The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Spice Up Your Life

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator

Wars have been fought over them. Men traveled to distant lands to find them. Some owe their fortunes to them. We all have them, yet we wouldn't think to lock them up in a vault nowadays. Spices have been used for centuries in food, medicines and even sacred ceremonies.

So just what is a spice and what is an herb? Spices come from the root, bark, fruit or berry of perennial plants. Most spices come from tropical plants that are not hardy here. Herbs are the leaves of annual and perennial low growing shrubs. Many herbs can be grown here. Listed are just a few of the common spices available to us.

Allspice is the dried, unripened pea-sized berry of a small evergreen tree, Pimenta dioica. It is only one spice, but its name reflects its flavor combination of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. Throughout South America allspice is known as Jamaican pepper. Most allspice comes from Jamaica but also Honduras, Mexico and Guatemala. Ground allspice is used in mincemeat, pumpkin pie, plum pudding, fruit cake, cakes and cookies. Jerk seasoning popular in Caribbean dishes uses allspice as the main ingredient.

Cinnamon is the dried inner bark of various evergreen trees belonging to the genus Cinnamomum. The bark is stripped off and laid in the sun to dry. As it dries, it curls into the familiar cinnamon sticks. Cinnamomum burmannii is primarily imported from Indonesia and is the most common form of cinnamon in the United States. Vietnam is the source for the finest cinnamon, Cinnamomun loureirii, also known as Saigon Cinnamon. Cinnamon has many uses such as in baked goods, coffee, chewing gum. Stick cinnamon can be used as a stirrer for mulled cider.

Cloves are the dried, unopened, nail-shaped flower buds of the evergreen tree, Syzygium aromaticum, native to Indonesia. Indonesia remains one of the biggest producer of cloves. Cloves are used in pickling and preserving, catsup, baked goods, ham and chocolate. The flavor is pungently sweet. Clove oil is used to flavor chewing gum and candy, in soap and perfume and pharmaceutical preparations.

Coriander is the dried ripe fruit of an herb in the parsley family. Eat the leaves and the plant is known as the herb cilantro. This is one spice/herb that can be grown in our gardens.

Saffron is the most expensive spice. Saffron comes from the dried stigma (the female part) of a crocus flower. The stigmas must be harvested by hand and it takes 225,000 of them to make one pound of saffron. No wonder it's so expensive. Spain is considered the prime spot for saffron production. Saffron is prized for both its color and flavor. Luckily it only takes a very small amount of saffron to add flavor and color to food. It is used in breads, cakes, rice and saffron tea.

Paprika is made by grinding the dry pods of a sweet red pepper. It has a bright red color and mild flavor. It is often used to garnish foods. It's used in meat processing and in many condiments including catsup and chili sauce. Many dishes from Hungary where the best paprika is grown owe their flavor to paprika.

Pepper is a ground dried berry. White pepper is made from refined berries with the hulls removed. Most pepper is imported from Indonesia, Brazil and India. Pepper is used as additive to many condiments. The dry berries are known as peppercorns

Thanks to the McCormick people, well known for their spices, for some of the information listed.

Bundle up and join Master Gardeners and Dr. Robert Skirvin for a demonstration on pruning grapes and raspberries on Saturday, January 31 at 10:00 am. Held at the Idea Garden at the U of I Arboretum on south Lincoln Avenue in Urbana.

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