I am smaller than a dime, and though I am cool, I can also burn. I can be many colors, but also none at all. I am a household name, but people rarely speak of me. What am I?
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The answer is an item so insignificant to your daily life that it never crosses your mind — pepper. It’s a kitchen staple, and while it’s rarely a forward flavor in the foods you eat, it is present in nearly every dish you order at a restaurant. We’re not alone in our love of the humble peppercorn, and its place in history is unrivaled.
Pepper is the world’s most traded spice and, centuries ago, the spice trade defined the routes of sea explorers. Don’t forget that Christopher Columbus was searching for India — and its wealth of spices — when he bumped into North America.
Despite its ubiquitous use, pepper is just one of hundreds of spices used across the globe to season food. Some cultures are more well-known for their use of spice, like curries in India and southeast Asia, and Cajun and Creole seasonings in the southern United States (which, of course, come from the Caribbean and African influences of the region).
Cooking with spices can be intimidating, and home cooks are often put off by the relatively high price tag, seemingly endless selection, and limitless scope of uses. Herbs are easier, because at the local grocery store, you’re lucky if there’s a variety of just 10 to choose from. When you stand in the spice aisle, you are staring down hundreds of jars, with spices in different colors, shapes, and uses, and it feels easier to carry on without.
But at The Culinary Institute of America, we believe spices are part of what makes cooking exciting. Chef Mark Ainsworth explains, “Spices contain a variety of complex flavors and aromas that contribute to great taste. Typically, several spices are used to build flavor.” One of the most common complaints about cooking at home is that we get bored with the same old recipes, and experimenting with spices can make old recipes new again. Grilled chicken becomes the more-exciting blackened chicken. Tired of plain roasted sweet potatoes or cauliflower? Spice ’em up!
This recipe for Spiced Roasted Vegetables with Mixed Grains uses a blend of familiar spices to make two simple dinner preparations just a little bit more exciting. Nutmeg, cardamom and cumin are known as warming spices, and whether they do it literally or not, they certainly have a knack for giving you that cozy feeling. They suit each other very naturally and, paired with turmeric (popular as an antioxidant and for its vibrant color) and zesty paprika, create a mixture that’s mild and flavorful — spiced, but not spicy.
Buying spices doesn’t have to be a major investment, either. Many grocery stores (especially those of the “natural” variety) sell spices in bulk bins, so you can buy a few teaspoons for less than 50 cents. This gives you the freedom to experiment with new flavors and combinations. After all, explorers wandered the globe so you could have access to peppercorns and cardamom — now it’s your turn to explore uncharted territories.
SPICED ROASTED VEGETABLES WITH MIXED GRAINS
Start to finish: 1 hour, 10 minutes (Active time: 10 minutes)
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cardamom
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon vegetable oil, divided use
3 carrots, peeled and quartered lengthwise
2 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into wedges
1 head cauliflower, cut into florets
1 red bell pepper, cut into thick slices
5 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 cup brown basmati rice, rinsed
1/2 cup bulgur wheat
1/4 cup golden raisins
1 quart vegetable broth or water
1/2 cup fresh parsley leaves
Preheat the oven to 325 F. In a small bowl, combine turmeric, paprika, nutmeg, cardamom, cumin, pepper, and salt. Stir to combine. Transfer 1 teaspoon of the spice mix to a medium saucepan, and set aside. Mix the remaining spice mix with 2 tablespoons of the vegetable oil and stir to make a paste.
In a large bowl, combine the carrots, sweet potatoes, cauliflower, bell pepper, and garlic, and add the spice paste. Toss until the vegetables are well-coated. Spread on a foil-lined baking sheet and roast until the vegetables are tender and lightly browned around the edges, about 1 hour.
Meanwhile, place the rice, wheat, and raisins in the pot with the reserved spice mixture. Stir to coat. Add broth and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer until the liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender, about 50 minutes. Remove from the heat and let stand, covered, for about 5 minutes before serving.
Serve vegetables alongside rice. Garnish with parsley leaves.
Nutrition information per serving: 317 calories; 56 calories from fat; 6 g fat (1 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 500 mg sodium; 60 g carbohydrate; 9 g fiber; 13 g sugar; 8 g protein.