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A well stocked spice rack is an asset to any kitchen. Plain dishes can become aromatic flavor sensations, and humdrum recipes can be given new life, just with the addition of the right touch of spice.

For most dishes, there is the perfect spice, but you don’t have to have an extensive rack of spices to enjoy experimenting and creating your own combinations. Spices, as opposed to herbs, are the seeds and roots of aromatic plants, and can be bought in powdered, whole seed or whole clove form. In use, generally less is best, as the flavors of spices can be very strong.

Here are a few suggestions for the most popular spices and their uses:

Cinnamon

Cinnamon is the aromatic bark of a member of the Laurel tree family. There is also Chinese cinnamon, which comes from a member of the Cassia family. One of the most familiar and beloved of spices, cinnamon has a lovely nostalgic flavor that is mainly used in sweet dishes. You can buy cinnamon in powdered form and as rolled quills of bark. One of the simplest ways to use cinnamon is to make cinnamon sugar. Add a teaspoon of cinnamon to a cup of finely granulated sugar and mix well. Use it to sprinkle on pancakes, breakfast cereal or freshly baked apple cake. Cinnamon and apples are a classic combination. A quick ice cream topping can be made with pureed apples and cinnamon sugar. Cinnamon quills are also useful. Add them to mulled wines, use as a spoon to stir hot milk or cocoa, or bundle to use as room fresheners in pot pourri.

Ginger

This is a `hot’ spice with a familiar flavor that tickles the tongue and the imagination. Many of us remember home made ginger beer and dark moist gingerbread from our childhood, but the rise in Asian cuisine worldwide has opened up the uses of ginger to include savory and meat dishes. Fresh ginger is part of the whole ginger root, which can be peeled and sliced, or grated to use in recipes. Powdered ginger is most often used in baking. There are also other ways to obtain ginger, such as crystallised pieces and piquant pickled ginger. Try grating fresh ginger into a simple stir fry, or add it to carrots while they are steaming. Make a ginger sugar with one teaspoon of powdered ginger and one cup of fine sugar, and this this instead of plain sugar to macerate fresh fruits – this will give your fruit salad a delicious Oriental flavor. Crystallised ginger can be added to fruit cakes or scattered over ice cream for a dessert. Pickled ginger, available from Asian supermarkets, is marvellous in sweet and sour dishes, and as an accompaniment to dim sum..

Cardamom

This lovely, subtle spice also comes from the ginger family. The green cardamom pod is often used in powdered form and gives a beautiful flavor to cakes and cookies. It is also an ingredient in Chai tea. It makes a gentle substitute for ginger when you don’t want such a strong flavor. Try it in milk smoothies, or beat it into softened ice cream

Nutmeg

This nostalgic spice is usually found in whole nutmeg cloves or ground to powder. Nutmeg is the richly aromatic seed of the Nutmeg tree. A pinch of the ground powder adds a traditional flavor to egg custards and eggnogs. In a blender, mix 1 cup of milk, a whole egg and a banana until smooth. Sprinkle grated nutmeg over the top. Nutmeg can be used in fruit cake mixtures as well, and is a welcome addition to potpourri. But for a fresher taste, try grating whole nutmegs yourself.

Saffron

An expensive spice ground from the stigma of the crocus flower, but essential to correctly present delicious Indian cuisine. The simplest way to use saffron is to add a few grains in warm water to cooked rice. It colors and flavors the rice to be the perfect accompaniment to curry. Saffron is also traditionally used to flavor and color fish dishes.

Paprika

A mild red spice from the chilli family, paprika is essential to dishes such as goulash. Paprika can be used to flavor and color many simple dishes. Add it to scrambled eggs or Welsh rarebit for chilli spice without the heat. The smoky Spanish version is known as pimenton and comes in mild and hot varieties. Pimenton is an essential ingredient in paella.

Allspice

This is the one to have if you don’t want a shelf full of spices and just want that warm cosy feeling of spices in your home. It is a very popular spice around the world, from the Middle East to the Caribbean, and is used in savory and sweet dishes. The aroma and flavor incorporates aromas of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. If bought as whole seeds, it can be ground for use in recipes, or used whole in mulls and potpourri.

Cloves

Some people may recall being treated with oil of cloves when they had a toothache as children. Clove oil is certainly a powerful painkiller. But it is those small black seeds that reign supreme in an apple pie. The seeds are highly aromatic and only three of four need be used to infuse stewed apples. But they are also an essential ingredient in chutneys and pickles, lending their special flavor to these rich blends.

There are many more spices you can experiment with to add a lift to your cooking, but with just these few, you can fill your kitchen with the warm spicy scents that make food really special.

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