The calendar tells us that fall has arrived, even though the mercury can't make up its mind. Starbucks is participating in the change of seasons with a cup of steaming pumpkin spice latte. Einstein Bros. has added pumpkin and cinnamon sugar bagel poppers to its repertoire, and our friends at Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors are scooping up Apple Pie a la Mode, Pumpkin Pie and Quarterback Crunch.
My kitchen is awash with the perfume of autumn herbs and spices that stir up nostalgic childhood memories. Cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg and ginger, along with Simon and Garfunkel's parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, are teasing my olfactory senses.
Here's a primer on the sweet and savory spices of fall to dial-up your dishes and boost your immune system as flu season looms.
Cinnamon, an ancient spice used as a cologne and love potion for affluent Romans, comes from the bark of the tropical evergreen. Its aromatic scent makes it a good ploy for real estate agents — heat a pan of cinnamon water in an oven to perfume the kitchen during open houses. Along with selling houses, cinnamon is diabetic-friendly as it desensitizes the liver lowering blood sugar levels, induces sweating to detox with the flu and colds, and jazzes up everything from oatmeal and baked apples to stews and lasagna.
Cardamom, one of the world's priciest spices behind saffron and vanilla, is a first cousin to ginger. A native to India, these dried aromatic seeds perk up a cup of joe, curry and chili dishes, burgers and pie crusts. Cardamom is also a great digestive aid in case you've OD'ed on those curry and chili dishes. A pinch is plenty, as this spice is quite potent.
When Chris Columbus was on one of his expeditions to the East Indies, he went hunting for precious nutmeg. The evergreen nutmeg tree produces dual spices — nutmeg from the seed kernel and mace from the lacy covering of the dried fruit. Nutmeg's bipolar flavors of spicy and sweet make it a versatile spice that enhances pumpkin pies and breads along with chicken and veggie dishes.
Now for the savories, pepper, nothing to sneeze at (forgive me) is an attention grabber especially when sprinkled on such surprising foods as hot cocoa or eggnog, while hiking up the robust flavors of roasts and chicken with a pepper-garlic rub or marinade. The world's most popular spice (salt is a mineral) was once so valuable it was used as currency. Black, green, white and pink peppercorns are unripe berries that grow in clusters on the plant. An irritant, it opens the sinuses with a head cold like homeopathic Dristan.
Cayenne or red pepper from assorted tropical chiles originating in French Guyana packs a powerful punch in stews, soups, chilis and Italian dishes, while serving up a side of antioxidant. One word of warning — handle with kid gloves, as this spice can burn your bare hands.
Thyme from the Mediterranean regions was used by the ancient Greeks as a cure-all for epilepsy to melancholy. Its antiseptic properties make it a good gargle for laryngitis, while brewed as a tea with honey or agave syrup it soothes bronchitis and gastrointestinal woes. The salt and pepper of French cuisine, thyme adds a minty-lemon flavor to vegetables, chicken, fish, soups and cream sauces.