My kitchen is awash with the perfume of fall herbs and spices that stir up nostalgic childhood memories. Cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg along with Simon and Garfunkel's parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme are tickling my olfactory senses.
Even the neophyte cooks get inspired this time of year. Recently a newlywed wanted to surprise her husband with his favorite dessert - mint chocolate mousse - and asked me if she could substitute a dab of mint toothpaste for fresh mint leaves. Hold the Aquafresh and try a sprinkle of ginger powder or pumpkin pie spice if you don't have any edible mint on hand. Here's a primer on the sweet and savory herbs and spices of autumn to enhance your dishes and boost your immune system as flu season's just around the corner.
For the savories, pepper (nothing to sneeze at) is a wonderful attention getter sprinkled in hot chocolate or eggnog as well as dialing up the robust flavors of roasts with a peppercorn garlic drizzle. Green, black and white peppercorns are the unripe berries from tropical vines. They keep their flavor and freshness best when kept whole, so grind as you need. Since pepper is an irritant, it works like a homeopathic Dristan when you have a head cold or the flu.
Red pepper or cayenne is extracted from the seeds and pods of capsicum peppers native to Mexico, Central America and the West Indies. Cayenne spikes up the personalities of stews, chilis, soups and tomato sauces. Handle cayenne with kid gloves - never your bare hands. It is also a powerful antioxidant, and since it irritates the mucous membranes like the other peppers, it clears the sinuses too.
Sage, a member of the mint family and first cousin to basil, marjoram and oregano comes from the leaves and blossoms of an evergreen shrub. Sage adds a mildly spicy kick to salads, fruit dishes and holiday stuffings. And if your throat's getting scratchy, make a sage rinse and gargle away.
Turmeric is a golden aromatic powder from the rhizomes or underground stems of the curcuma plant. Turmeric's nickname is "Indian saffron" since it is used as a substitute for the world's priciest spice. It's slightly more bitter than the real saffron so go light when sprinkling into veggie stews, rice or pasta dishes. This spice is also a super antioxidant known for its anti-inflammatory properties.
Finally, the seeds or fruit of fennel amp up baby greens and Italian sausages, and make a flavorful seedy crust for wild salmon. Try grilling fish over a fire of fennel twigs for a distinct anise or licorice flavor. And for tender tummies, crush fennel seeds and brew as a soothing tea.
For the sweet autumn spices, my first pick is cinnamon that comes from the bark of a tropical evergreen tree. It jazzes up oatmeal, apple pie and even stews and lasagna.
For her open houses, my real estate agent friend heats a pan of cinnamon water in the oven to infuse the kitchen with the magnificent scent. Along with selling houses, cinnamon is good for lowering blood sugar levels of diabetics, and to induce sweating with the flu and colds.
The third most expensive spice behind saffron and vanilla is cardamom. A native to India, these dried seeds perk up a cup of joe, curry and chili dishes, hamburgers and pie crusts. Cardamom also works wonders on indigestion in case you've overdosed on those curry or chili dishes.
The evergreen nutmeg tree produces two spices - mace and nutmeg. The latter comes from the seed kernel while mace is produced from the lacy covering of the dried fruit. Nutmeg enhances the flavor of pumpkin pies and breads, but please, sprinkle with care since high doses can cause hallucinations and other adverse effects.
Here's a divine recipe for pumpkin bread that will fill your kitchen with the wonderful spices of fall and also use up that leftover Halloween pumpkin.
Pumpkin Pecan Bread
- 3 cups of unbleached flour
- 2 1/2 cups of brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon of baking powder
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 1 teaspoon of cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon of nutmeg
- 2 teaspoons of allspice
- 16 ounces of pumpkin puree
- 2/3 cup of warm water
- 1 cup of grapeseed oil
- 4 eggs
- 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract
- 1 cup of raisins
- 1/2 cup of chopped pecans
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Soak the raisins in the water and set aside.
In a mixing bowl, add the dry ingredients. In another bowl, combine the remaining ingredients, including the raisins and water, then blend with the dry.
Bake in two greased loaf pans for one hour or until the toothpick comes clean. Serve warm with pumpkin gelato.