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Tips for using spices to propel your cooking to another level

During a winter of consigning meals to home and venturing out to eat less often, the spice of life is even more vital.

Rejuvenating recipes with a broader spectrum of spices doesn’t just alleviate boredom. There’s also a related health benefit in reducing one’s sodium intake. When dishes are seasoned first with zesty, tangy, earthy, pungent and piquant ingredients, there’s less need for salt, a culprit in Americans’ poor health that trains our palates in redundancy.

And given that almost everyone’s physical movements across the globe have been compromised, why not travel in your kitchen by exploring some new cuisines? In truth, it’s an exercise in traveling outside one’s comfort zone, a common component of new year’s resolutions.

The odyssey starts with an expedition into your spice cabinet. If you’re like most Americans — myself included — you don’t have an entirely clear picture of the cupboard’s contents. Chances are, it harbors a spice you had never heard of but bought several years ago for a recipe you tried once and never made again. There may be nearly empty bottles of seasoning shoved into the back, forgotten and duplicated with new containers. And there almost certainly are spices that have lost their potency.

When it comes to determining potency, it’s helpful first to have an understanding of the differences between an herb and a spice, two terms that often are used in concert, as well as interchangeably. Herbs are the leafy, juicy, succulent plant parts that are most flavorful when used fresh but can be dried for long-term storage.

Spices are plants’ seeds, roots and bark, commonly ground for easier consumption. Whole specimens, such as cinnamon sticks and cloves, can be steeped in liquids. And lightly toasting enhances many spices.

Dried and properly stored herbs, generally speaking, last a year or two; spices have double the shelf life (even longer if purchased in whole form). How to tell if a seasoning is still good? First smell it. If you don’t detect any aroma from an herb, toss it out.

If it’s a whole spice, rub it between your fingers, crush it with the flat side of a knife blade or grind it in a mortar and pestle, then sniff it again. If it’s a ground spice, spoon some into a dry skillet over medium heat and allow it to toast lightly, stirring to prevent burning. If you can smell the spice after these litmus tests, it’s still worth keeping on hand, so long as you plan to use it.

But it costs mere pennies to replace the vast majority of spices when purchasing from stores that stock them in bulk. Compare the prices between bulk spices and those little jars lined up several aisles away, and you’ll never buy prepackaged spices again.

The biggest payoff, however, is in flavor. Bulk spices are many times fresher than their bottled counterparts. Because cooks can buy only what they need, they ensure the freshness of their supply. If you’re not refilling a jar that already has a place in your spice cabinet, consider buying empty metal spice canisters or choosing 4-ounce glass canning jars. A wide variety of styles at various prices can be found online.

Now decide if you want to take your taste buds on an adventure, or travel the spice road a single step at a time. If it’s the latter, buy just one spice that you’ve never tried and research recipes that use it. If it’s the former, identify a cuisine that you enjoy and source several spices that are key to its iconic dishes.

Indian food, for example, isn’t the vehicle for curry powder, contrary to stereotypes. Many times more authentic is garam masala, a blend of cinnamon, coriander, cardamom, cumin, cloves, mace and peppercorns. Yes, garam masala is sold premixed, even in bulk, but the best flavor — and most fun — is derived from buying all those spice in their whole forms as seeds, pods and bark, toasting them and grinding them. Cooks also can adjust the formula to their personal tastes.

In this spirit, I compound my own seasoning blends for just about any dish produced in my kitchen. I love North African food, but I lack a jar of the region’s quintessential seasoning ras el hanout. Instead, I compound my own from individual spices, resembling garam masala but with the addition of nutmeg, allspice, ginger, fenugreek, paprika and turmeric.

And don’t confine these spices to “ethnic” cuisines. For many years, I’ve seasoned many of my vegetable-based soups with about a teaspoon of ground turmeric, which imparts a vibrant color, boosts the nutritional value and grounds the soup in its earthiness. Turmeric is a major component of curry powder, which cooks accustomed to Lawry’s Seasoned Salt can consider choosing as a substitute — without the sodium. Or for those wary of the broader flavor base of curry powder, mix up a Lowry’s substitute with less salt — for less money — from turmeric, paprika, onion powder and garlic powder.

While salt certainly has its place as a culinary staple, the simple fact is that we all get far more than we need, namely from processed food. And our palates are so attuned to it that reaching for the salt shaker is almost an unconscious reflex.

So the next time you feel the urge to salt a dish, consider a different flavor enhancer first. Acidity is overlooked by too many cooks, but if a savory recipe tastes a little flat, try adding some vinegar or lemon juice. As little as a teaspoon can make a big difference, anchoring all the other flavors to an assertive ingredient. Similarly, I also like a splash of sherry in many soups, stews and sauces.

And a little fat goes a long way toward conveying flavor. After you’ve seasoned a dish but find it still lacks that X-factor, drizzle on some good-quality olive, sesame or nut oil, or sprinkle on a little cheese, such as Parmesan or feta.

That’s how I like to finish this hearty lentil stew, known in Morocco as harira. The spice palette is intriguing, inviting cooks to experiment with ratios and substitutions, but still mild enough for kids. I like to include ground coriander and fennel seeds. In wintertime, I typically swap tomato paste or sundried tomatoes — in a fraction of the quantity — for the fresh tomatoes in this recipe.

I’ve also made a variation with canned white beans, instead of garbanzos, and omitted the pasta. Serving harira with a side of flatbread and steamed rice is traditional, but grain-free families could incorporate cauliflower into the stew or offer riced cauliflower on the side. Fresh lemon brightens the stew in lieu of table salt.

Harira (Lentil Soup)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil or butter

1 large onion, peeled and finely diced, about 2 cups

4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

1 tablespoon dried ginger

1-1/2 teaspoons black pepper

2 teaspoons turmeric

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

1/4 teaspoon crumbled saffron

1 cinnamon stick or 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

4 cups diced ripe, fresh tomato (may substitute canned)

2 tablespoons chopped celery leaves, or 1 tablespoon minced celery

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro or mint

Salt, to taste

1 cup brown lentils, rinsed

1 cup red lentils, rinsed

1 cup canned chickpeas (also called garbanzo beans), rinsed

1/4 pound angel hair pasta or vermicelli, broken into 1-inch pieces

Lemon wedges, for serving

Put the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed soup pot over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until softened and lightly colored, for 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in the garlic, ginger, pepper, turmeric, cumin, cayenne, saffron and cinnamon. Cook for about 2 minutes more.

Add the tomato, celery leaves and cilantro or mint and bring to a brisk simmer. Cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes until mixture somewhat thickens, then add 1 teaspoon salt, the brown lentils, red lentils and chickpeas. Add 8 cups water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a gentle simmer, covered with lid ajar.

Let soup simmer for 30 minutes, then taste broth and adjust salt. Cook for 1 hour more at a gentle simmer, until lentils are soft and creamy. It may be necessary to add more liquid from time to time to keep soup from being too porridge-like. It should be on the thick side, but with a pourable consistency. (With every addition of water, taste and adjust for salt).

Just before serving, add the pasta and let cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Ladle soup into small bowls and pass lemon wedges for squeezing. Soup may be made in advance and refrigerated. If it thickens, thin with water or broth when reheating, and adjust seasonings.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Recipe adapted by Tribune News Service from a recipe by David Tanis in the New York Times.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.

Harira served with khobz bread. (Ryan Michalesko/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)