Whether to help the budget or eat more health food, cooking and eating at home is becoming more attractive than ever. If you're an at-home cook looking for an easy way to expand your culinary horizons for a holiday get-together or gathering, try creating some new taste sensations in familiar dishes by using new versions of your favourite spices to liven up familiar dishes.
Cinnamon is an especially popular spice that comes from the bark of an evergreen tree. For an even sweeter seasoning, try Vietnamese cinnamon. Compared to the more familiar Indonesian types, Vietnamese cinnamon has a distinctly sweet flavour and exceptionally high volatile oil content, the key flavour component. Gourmet cooks rate it as the highest-quality cinnamon in the world. Try using it in everything from oatmeal and baked goods to desserts, beverages and savoury dishes.
If you're a daring lover of heat in your food, you've learned the ways of cayenne. Cayenne adds colour and flavour to Southwestern salsas, Indian chutneys, Thai curries, Mexican enchiladas, Chinese stir-fries, Texan chili con carne, Cajun hot sauce and many other recipes. But for a smokier flavour, try chipotle peppers, which are actually dried, smoked jalapeno peppers. Their smoky-sweet flavour is often used in Southwestern and Mexican dishes. Add a dash to liven up everything from chili to barbecued fare.
Freshly ground black pepper is popular in a wide variety of foods, works well in combination with other herbs and spices and is commonly found in spice blends. To change things up, try using Sichuan (Szechuan) pepper instead of black pepper to add an exotic twist to recipes. Gourmet Sichuan pepper is grown in China and offers an unusual, pungent flavour that begins as warm and lemon-like with woodsy overtones and finishes with a more intense bite. It intensifies the flavour of fish, poultry, cheese and vegetables.
You've probably been using vanilla extract to flavour all kinds of desserts, beverages and other dishes. One way to ramp up the flavour is to switch to vanilla beans instead of using the liquid extract. Simply substitute one vanilla bean for each teaspoon of extract, cooking it with the liquid used in the recipe and then removing it. The most common type of vanilla, Bourbon vanilla beans, are grown in Madagascar and are very aromatic with a full, rich taste. But to bump up the flavour, try Papua New Guinea vanilla beans, cultivated in the lowlands of the Pacific Basin.
They have a fruitier taste than that of the Bourbon beans, with some notes of cherry that add a deep, long-lasting flavour to ice creams, frosting and many beverages.
Nutmeg is the dried seed of the fruit of an evergreen tree, which most often comes in ground form. However, nutmeg, like many spices, loses both flavour and aroma after it is ground. Instead, buy whole nutmeg and grind it yourself using a special nutmeg grater or a fine grater, producing a more robust and fresh flavour. Warm and sweet, nutmeg adds depth to desserts, cheeses, savoury dishes and a variety of vegetables. Don't forget to sprinkle it on eggnog, mulled wines and punches. Mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes are delicious with a light dusting of nutmeg, too.
With just a few simple substitutions like these, you can go beyond the everyday with your spices and create a whole new meal experience. You'll be amazed at the difference small changes like these can make - and you'll have fun bringing new, creative flavours into your cooking.