When I was seven, a friend came round for tea and saw my Mum putting bay leaves and cinnamon stick into whatever stew she was making for our dinner. This being the seventies rural Cambridgeshire, my friend had never seen these ingredients before and thought my Mum was a witch!
Cooking for me is something like bubbling up a magic potion. The chemistry of cooking is such that you can become an amateur alchemist and one of the easiest ways to wave a magic wand at your cooking to make it more special and more individual is to experiment with spices.
Be creative and ta-dah! You too can create your own wizardry effects.
Although stocking up on large money-saving bags in Asian supermarkets – such as the fantabulous Sweet Mart in Easton, Bristol, which I cannot recommend highly enough; it is packed full of reasonably priced culinary treasures from all over the world – can seem like a good idea at the time, most spices have to be absolutely fresh to taste at their best.
We need to warm ourselves up on these chilly, dark November nights and spices hit the spot for me. What are your favourite spices?
My top five essential spices:
1 Cumin – earthy and evocative of many different cuisines, including Middle Eastern, Indian and Mexican
2 Garam masala – a mother of an Indian friend made this for me once and it was so brilliant I used it for over a year without it going stale. With a spice grinder it’s easy to make your own though. Simply place 3 tbsp of cardamom seeds, 2 tbsp of cumin seeds, 1 tbsp of peppercorns, half a cinnamon stick, 6 cloves and ½tsp of ground nutmeg into a spice mill for a few minutes.
3 Tumeric – good for colour in the obvious curries but also a cheap and easy alternative to saffron for paella
4 Chinese five spice – use this for a dish to be shared with friends and an utterly irresistible fragrance will greet them as they enter your house
5 Smoked paprika – want to add an instant Spanish kick to a dish? Use this, now widely available in supermarkets and an integral ingredient of chorizo