Spice Hunting: How to Keep Those New Years Resolutions with Spices

Spice Hunting

Your guide to the world of herbs and spices—how to spot them, where to get them, and how to cook with them


[Photographs: Robyn Lee and Max Falkowitz]

Every year we get older we're supposed to get wiser, but that doesn't seem to stop us from making the same impossible-to-keep resolutions come New Years. The most common food resolutions—the generic eat better, healthier, or more adventurously—are also the most difficult to keep. This year I'll be using spices to keep on track. Here are some tips that may help out your New Years food resolutions as deliciously as possible.

Veg Out

We all want to lose weight and we all know diets suck. Spices can slim down a diet without feelings of deprivation. For me, healthy eating starts with more fruit and vegetables. While spices are most frequently paired with meat and starch, they're also my favorite way to veg out.

Invest in a good supply of basic spices that can be used on a range of vegetables: coriander, garam masala, harissa, paprika, and sesame seeds are a good place to start. Spices like these can move effortlessly from greens to roasted vegetables to whole grains and vegetarian soups. They can be mixed in dynamic ways to produce new flavors while remaining true to themselves. Stick with them. Let them be a familiar part of your vegetable cooking. They'll become as recognizable as meaty flavors, and you'll come to crave them. Sure, bacon may make everything better, but so does a mix of garlic, rosemary, and smoked paprika all toasted in some olive oil.


Spices add flavor, texture, and consistency to vegetable-based dishes.

Beyond a core group of vegetable-friendly spices, here are some guidelines. Be careful when using chiles with bitter greens like broccoli rabe. A little goes a long way and too much accentuates that bitterness unpleasantly. Sweet spices like coriander are great with roasted vegetables to enhance their nuttiness, but should be paired with something more brash like cumin to add contrast. Mixed herbs can become punchy salads to jazz up milder vegetables; I'm partial to cilantro, serrano chiles, and scallions dressed in sesame oil and Chinese black vinegar. Amazing on cauliflower.

Cut Back On Meat

Lots of people want to eat less meat these days, and plenty of us make resolutions to do so, but a plate can look lonely without a chunk of protein and meat hits a savory spot unlike anything else. Spices are one of the best ways I know to make meat-free cooking attractive and crave-worthy. All around the world, people who can't afford meat use spices to make legumes, whole grains, and pulses the center of their plates.

Meat is bold, rich in flavor, and intensely savory. So are spice blends like vadouvan, or fat hunks of garlic, or the bacon of spices, chipotle. Keep meaty flavors like these close at hand to seriously upgrade milder starches and legumes.

Spices provide continuity and consistency in a dish, often meat's role, drawing together a medley of ingredients into something more. Sautéed spinach with chickpeas is virtuous but a little boring. But a blend of bay leaf, chile, and coriander give a sense of body and completeness, no meat required. Stewed lentils are bland on their own, but the easy addition of niter kibbeh and paprika makes them something really special.

Eat Better

Sure, we make our resolutions to eat better. But what do we really mean by that? This year I suggest it mean eating not just healthier, but more adventurously, with the presence of mind to know the good spices do for us and our food. If you're willing to indulge in $25 a pound parmesan, dropping a few Washingtons on some real quality cinnamon should be easy and just as rewarding. Go ahead, add some more quality spices to your meals. Your diet—and your resolutions—will thank you.