Jan 29, 2018

Let’s Talk About Spices

MaryAnn Miano

Pepper and cloves and cinnamon and nutmeg are surely the spices of life, the very ingredients that fragrantly flavor our foods and add interest to our meals. What would a plum pudding or mince pie be if we had no cinnamon or nutmeg? How strange would our cakes taste without the familiar vanilla?

Let’s not forget that Barbary pirates preyed upon the richly laden spice cargo ships sailing home from the Orient to a young America. It was a dangerous trade for the English and Dutch who faced not only pirates but fever-ridden jungles in their quest to obtain spices. Spices were once worth their weight in gold. Only one of the explorer Magellan’s five boats ever got back to Spain, but when it did, the cargo of spices it carried was valuable enough to pay for the whole expedition.  Luckily for us today, bringing spices grown overseas to our kitchens is safe, albeit less exciting, than those days of the high seas.

Connecticut is often called the Nutmeg State, but the nutmeg of commerce was hardly known in America when Connecticut became part of the Union. Even in Europe it did not come into general use before 1790. The trade in nutmeg was mostly in the hands of the Dutch, but today nutmeg is grown in Indonesia and Granada.  Grated nutmeg is used to flavor many desserts. It’s also used in cream sauces, meat rubs, eggs, and over vegetables such as squash, carrots, cauliflower, spinach, and potatoes. The sweet-smelling nutmeg balls come from a small tree having yellowish flowers that are followed by a fleshy “drupe” about two inches long.

Only one of the well-known substances that we use to make food taste better is found in the New World; that is vanilla. Before Columbus arrived, no European had ever heard of it. But the Indians of Southern Mexico knew how to use those long pods of a curious climbing orchid, and even grew them on a small scale. They used the delicate flavor to make their bitter chocolate taste a little better.  Eventually, the vanilla bean was taken to be grown on the Pacific Islands such as Tahiti.

The flavor is all in the long slender pods. They are about as thick as your finger, and yellow or brown when ripe. They must be cured and fermented, taking several months to reach their peak flavor.  Chemists found a way to make artificial vanilla, called vanillin. It is almost as good as the natural product, but nothing is better than the real thing.

Few spices come from flowers, so it seems all the more strange that cloves should be merely the dried, unopened flower buds on an East Indian tree that is the second cousin to the nutmeg.  It grew wild only in the Moluccas, and from there the Chinese gathered it at least two centuries B.C. It was so much prized that caravans carried it thousands of miles overland to Europe where cloves were known as early as the eighth century. But, it did not grow common until the Dutch began importing it by sea about 1600.

Grown in Zanzibar, the trees do not flower for several years, but after the eighth year they produce many pounds of dried cloves. Every one of the blood-red buds must be picked by hand, so it is no wonder that cloves are pretty expensive. Their flavor comes from aromatic oil contained within.

Cinnamon is from the bark of the young shoots of its tree. By stripping off the bark and peeling off its outer skin, the cinnamon sticks are left to dry. Once dry, they are sold as is or ground into a powder.

There are so many good things to flavor food with. Most of them come from the Far East, a very few from America, and a handful from temperate regions. The chief spices besides the ones mentioned above, are:  curry, ginger, allspice, turmeric, cardamom, thyme, caraway, paprika, anise, cayenne pepper, chili powder, and capers. Keep in mind in yester-year battles have been fought and men have lost their lives that they might bring from the East the odorous spices to give a tang and a kick to our food!  How lucky we are to easily find them all at our local grocers. Try the recipe of the month to sample some of them.




– 5 tablespoons vegetable oil

– 2 large onions, chopped

– 1 chili pepper, chopped

– 5 cloves garlic, chopped

– 2 pounds lean ground beef

– 3 (14.5 ounce) cans whole peeled tomatoes with liquid, chopped

– 1 ½ teaspoons salt

– 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

– 1 ½ tablespoons ground cumin

– ½ tablespoon chili powder

– 2 tablespoons paprika

– 2 tablespoons dried oregano

– 2 cinnamon sticks

– 6 whole cloves

– 2 (15.25 ounce) cans red kidney beans, rinsed and drained


1. In a medium-sized stock pot, heat the oil over  medium heat. Saute` onion, chili pepper and garlic until soft. Add ground beef: cook and stir until meat is browned.

2. Pour in tomatoes with liquid, salt, pepper, cumin, chili powder, paprika, oregano, cinnamon sticks, and cloves. Cover and simmer for 45 minutes.

3. Stir in kidney beans, and cook another 15 minutes. Remove cinnamon sticks before serving.

Recipe from: