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Spice up your Christmas – The Shoppers Weekly

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By Linda Summers, Washington County Master Gardener

One of the most poignant memories associated with the Christmas season are the smells and tastes of spices used in cooking and baking. Spices have a long and diverse history. They have been coveted and sought after for centuries. During the 15th century, the search for spices was one of the many reasons behind European explorations, including the discovery of the Americas! Spices are used for their fragrance, for their flavor, and for medicinal purposes. Following is a little about the spices most enjoyed at this time of the year.

A favorite of many cooks and one of the oldest known spices is cinnamon. It is the dried inner bark of several different species of evergreen trees that belong to the genus Cinnamomum and within that genus are four main species of cinnamon that are sold for culinary purposes worldwide. This spice is primarily grown in China (50%), Indonesia (28%), Vietnam (13%) and Sri Lanka (8%).

Cinnamon is obtained by selectively pruning the growth of 2- to 3-year-old evergreen branches. By selectively pruning, most trees can be harvested for up to 40 to 50 years. After harvesting, the outer bark is scraped off and the inner bark is stripped and dried, where it curls into cylindrical “quills.” The quills are then cut into cinnamon sticks, which can be ground and used in baking or many dishes.

Another holiday spice seen in many baked goods and some beverages, such as eggnog, is nutmeg. Nutmeg, Myristica fragrans, is the spice made of the seed from the nutmeg tree, another tropical evergreen tree native to the Spice Islands of Indonesia and the West Indies. Nutmeg trees can grow up to 65 feet in height and begin to produce fruit about eight years after planting. They can bear fruit for 60 years or longer. The fruit looks like an apricot. When it’s mature, it splits in two and the reddish aril, a covering over the nutmeg seed, is exposed in the center. Interestingly, the aril is removed and cured to make mace. The nutmeg seed is dried over a period of several weeks until the nutmeg shrinks away from its outer hard seed coat. The shell can then be broken, and the nutmeg kernel picked out. No part of the fruit is wasted since the pulp of the fruit can also be eaten.

Grated nutmeg has also been used for its fragrance and the Romans used it as incense. During the 17th century, nutmeg ranked as one of the rarest spices worldwide. It was valued for not only its sweet, nutty flavor but also its medicinal properties. Today, nutmeg trees can be grown in the United States in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 10 and 11. Nutmeg is a tropical tree that likes hot, sunny weather — somewhat protected and planted in rich, organic soil.

Another spice, frequently found in the produce sections of local grocery stores, is ginger, Zingiber officinale. Although most people know ginger as a spice in baking, it also has medicinal properties to prevent symptoms of motion sickness. Ginger belongs to the same plant family as cardamom and turmeric. The flavor is a little sweet, somewhat peppery, with a spicy aroma. The plant grows about 3 feet high with alternate leaves 6 to 12 inches long. However, it is the rhizome, or underground stem and the main part of the ginger that is consumed. How the rhizome will be used determines when it will be harvested. When it is harvested at 8 to 9 months, the pungent root is dried or made into ground ginger, commonly found in spice racks.

Ginger is another tropical plant that will grow in the United States if you live in frost-free, plant hardiness zones 9, 10 or 12. Ginger is native to Southeast Asia, but today, India, Nigeria, China, Nepal, Indonesia and Thailand share in the highest world production.

There are many more spices that could be named in our Christmas cooking, such as cardamom or anise. All these spices add flavor to our holiday foods, and it is important to acknowledge that they come to us from nature. Please contact any Master Gardener or your local University of Illinois Extension office if you have any questions or need further information.

 



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