Second Act

14 Must-Have Herbs and Spices

Comedian Michael McIntyre has a hilarious bit about the neglected jars lined up in the spice cabinet, peeking through the crack in the cabinet door and jealously observing salt and pepper on the table. Paprika bemoans, “Every day I would pray, I pray it is goulash is never goulash day.”

Spices and herbs are key to creating healthy, nutritious meals that also are flavorful. But many cooks, even experienced ones, underutilize spices and are intimidated to try new flavors unless a recipe specifically calls for them. Deana recently took some homegrown summer squash to a friend’s house and they spontaneously decided to cook it for dinner. When Deana asked, “Where’s your spice cabinet?” her friend laughed and pointed to a corner of the pantry where she kept the salt and pepper.

You don’t need a gourmet collection, but stocking up on even a handful of spices can add dimension and flavor to basic meals, reducing the need for added salt and fat in savory dishes. Warm spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg liven up sweet treats, reducing the need for added sugar.

Here is our list of must-have herbs and spices for the kitchen, including two versatile blends found at Trader Joe’s markets. If you’re an experienced cook, you probably are familiar with these seasonings but might be looking for a little inspiration. If you’re a beginner, this collection makes a great start.

1. Basil
Basil is terrific in salad dressings, pastas, curries, pizza sauce, poultry and meats. We prefer fresh basil, and Trader Joe’s often sells large basil plants and frozen basil cubes, but dried basil also is great to have on hand. A new trend is to use basil in desserts, such as our favorite lemon basil cake.

2. Oregano
Known to have strong antibacterial properties and packed with antioxidants, oregano is great for pasta sauce, pizza sauce, seafood and chicken dishes such as this tasty Greek Chicken Stew. Also try marjoram, which is a variety of oregano with a sweeter and milder flavor.

3. Rosemary
With its great aroma and flavor, rosemary is great on seafood, pasta, roasted potatoes and roasted chicken. Try it on our Rosemary Potato Pizza.

4. Cumin
A crucial spice for many Indian and Middle Eastern dishes, cumin adds smoky depth to soups and chilis (we especially like it in black bean soup) and is essential for making a great hummus.

5. Cinnamon
A warm, versatile spice, cinnamon is good with oatmeal in the morning, savory Middle Eastern dishes such as kebabs and rice, and simple desserts such as rice pudding. Sprinkle cinnamon on baked pears, French toast and Greek yogurt. Studies have shown that cinnamon can help lower cholesterol, regulate blood sugar levels and relieve arthritis.

6. Curry powder
Curry powder is the star ingredient in curried vegetables, curried rice, curried sweet potatoes and curry sauces. Try ready-made sauces for quick and tasty meals, such as Quinoa Mulligatawny, a delicious vegetarian curried soup. Studies have suggested that curry may protect against diseases such as heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s; Alzheimer’s rates in India are about four times lower than in the United States.

7. Garlic
Garlic is indispensable for pastas, stir-fry, vegetables and garlic bread. It’s also delicious roasted whole and becomes a creamy mellow spread for bread or crackers. Dehydrated garlic is a good choice for your spice cabinet and has better flavor than garlic powder. We prefer the flavor of fresh garlic and also like the convenience of frozen garlic cubes. Besides being the highlight of many meals, garlic is believed to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and increase immunity.

8. Vanilla
Vanilla extract is a must for many cookies, desserts, pies and puddings. It also adds luxurious flavor to oatmeal, coffee, hot cocoa and warm milk.

9. Saffron
Underused (and somewhat pricey), saffron creates a wonderful taste sensation in rice dishes, meats, stews and desserts. Cooking tip: Soak saffron threads for a few minutes in warm water to release their intense color, fragrance and flavor.

10. Nutmeg
Like cinnamon, nutmeg adds warmth and flavor to desserts, breads, stews, curries and even pasta dishes. Sprinkle over smoothies, eggnog, mulled wines, and coffee or chai. For the best flavor, buy whole nutmeg (not ground) and use a micrograter to grate as needed.

11. Salt
The king of basic seasoning, salt enhances the flavor of foods. Salt (and pepper) can be bought in containers with built-in grinders for maximum flavor. Try kosher salt or sea salt for the best taste.

12. Pepper
Black pepper pairs with salt and is best freshly ground. Besides basic seasoning, pepper can be mixed with lemon zest and heavy cream for a great linguine sauce.

13. 21 Seasoning Salute
This sodium-free blend of spices and herbs works well in soups, rubbed on roasted or grilled chicken and fish, or sprinkled on top of roasted vegetables, such as our Roasted Cauliflower recipe, included below.

14. Pumpkin Pie Spice
This blend of warm spices is perfect in oatmeal, pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread, rice pudding, muffins, butternut squash soup, glazed carrots, and tea or coffee.

Roasted Cauliflower with Olives

If you’re not a fan of cauliflower, chances are you were subjected to smelly, mushy, boiled cauliflower at some point in your life. Roasted cauliflower is something different--so simple and incredibly delicious. Roasting cauliflower in the oven at high heat brings out the natural sweetness and retains its wonderful texture. Best of all, roasting is hands-free. The sweetness is balanced by salty Kalamata olives and a sprinkle of 21 Seasoning Salute (available at Trader Joe’s). This rustic dish is equally good as an appetizer or side. If you skip the olives, add some grated Parmesan cheese after roasting.

1 (12 oz) pkg cauliflower florets, or 4 cups of fresh cauliflower cut into florets
4 tsp olive oil
1/2 tsp 21 Seasoning Salute (or your favorite seasoning)
1/2 cup Kalamata olives, about a dozen

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
2. Toss cauliflower with olive oil to coat evenly. Sprinkle on 21 Seasoning Salute and stir evenly. Mix in olives.
3. Place seasoned cauliflower on a baking sheet, spreading evenly in a single layer. Roast for 20 minutes, flipping halfway through baking time to roast evenly. Cauliflower will be crisp-tender. If you prefer softer cauliflower, continue roasting for an additional 10 minutes.
4. Remove from heat and serve.

Prep time: 5 minutes
Hands-off cooking time: 20 minutes
Serves 6