best book about spices, ever. And it has recipes. And serving suggestions.
posted by girlgenius at 11:07 PM on December 19, 2013

I put either nutmeg or chili powder into my mac n' cheese.
posted by belladonna at 7:06 AM on December 20, 2013

It might be helpful to give a few examples of what you normally cook. Would something like a chicken curry be too complicated? A beef stew?

I can think of several applications of spices that go on top of something (chipotle grilled chicken) or are mixed into something (parsley in meatballs), but for lots of different spices they require a good long simmer. This, IMO, is where stuff gets interesting.

For example, as a little kid I thought bay leaves were magical. Put a few in a beef stew, pot of beans, something that simmers for a few hours and then pull them out before serving. Same with making spiced cider. You fill a tea ball or cheesecloth bag with various pointy/stick like things and apple juice gets transformed.

I think the best way to learn about this is to start with a dish you can taste as it cooks, so any kind of soup or stew is a good example. Taste it before you add salt, then after. Taste before you add some spices, then after. Let it cook for longer then taste again. It'll keep changing and you'll begin to calibrate your taste for seasonings.
posted by fontophilic at 7:13 AM on December 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

(With the herbs - start small. Bay leaves, rosemary, thyme and other "twiggy" herbs are often quite strong, so more than a bay leaf or two or a sprig or two (or a sprig's worth of leaves) will be too much. Basil and dill and other "leafy" herbs are not quite as strong - you can start out with a tablespoon or two, depending on how big the item you're making is, and add more as needed. Bay leaves can be quite sharp, so if they are in a soup or a stew, try not to actually serve them in the bowl. I try to remove them from the pot, actually, at the end.

Also, for "twiggy" herbs - you can tie them together with kitchen string and pull them out of the soup at the end.)
posted by Frowner at 9:40 AM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's not specifically about spices, but I love The Flavor Bible. It's literally just lists of flavors/ingredients that go together, so you can look up a spice like "allspice" and see that it would be good with apples or beef or carrots (or a million other things), or look up a food like "bananas" and see that good spices to add are cardamom or cinnamon or cloves.
posted by teditrix at 9:46 AM on December 20, 2013

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