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Spice It Up

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Leanne Ely, CNC: Cooking with herbs and spices makes all the difference in the world to the end product, your meal. But if you've never learned how to use the mountain of spices available, sometimes you need a little guidance.

spices
Never fear, the Dinner Diva is here! Do yourself a favor and copy this list and stick it to your fridge. The Dinner Diva Spice Primer is guaranteed to get you cooking in no time!

1. Bay Leaf -- Used in stews, soups and great with pot roast. Go easy: Bay leaves are strong, especially California bay leaves, which are the kind most grocery stores stock. I use half a leaf in my stews.

2. Basil -- Ah, the taste of summer. Who can resist fresh basil and tomatoes from the garden tossed with olive oil and garlic on a plate full of pasta? Dried, it's wonderful in soups, pasta dishes and chicken.

3. Dill -- It's not just for pickles. Try some dill sprinkled on fish, chicken or even in a light cream soup.

4. Garlic -- Nectar of the gods ... well, bulb of the gods, anyway. Garlic has a way of making the most ordinary food gourmet. Try sprinkling garlic powder (not garlic salt) into a prepared box of white-cheddar macaroni and cheese. Surprise! It's pretty good. Fresh is best, though. Squeeze it from a garlic press into almost anything. (Don't use with chocolate, however.)

5. Ginger -- Sprinkle it in your stir-fry, try it on baked chicken breasts with a little soy sauce and garlic. For fun, get it fresh (it's that alien-looking root mass in the produce department) and freeze it. It will keep almost indefinitely when frozen. To use, hack off a piece, peel it and grate into your recipe.

6. Nutmeg -- I love nutmeg. If you can find nutmeg nuts and the itty, bitty grater that comes with them, buy it. Once you've had freshly grated nutmeg, the powdered stuff in the jar is beneath you. Obviously an ingredient used in baking, it's also good grated on sautéed squash, green beans and carrots.

7. Oregano -- A staple in Italian cooking, it's also good in stews and salad dressings.

8. Rosemary -- This beautiful plant grows wild in my garden and provides an intoxicating aroma in meats, stews and root veggies. Try some crumbled into your carrots for a change of pace.

9. Tarragon -- Having an almost licorice flavor, this delicate herb takes front and center in vinaigrettes and is delicious sprinkled on baked or poached poultry and fish.

10. Thyme -- Make time for thyme! It's strong and adds a hint of character to an otherwise-pretty-standard dish. Use it with chicken, soups and beef.

Even though I'm not numbering these last two, I need to give a shout-out to plain old salt and pepper. But not just the stuff in the blue cylinder with the little girl on the label, or the familiar pepper sitting in the red-and-white can. I'm talking about sea salt and freshly ground pepper.You can buy both ready to go with their own grinders anywhere. Once you've used this kind of salt and pepper, you'll never go back to the old stuff. It's that much better.

While this is an abbreviated list of spices, it's a good start. I've skipped a lot of them because they are used so infrequently or just take up room on the lazy Susan. Feel free to add or subtract ones you know you need -- or know you won't use!

Leanne Ely is the New York Times bestselling author of "Body Clutter" and the "Saving Dinner" series. Her "Dinner Diva" syndicated column appears in 250 newspapers nationwide. Learn how to cook great and save significant money with the Dinner Diva's menus, recipes and shopping lists at www.savingdinner.com.


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