Most folks have a list of dishes they make over and over, which can become dull.
Spice up your menu by adding some exotic flavors to the mix. Sumac, cardamom, urfa biber, asafetida and other spices and ingredients can add variety to a tired menu.
Sumac is the ground dried berries of the staghorn sumac bush. While related to poison ivy, the edible form is from a non-poisonous species.
The coarse powder is a beautiful brick color and adds color and tartness to whatever it is sprinkled on.
Sumac is used in Middle Eastern and North African cuisines, but lends a citrusy tang to chicken, fish and vegetables. Most frequently found on shawarma and fattoush salad, sumac can be used to pep up nearly any dish. It can replace or augment lemon or any citrus zest.
Cardamom is best known for its use in Indian food, but can also be found in Scandinavian and Middle Eastern cuisines.
It has a unique flavor and intense aroma; it is among the more expensive spices, but just a tiny amount goes a long way. In India, cardamom is used in savory dishes, while it is used in desserts and coffee in some Middle Eastern cuisines and most often in baked goods in Nordic cuisines.
A spice that is just now becoming popular with chefs in the U.S. is urfa biber, ground Turkish dried pepper. Also known as isot pepper, this pepper has a mild heat that builds over the course of the meal as well as hints of raisin and coffee.
This spice can be rubbed on meats before searing or grilling and goes very well with cheeses. Add it to yoghurt-based sauces or sprinkle it on steamed vegetables. While few stores stock urfa biber, there are several online outlets.
Asafetida is the dried resin from a plant similar to fennel. This spice is extremely pungent and has a strong flavor of onion and garlic.
Bitter when raw, asafetida is warm and tasty when cooked. It is used in Indian and Persian food, but not very well known in the States. Use it as a substitute for onion or garlic powder in stews, soups or sauces.
Chervil is related to parsley, but has a slight anise or licorice flavor. It is delicate and best used on mild-flavored dishes such as eggs, chicken or fish. Fresh chervil can be hard to find, but the dried herb is terrific whisked into melted butter to season dishes.
Using truffle oil or truffle salt can be a less expensive way to get the flavor of these staggeringly expensive fungi. Mix a few teaspoons of black or white truffle oil into mashed potatoes or drizzle a tiny amount on steamed or sautéed vegetables for an amazing kick of rich flavor. Truffle salt on French fries really makes the potatoes pop. Mix a tiny amount into creamy soups just before serving for a luxurious kick.
Spice blends such as Jamaican jerk spice or Chinese five-spice powder are an easy way to add some variety to the same old dishes without having to resort to searching for new recipes.
Most specialty grocery stores and ethnic markets will carry some of these terrific additions to your culinary arsenal.
Just spending some time in these stores can be a source of inspiration to spice up the menu.
Steve “Mo” Fye is managing editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @UncaMo._