Ever since I was a child I have been eating my way through the culinary spectrum. Even at the tender age 6, I would eat any vegetable and would try anything that was new and interesting. Jelly fish, caviar, lobster, venison and even broccoli were devoured and savored. Even now, as a vegetarian of over 20 years, I still find new and interesting things to eat.
The jewel of my pantry is my spice rack. It contains everything I need to travel to India on one night and to Spain on the next. There are four staples in my pantry that I am constantly using to enhance my meals. Sumac, Pimenton (Smoked Paprika), Saffron and Hungarian Paprika. I believe that everyone should have these four versatile spices in their pantry.
SUMAC is the bright purple-red berry found on the Rhus coriaria, a bush, that grows wild in the southern Mediterranean and the Middle East. Unlike its toxic cousins, poison sumac and poison ivy, the berry of this rhus plant can be dried and crushed into an edible souring agent. Try it in place of lemon juice, vinegar or other sour flavors in soups, salads, dressings or dry rubs. In the United States this spice is often sprinkled on a Fattoush salad or used as an accent on yogurt or hummus. Persian, Lebanese and Arab restaurants often have a container of sumac sitting along side the salt and pepper shakers. Sumac is great sprinkled on a cucumber salad or to brighten a bowl of canned soup. Try a little with your next meal and experience the versatility of this amazing little berry.
PIMENTON DE LA VERA, a smoked paprika popular in Spanish cooking, is one of the most underrated spices. Recently, this spice has been in the spotlight due to recent interest in food magazines and television. I have been cooking with Pimenton for years. Until the last few years, it was only available in ethnic grocery stores and on-line. This rich, aromatic powder is made from the beautiful pimiento. The pepper is smoked with oak, dried and then ground into a fine powder. This spice like Champagne in France or a regional olive oils in Italy has a PDO or protected designation of origin known as Denominacion de Origen in Spain. This means that only designated growers and spice producers can use this term for their smoked paprika. There are three main types of pimenton: dulce, agriducle and picante (sweet, bittersweet and hot). The hot variety does not have the heat of chilies, but adds a depth of flavor to your dish. Pimenton enhances everything including pan-fried perogies, tofu cutlets, grits, soups and bean dishes. Pimenton is also used to flavor Spanish chorizo and other meat dishes. If you like deep, smoky flavors, you will love pimenton whether it is sweet, bittersweet or hot.
SAFFRON, the world’s most expensive spice is also one of the culinary world’s most distinctive flavors. This red-orange jewel imparts an earthy but honey-like flavor to many popular dishes around the world. Imagine risotto Milanese, shirin polo, paella, bouillabaisse, or saffron buns without the flavor of this aromatic stigma. Saffron is made from the stigmas of a purple crocus. Today Kashmir and Spain are top producers of saffron, producing the highest quality and most sought after product. Each pound of dried saffron is made from between 200 to 250 thousand hand-picked stigmas or close to one hundred thousand flowers. Saffron gives each dish a delicate golden yellow color and flavor. Saffron should be used as the main flavor in any dish that also uses warm or hot milk, water or broth. If you feel like a culinary treat, purchase some high quality saffron and prepare a dish featuring this fragrant, intoxicating spice.
HUNGARIAN PAPRIKA is made from capsicum annuum, a shrub from the nightshade family that produces this wonderful pod. Hungarian paprika is considered the superior paprika. It has a sweet complex flavor that does more than accent your deviled eggs. It can be used in many of the same dishes as pimenton de la vera, but without the smoky flavor. It is a staple in Hungarian cooking and is used to flavor meats, goulash, sour cream sauces and salads. If you like the color of the common supermarket paprika, but long for more flavor this is your spice. The flavor is much sweeter than ground chili peppers and without the heat. Hungarian paprika is also sold in a hot variety and has more heat than the picante version of pimenton de la vera. There are more than two varieties of Hungarian paprika but the medium bodied version and hot are the most widely available in U.S. supermarkets. Hungarian paprika will add a whole new dimension to your cooking and your taste buds.
Now that you know more about these great spices, go out and try one or all of them. Don’t be afraid of adding more spice to your life.
*The program did not allow for accent marks and so they have been deleted to allow publication.