If this week's arctic blast created a longing for a little spice in your life, consider your kitchen an ideal starting point. Adding a shake and a dash of herbs and spices to your meals is certain to warm the fires within. But if such a foray seems fraught with difficulty, take heart: seasoning with herbs and spices is not as complicated as you might imagine. With a bit of inspiration, imagination, and experimentation, a world of more flavorful food is well within reach.\nTo begin, consider the term "spice." It is often used to mean any aromatic flavoring of vegetable origin, but is something of an all-inclusive term that encompasses not one substance, but four different categories: spices, herbs, aromatic seeds and seasonings/blends.\nSpices are derived from the bark, root, fruit, or berry of perennial plants, such as cinnamon from bark, ginger from roots, nutmeg from the fruit and pepper from the berry. By contrast, herbs are the leaves of annual and perennial low-growing shrubs -- basil, oregano, tarragon, thyme, rosemary and the like.\nAromatic seeds are the seeds of graceful, lacy annual plants -- Anise, Love-in-the-Mist, Caraway, Fennel, Coriander -- and seasonings or blends generally are blends of spices and/or herbs and/or seeds. They are usually intended for one specific purpose such as poultry seasoning, Cajun Blend, Provencal herbs, lemon-dill seafood seasoning or curry powder.\nSo how much is enough? Generally figure a half teaspoon of dried herbs or ground spices for four servings as a good starting point. Too much can ruin the dish, so use restraint to begin, then add more according to your tastes.\nCooked foods such as stews, soups and sauces will taste best if herbs are added during the last hour of cooking (spices can be added earlier). Uncooked foods such as salad dressings, fruits and juices need time for the flavors to "marry," so add herbs and spices as long before serving as possible.\nChoose ground spices for convenience and whole spices for longevity and stronger flavor. Grind or crush whole spices as needed with a mortar and pestle or by whacking with a spoon or can. The latter is advisable for relieving stress and frustration in the process.\nIf you have a few bottles of herbs and spices gathering cupboard cobwebs, check for freshness. If no aroma is detected after crushing, the seasoning needs to be replaced. Store your seasonings in a tightly covered container (a recycled screw top jar) away from moisture and excessive heat. Dampness will cause caking; heat, a loss of aroma. Use clean, dry spoons for measuring.\nWhich spice is right? The one that tastes right for you. Seasoning is not an exact science, but an expressive art -- and you are the artist. Consider buying small amounts of new herbs and spices in bulk at the natural grocery store -- that way you can determine which flavors you prefer for a few pennies of investment. Crush some of it and let it warm in your hand; then sniff and taste it. If it is delicate, you can be bold and adventurous. If it is very strong and pungent, use a light hand the first time you use it.\nBegin your experimentation with a familiar, simple, relatively "basic" recipe and release your inner artist in a simple taste test. For example, a bit of cinnamon in your pancakes, crumbled sage in your cornbread, basil and oregano in your pasta, cumin on your mashed potatoes or ginger in your muffins. To jumpstart your creative juices, give one of these piquant recipes a try.
SIZZLE & SPICE SWEET POTATOES
2 small sweet potatoes (3/4 pound total) \n2 to 3 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil \n1/2 teaspoon salt \n1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper\n 1/8 teaspoon cayenne\n1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon\n 1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
Preheat oven to 500F. Peel potatoes and dice (about 1/2-inch size). Transfer to a shallow baking pan and toss with oil to coat. Combine salt and spices and sprinkle over potatoes. Roast potatoes in lower third of oven, turning over halfway through roasting, until tender and browned, 15 to 20 minutes total. Makes 4 servings.
CHILLEQUILES (MEXICAN SCRAMBLED EGGS)
6 eggs\n1/2 teaspoon salt\n1/2 teaspoon ground pepper\n1 teaspoon ground cumin\n2 tablespoons vegetable oil\n2 5 to 6-inch corn tortillas, cut into 2 x 1/4- inch strips\n1 tablespoon minced seeded jalapeno chili\n1 cup shredded Monterey Jack or Cheddar cheese\n1/2 cup thick and chunky salsa\n3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro leaves
Whisk eggs, salt, pepper and cumin in large bowl until well-blended. Heat oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Working in batches, add tortilla strips; cook just until softened, about 15 seconds per batch. Drain on paper towels. Add chili to skillet, stir 2 minutes. Reduce heat to medium. Add eggs and tortilla strips to skillet and stir until almost set, about 4 minutes. Add cheese, salsa and cilantro. Stir until eggs are set and cheese melts, about 1 minute. Serve immediately. Makes 3 to 4 servings (may be doubled).