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Spice Up Your Life: An easy guide to a more delicious meal

Katy Vogt/Daily Senior Staffer
Ready for Action: With the right spice artillery on hand, you’ll be prepared to make any dish more flavorful.

Katy Vogt, Blogger

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If you’re willing to take a risk or even just get creative, there are tons of delicious opportunities right at your finger tips. How so? Spices! A little pinch of this and a little dash of  that can go a long way if artfully combined. After a mind-blowing experience in Istanbul, Turkey, this summer, including many visits to the Spice Bazaar, I’ve become a convert: Everything is better with an added kick. And want to know a secret? Spicing up your food really isn’t that hard! If you keep a select group of seasonings at the ready and follow a few simple rules, you’ll be well on your way to a more exciting gustatory experience.

Here are five spices I find particularly useful in a wide range of dishes:

Garlic powder, a great addition to almost every savory dish. Despite its bad rap as a fresh breath deterrent and association with vampires, garlic is a standout performer for anything from pasta sauce to salad dressing to meat rub.

Basil, the complement to any Italian cuisine, particularly in concert with tomatoes, onions and garlic. Though best known for its key role in pesto, basil can also be added to sauces or soups for that light, sweet flavor we all love.

Chili powder, the go-to for adding heat to your dish. I love adding chili powder to black bean soup to zest it up a bit, but the right amount of chili powder will be at home in any Mexican, Indian, Chinese or Thai recipe. And of course, no chili con carne would be complete without the actual chili.

Whole peppercorns, practically the most universally used spice out there behind salt. It can be added to almost any savory dish, and throwing it in at the end of the cooking process will keep its flavor from getting dulled. Also, grinding up whole peppercorns releases a much richer and more full flavor than the pre-ground variety.

Cinnamon, a surprisingly diverse seasoning. Though you would typically imagine cinnamon as the perfect finish to a delicious apple crisp, baked good or cider, cinnamon also serves as a great seasoning for poultry or fish. Personally, I love adding a dash of cinnamon to my coffee instead of sugar for sweetness and extra warmth!

If you’re feeling a little more ambitious, I’d also recommend these three:

Rosemary, a primary component of meat rubs for poultry or lamb. As a member of the mint family, rosemary adds that sweet tinge without overwhelming the taste buds.

Paprika, in my opinion, a highly underrated spice. Paprika is great with vegetables, meats and deviled eggs, adding not only a festive color but also a full, nutty flavor.

Cumin, another great Mexican seasoning. I usually throw this one in my black bean soup for some more warmth.

If you’re trying to build up your seasoning repertoire, I would recommend going to either Whole Foods, 1111 Chicago Ave., or Trader Joe’s, 1407 Waukegan Rd., Glenview. Whole Foods is a great place to start your spice exploration because you can buy as little or as much of an ingredient as you want — they’re all in bulk! You can try and try again without burning holes in your wallet or making a commitment to half a pound of dill weed. If you find a spice you’re particularly fond of, head to Trader Joe’s. They’ve got the most reasonable prices I’ve found so far, and I’m a super fan of their “21 Seasoning Salute,” a great blend of all sorts of spices ranging from cayenne pepper to oregano to lemon peel. I love tossing skillet-popped popcorn with this seasoning in lieu of butter for a light snack.

The one piece of advice I’ll leave you with is the cardinal rule of spicing: moderation. Always err on the side of caution when adding seasonings to your dishes. Though a spice can be immensely rewarding, too much of it can make your dish practically inedible … or sneeze-inducing. So, taste as you go and add as needed. Give a chance to something you may not be sure of, and feel free to share your success with your hungry friends.

— Katy Vogt