I think every bride in my era received one: A cheap wooden rack filled with strange and exotic sounding herbs and spices. Some were used but most were unknown and were pushed to the back regions of the cupboard and tossed about twenty years down the line. Oh what I missed!
Things are a little different today for most of us, even the so called plain cooks. For one things herbs and spices are far more available and reasonable to purchase. We tend to have a blend of cuisines that we cook in our homes in this multi-cultural world we live in. There's the Food Channel and the Cooking Channel to tease us into using herbs and spices. We can buy fresh or freeze dried, plants or handpicked herbs in most all groceries these days. Unlike those musty dusty smelling bottles of dried herbs and spices I was given too many years ago to remark upon.
In my poorer days, using what I had was about the biggest boost I could give my food budget. I had in my possession a Betty Crocker Cookbook (c) 1970 which came with a handy chart inside the covers. Choose a herb or spice and follow down the chart to see what dishes were best suited to it's use. I pulled out the musty dusty bottles and used them, old as they were and found a whole new world of flavor opened up in my heretofore basic foods kitchen. Over the years I've experiemented with all sorts of things that are perfectly common now and were less common at the time. I don't buy loads of spices and herbs. I favor certain ones and tend to stick to them.
I thought this would be a good spot in the series to introduce flavor into our groceries...
Here's the thing: don't buy loads of something you're not sure you'll like. Tone's has tiny little canisters of herbs and spices you may buy (look online for stores, I find them locally at a discount grocery), which hold perhaps 1/2 ounce. I can also buy from the Mennonite Country Store in the next county and often do. They buy in bulk and repackage in weights ranging from a full ounce to a pound. I buy according to how often I'll typically use them. And if it so happens you have one of the gorgeous stainless steel spice racks filled with bottles, then USE them. Experiment. Toss what you don't like.
First let's recognize that some flavors are associated with certain cuisines. Fresh garlic is about universal and appears in just about every cuisine: Italian, Asian, Middle Eastern, Hispanic, French. If all you've ever used is the bitter powdered garlic or the too salty garlic salt, then let me urge you to try fresh garlic just once. Buy a whole head of garlic (which contains many cloves of garlic). Peel and mince finely or slice or dice depending upon how much of the flavor you want in your dish. The finer the pieces the more flavor will permeate the food. I no longer buy cloves because I find it handy to buy the pre minced jars packed in citric acid water at the grocery. And yes, I'm compromising a certain loss of flavor in using it but I persist all the same. It's relatively inexpensive, less than $2 for a small jar, well under $4 for a big jar (about 3 cups).
Garlic is well suited to just about every savory dish made. It's a wonderful enhancer of beef. I grew up eating steaks that were infused with garlic before grilling and couldn't understand why anyone would choose to use just salt and pepper and call it enough! Garlic is terrific in stews and soups and tomato based dishes. You can add to olive oil and spread over bread.
Garlic is not the only seasoning to cross international lines. Oregano is popular in Italian, Middle Eastern and Hispanic cuisines. Cinnamon pretty much is a common flavoring for everyone, much like garlic. Coriander (aka Cilantro) is standard to Hispanic and Asian dishes. This is not at all odd when you consider that the seas were travelled by men who feared them in pursuit, not of gold, but of spices and herbs.
Here is a quick listing based upon the Betty Crocker chart:
Allspice: suited to Ham and Beef (I often dust powdered allspice into the flour used when I have beef to brown for stewing or pot roasts), pumpkin pie, sweet rolls and coffeecakes, potato soup or oyster stew, squash dishes (that would be winter squashes by the way).
Basil: spaghetti sauce or tomato based dishes, yellow summer squash (you MUST try that!), salad dressings, omelets. (I've used a few fresh leaves after growing it here last summer. Tomato sandwiches with a fresh leaf or two are another story entirely!)
Chili powder: chili, of course; cheese sauce; shrimp or chickenm beefm corn, cauliflower;biscuits.
Cinnamon: Beef stew; dusted into flour when frying chicken; Ham and pork chops; carrots, spinach, winter squash, sweet potates; any fruit; chocolate and rice pudding, apple desserts, cookies; breads and sweet rolls.
Dill: green beans, potatoes, cabbage, cucumber; seafood and fish; deviled eggs and cottage cheese.
Ginger (powder but also grated root): Bean or onion soup; Poultry: Baked beans; beef roast and steak; carrots, sweet potatoes, winter squash; dressing for fruit salad; pears; cookies and nut breads.
Nutmeg: Oyster stew, mushroom sauces; meatballs, meatloaf and pot roasts; cauliflower, carrots, onions; applie pie, custard, pumpkin pie and vanilla ice cream; sweet rolls, nut breads.
Oregano: Soups and stews, including mushroom; chicken; Spaghetti sauce, pizza; broccoli, mushrooms, tomatoes.
Sage: Chicken soups, tomato soup, cheese sauce; fish, chicken; pork or lamb; brussels sprouts; cornbread, stuffing, tea.
Thyme: Clam chowder; poultry and stuffing; beef roasts; carrots, green beans, mushrooms, peas; tossed in green salad, tomatoes; custards; egg dishes, biscuits.
Chives:cream cheese or sour cream; breads; potatoes; scrambled eggs.
Bay leaves: soups and stews.
Rosemary: onions, carrots, potaotes; excellent with any meat or poultry.
Cilantro (leaves): taco meat; salsa, guacamole; black beans or bean soup.
Cumin: corn, cabbage; citrus based meat marinades; guacamole; yogurt to serve with curry; bean and rice dishes.
These are the herbs, spices and seasonings most frequently found in my own kitchen, along with salt and pepper. Occasionally I might have others but I find these the most versatile for the way I cook. With the herbs, I do try fresh, but more often will use dried (except cilantro and rosemary) for the convenience. I have rosemary growing at my back door step, where I can snip a few fronds and strip them right into dishes as they are prepared. Cilantro is bought cheaply at the grocery in a huge bunch. Often I'll use a bit fresh and then strip the remaining stems of leaves and dry on a papertowel on the counter. Overnight is usually enough to thoroughly dry out the leaves.