I love spices! Spices define a cook’s style. They are a way to express personality and are a fun way to create different and new flavors.

There are a lot of spices out there and I don’t know them all. Being Italian, there are some specific ones that I grew up using and still use ALL THE TIME. When I came to the States, I learned about many other spices and since then, have added new ones to my collection.

Do you know what I also found out since moving here? People are afraid of spices. I’m not sure why but if you’re one of those “Fraidy Cats”, you have no idea what you’re missing! The first thing you should do to get over your fear is to go to a spice specialty store. These stores are like a wonderland to me! I smell the different spices, taste them, learn about them and I always buy at least 1 item that I never tried before. At home, I play with the unfamiliar spice and see what I can create.

I have a dare for you: Go to a spice store or a store that shelves a lot of GOOD, fresh spices. Start by buying 1 or 2 familiar ones that you don’t already have on your spice rack (or are so old that you need to get rid of them). Then buy 1 or 2 unfamiliar ones (in a small amount), go home and play with them and create recipes out of them for the next couple of weeks. Once you become familiar with the spice, go back to the store and do the same thing all over again with different spices.

One spice that you’re probably familiar with that is always in my pantry is PAPRIKA. I love it!

Paprika is made from aromatic, sweet red pepper pods. The powdered spice is mainly used for savory dishes. The flavor of paprika can range from mild to pungent to hot and the color ranges from bright orange-red to deep blood-red. Most commercial paprika comes from Spain, South America, California and Hungary. The Hungarian variety is considered by many to be superior.

One of my very favorite varieties of paprika is PIMENTON. Pimenton is a special Spanish paprika made from peppers that have been slowly smoked and dried over oaks fires. The process gives the peppers a rich smoky quality. There are 3 version of pimenton: sweet and mild (dulce), bittersweet medium –hot (agridulce) and hot (picante). All supermarkets carry mild paprika, while ethnic or specialty markets must be searched out for the more pungent varieties. It’s worth the trip!

As with all herbs and spices, paprika should be stored in a cool, dark place for no more than 6 month; sometimes it can be stretched up to a year. I also suggest that if you don’t use a spice regularly to store it in the freezer. But to all of you that still are using the same jar of spice for the last 3-5 years; just toss that thing, will you? It’s no good!
CLOVE is another staple spice I use when a lot when I cook. Clove is the dried, unopened flower bud of the tropical evergreen clove tree. It’s reddish-brown in color and nail-shaped. Its name comes from CLAVUS, the Latin word for nail.

Cloves are sold whole or ground and can be used to flavor a multitude of dishes, ranging from sweet to savory. Clove is great to use in sweet breads, with beets, and in anything with beans and apples. I also use it in chicken and beef broth, carrots, chocolate, and add it to my onions, just to give you some ideas on how to get started with it.

Last but not least, I always make sure I have NUTMEG on hand. It’s a staple in northern Italian cuisine. A native of the Spice Islands, this seed comes from the nutmeg tree. When the fruit of the tree is picked, it is split to reveal the nutmeg seed which is surrounded by a lacy membrane that, when dried and ground, becomes the spice MACE. The hard, egg-shaped (it is not as big as an egg, don’t worry!) nutmeg seed is grayish-brown in color and about 1 inch long (see?).The flavor of nutmeg is delicately warm, spicy and sweet. Nutmeg is sold ground or whole. Whole nutmeg that is freshly ground with a nutmeg grater or grinder is superior to that which is commercially ground and packaged. Nutmeg is excellent when used in baked goods, milk-or cream based preparations like custards, white sauces or eggnog and on fruits and vegetables, particularly potatoes, spinach and squash.

Now, you can for sure start your new collection with these 3 spices but you don’t really have to go by me. Just go to the store, do some reading, smelling and tasting. Then pick some spices that really interest you and start cooking!