A sprinkle of this or that turns an everyday food into something with tasty international flair.
No, it isn't hard to be an international chef―even if you rarely travel beyond your local grocery store. By simply adding a few herbs and spices to your kitchen collection, you can prepare dishes from all over the world. In Chicago, for example, Patty Erd, co-owner of the Spice House, has created seasoning blends inspired by, and named after, that city's ethnic enclaves. Here, Erd reveals the ingredients that make each cuisine come alive.
Nutmeg is a main ingredient in Caribbean cooking―for good reason: "It's grown there," says Erd. "They also use a lot of allspice and ginger."
Try: In the Spice House's recipe for Jamaican Red Bean Soup (thespicehouse.com).
"French cooking uses virtually no spices but plenty of herbs," says Erd, "because the herbs grow in many French backyards." That means rosemary, thyme, tarragon, and marjoram, to name a few―all of which can show up in the classic blend herbes de Provence, which you can make by combining an assortment of those herbs (fresh or dried) in your kitchen. Just chop up the components and mix them to taste, or look online for one of the many recipes for this blend, which sometimes includes basil, savory, cracked fennel, or lavender.
Try: Make an herbes de Provence-infused oil (thespicehouse.com), and sprinkle it on beef, roast lamb, chicken, pork, zucchini, or tomatoes.
Nutmeg and mace (another part of the nutmeg plant) are at the top of the list in German cooking. "Mace and nutmeg are not indigenous to Germany, " Erd notes, "but they go in a lot of sausages."
Try: Apple-Ginger Streusel Coffee Cakes (thespicehouse.com).
Contrary to popular belief, there is no one spice called curry. Curry powder is actually a mix of any number of pungent spices, and the recipe for that blend can vary from cook to cook. "It's very personal to you and what your family likes," says Erd. Cumin and turmeric are staples, though. Other possibilities include―but aren't limited to―coriander, ginger, black pepper, red pepper, cloves, white pepper, nutmeg, fennel, cinnamon, saffron, and mace.
Try: In the Spice House's recipe for Sweet Curry Carrot Soup (thespicehouse.com).
Ireland isn't exactly known for its spices, so Erd's shop came up with its Bridgeport Seasoning (named after a predominantly Irish neighborhood in Chicago), a mix that pairs well with potatoes, the Irish staple. "We used some of the things that are indigenous to Ireland that are not technically spices," says Erd. The mix includes red bell peppers, onion, cayenne, toasted onion, Romano cheese, thyme, rosemary, and basil.
Try: The Spice House recommends coating small red or new potatoes with oil, then rolling them in the seasoning ($4.38, thespicehouse.com). Then wrap in foil and grill.
Many of Italian cuisine's characteristic flavors don't come from spices, "but a lot of the things we call spices―like garlic and onion―get used a lot in Italian cooking," says Erd. For her shop's Italian-inspired blend, Taylor Street Cheese Sprinkle (named after a predominantly Italian neighborhood in Chicago), she uses garlic, Italian parsley, salt, powdered green peppercorns, scallions, and powdered Romano cheese. The Spice House's seasonings all use dried ingredients, but Erd says, "If you don't have the seasoning, you can certainly use fresh ingredients."
Try: Tylor Street Cheese Sprinkle ($4.58, thespicehouse.com) in pasta sauces or on roast chicken or fish.
"Cumin is used in pretty much all Hispanic cooking," Erd says. She also recommends keeping onions, garlic, and Mexican oregano (available at finer grocery stores or from the Spice House) on hand. "Mexican oregano tends to be more bitter and earthy than the oregano you use for Italian cooking," she says. "It holds its own better among the other strong spices because it's not as delicate and sweet."
Try: Sopa de Lima, a traditional soup from Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula (thespicehouse.com).
Cardamom is used to flavor coffee in the Middle East, but it plays a role in Scandinavian cooking, too, particularly in desserts. "It's a little green pod that has a very distinctive taste that's almost like eucalyptus," says Erd. "I have a couple of customers who put it under their children's pillows when they are congested."
Try: Rich Cardamom Cookies (thespicehouse.com).