For warm, autumnal meals that manage to feel cozy while still staying light and fresh, look no further than your spice cabinet. Cinnamon, ginger, allspice, nutmeg, ginger and cloves are the standard players in most pumpkin pie spice mixes, and while these sweet spices are standard additions to many of our favorite baking recipes, they can do much more than just flavor sweet items like pies and fancy coffee drinks. In many cuisines around the world these flavors play a prominent role in savory dishes, such as aromatic Indian curries, North African tagines, Greek moussaka, Caribbean jerk chicken and Mexican moles and chorizo. They add layers of often indiscernible flavor, giving dishes a special "pop" without being overt.
Cinnamon is likely the most recognizable flavor of the bunch, but most folks don't know that there are actually two main types of cinnamon: cassia and Ceylon. Both are harvested in sheets from the bark of trees from the Cinnamomum family, but they produce products with very different qualities. Cassia cinnamon is more potent than Ceylon cinnamon and makes up about 75% of the world's commercial supply. It can be subdivided into three different varieties: Vietnamese, Indonesian and Chinese. Vietnamese cinnamon is my go-to variety for everyday baking because it is sweeter and more spicy than the milder Indonesian type. Chinese cassia cinnamon is less widely available in the United States and is primarily used for medicinal purposes in Chinese medicine.
Ceylon cinnamon, native to Sri Lanka, is what some consider to be "true" cinnamon, even though they are both botanically classified as cinnamon. The bark of Ceylon cinnamon is hand-rolled into thin layers that result in a much finer texture than the more common cassia cinnamon. Ceylon cinnamon is generally more expensive and harder to find than cassia cinnamon, but it is coveted by discerning cooks and bakers for its delicate, almost citrusy, aroma.
Food Fantasies, a locally owned natural food and health store in Springfield, has an excellent selection of bulk spices and seasonings, and it a wonderful place to take your nose window shopping. They have three varieties of ground cinnamon, as well as different kinds of stick cinnamon and chips. You can decide for yourself if you prefer the classic, sweet spicy aroma of Vietnamese cassia cinnamon or if the more subtle, enigmatic fragrance of Ceylon cinnamon is what you prefer.
Antioxidant-rich cinnamon and other spices have been used for centuries in Aruvedic and Chinese medicine. It is believed that cinnamon helps to regulate blood sugar and cholesterol, and there are several studies looking into whether derivatives of cinnamon can be used to treat dementia, HIV and certain types of cancer. The results of these studies are inconclusive and it's unlikely that any one food or spice will prove to be a miracle cure. However, we can assume that a diet rich in a variety of plants, including spices, is good for you. At the very least these aromatic sweet spices are a salt- and calorie-free way to liven up weekday meals. Which brings us to the recipes....
Cinnamon Pie Spice
3 tablespoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons allspice
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cloves
Combine the above spices and store in a tightly sealed jar.
Pumpkin Spice Shrimp
Recipe serves two as a main course or four as an appetizer
I was looking at a jar of Pumpkin Pie Spice and it occurred to me that the ingredient list was not all that different from garam masala, a spice powder widely used in Indian cuisine. A distracted 20 minutes later, this crazy delicious dish was sitting on my counter. It would work well with other proteins too, like firm tofu or even mushrooms, but also chicken, pork or beef.
1 small winter squash, such as delacata or honey nut
½ teaspoon each whole cumin and brown mustard seeds (optional, but they add flavor and texture)
1 pound shrimp (preferably wild caught), peeled and deveined
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
½ teaspoon ground cumin
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more to serve
2 handfuls salad greens
Wedges of lemon
Thinly sliced red onion
Chopped cilantro, roasted pumpkin seeds or toasted almonds, and pomegranate seeds, to serve
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Peel the squash if necessary, and slice into rounds or small cubes. Toss with a tablespoon of olive oil and the cumin and mustard seeds, if using, and a good pinch of salt. Transfer to a lined baking sheet and spread into an even layer. Bake 10-15 minutes until squash is still firm and barely starting to brown. Remove from the oven and stir the squash around on the baking sheet with tongs or a spatula. Add the shrimp to the squash on the pan, spacing them evenly so they have space around them to roast. Return to the oven and bake another 10 minutes until shrimp are cooked through and starting to brown.
Place a large handful of greens in a salad bowl. Scatter half the shrimp and squash over the greens and drizzle any pan juices over the top. Garnish generously with chopped cilantro (or parsley if you think cilantro tastes like soap), sliced red onion, roasted pumpkin seeds (or toasted almonds) and pomegranate seeds (dried cranberries would work).
Ashley Meyer is a Springfield-based writer, cook and mom. Her seven-year-old's love of geography has sparked an interest in global cuisine, resulting in some flavorful weeknight meals like Indian Biryani and Ukrainian Borscht.