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Essential Spices and Seasonings Transform Recipes

Basics for both novice and expert cooks

With more and more of us cooking for ourselves to save money these days, it makes sense to assemble an assortment of basic herbs and spices. It's an easy, economical way to add fun to your cooking and flavor to your food. Whether you're reorganizing your cupboards in a flurry of cleaning or newly interested in the world of spices, it's a good time to freshen your spice rack and make sure you have the basics.

Just a few common spices will enhance almost any dish you make. “Simple dishes become deliciously elegant when paired with the right herbs and spices,” says Ellen Bouchard, bulk category manager at Frontier Natural Products Co-op. But which spices should you choose as basic staples for your kitchen? 

The spices you’ll reach for the most will depend on your personal preferences, of course. To discover your favorites, you may want to buy from bulk bins, so you can experiment with small quantities. Combine herbs and spices to complement each other and perk up the flavor of other ingredients. Most spices and seasonings are available in organic versions -- use them to boost the flavor and nutritional value of your meals. Always use a light touch -- your seasonings should accent dishes, not dominate them.

"The question of which spices are the best to keep on hand has as many different answers as there are cooks," says Bouchard. But there are some constants. Here are her recommendations for eight spices no kitchen should be without:

  • Garlic is compatible with virtually every savory food and is available in a number of convenient dried forms. Just the aroma of garlic can speed guests to your table. Use it in tomato-based dishes, dressings, sausage, and spice blends. Or sprinkle it on buttered bread before broiling.
  • Onion seasons cuisines worldwide. The many varieties play various roles -- primary ingredient, vegetable accompaniment, or seasoning. The earthy aroma and taste of onion comes in several convenient dried forms. Use onions in casseroles, soups, sauces, vegetable dishes, relishes, breads and stuffing.
  • Paprika is a sweet and sassy relative of the chili pepper. It’s used to add warm, natural color and mildly spicy flavor to soups, grains, and a variety of hors d'ouvres. A shake or two livens up cheeses and garlic bread. Try it on spreads, salads, egg dishes, marinades and smoked foods.
  • Parsley leaf brightens up soups, dressings, salads, casseroles, and stuffings -- any dish that might gain from fresh green color and clean, vegetable taste. It’s especially good with fish, egg, and grain dishes.
  • Cinnamon wins the spice world's popularity contest. Use it to add depth of flavor to sweet and savory dishes alike. It's a key baking ingredient and vegetables -- especially carrots, spinach and onions -- are enhanced by cinnamon's pungent sweetness. For an extra kick, look for Vietnamese cinnamon, the worlds finest.
  • Basil's warm, sweet, mild mint/peppery flavor is delicious with vegetables, especially tomatoes. Add to soups and stews, sauces and dressings. Basil pairs well with many other seasonings.
  • Oregano has a strong personality, but it partners well with other seasonings. Use in any tomato sauce, and on baked chicken and fish. Earthy and pungent, -- it has a special affinity for basil. Team them up in vegetable, cheese, pasta and tomato dishes, and especially pizza.
  • Celery seed adds interesting texture and taste to side salads, dressings, breads, and casseroles. Potato salad is lost without it! Try this distinct, pungent taste in egg salad and stir fries, too. It even enhances soups.

Here's a simple recipe that uses a few of these basic seasonings to make ordinary pasta special:

Penne with Tomato and Herbs
Preparation time: 10 minutes. Cooking time: 40 minutes

1 pound penne, cooked al dente
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 teaspoons garlic flakes
1 28-oz. can chopped tomatoes, with liquid
2 teaspoons dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 tablespoons dried parsley
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese- optional

In large non-stick skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, 5-10 minutes. Add the garlic, tomatoes, basil, oregano, and parsley and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the herbs have plumped and the flavors have blended nicely, about 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Toss pasta with the hot sauce to rewarm, and serve immediately. Pass cheese separately.

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