The Spices Collecting Dust

Cardamom, marjoram, sage and other spices that you bought for one dish and don’t know what to do with them next. Here are some hints.

Were you gifted a spice collection but only use four of the spices? Is it not Thanksgiving anymore and you have no idea what else to do with sage? Did you buy a spice for one dish and haven’t used it since? Well, that’s me too. I gathered all my spices and simply picked the few that were still almost full and started my research. If you have any of these spices laying around and need some fresh ideas, here’s what I came up with.

Cardamom: I bought ground cardamom for an Indian dish and haven’t used it since. You would normally find cardamom ground or in small pods.

Taste and Smell: Cardamom has a really strong scent and reminds me a Vicks Vaporub, but in a good way. It has a mix of floral, citrus, and ginger scents. By itself, the taste is just as strong. Although it is quite bitter, it has a property that opens up your senses and is probably why it pairs well with so many other ingredients. If you’ve ever had chai tea or a chai latte, you know what cardamom tastes like, as it is usually the main spice.

Cultures and Dishes: Cardamom is mostly used in Indian, Middle Eastern, and Scandinavian dishes, both savory and sweet. Most Scandinavian countries use cardamom in baking. Many of their breads, buns, and pastries use cardamom. It is about as common as cinnamon is in the US. Scandinavians also use it in their coffee or in their mulled wine, called glogg, a boozy wine-based winter drink served warm with spices.

In India and most parts of the Middle East, cardamom is used in savory and sweet dishes. In India and Pakistan, it’s commonly added to milk-based dessert or paired with fruit, like poached apricots or a mango lassi (an Indian mango smoothie). It is also added to many lamb dishes. Cardamom is one of the main ingredient in ras el hanout, a North African warm spice mix, that’s used to season most meat dishes in the region.

Flavor Pairings: Although cardamom packs a lot of flavor, most Western palates don’t catch it, so it is a great spice to add to your everyday dishes and really wow your friends. For sweeter dishes, cardamom pairs well with almonds, peaches, apricots, chocolate, vanilla, coconut, and banana. Any dish with cinnamon will also handle cardamom nicely. For savory dishes, stick with lamb, pork, or beef. Cardamom pairs well with fatty cuts. Think meatballs and kebabs. Because it pairs well with fat, cardamom goes with most dairy dishes too, from lattes to creme brulee to rice pudding. Carrots and cardamom can be turned into either sweet or savory dishes.

How to use it at home:

  • Use it anytime you use cinnamon. The two spices pair very well together, and for the most part, anything that tastes good with cinnamon also tastes good with cardamom.
  • Sweets: add to butter cookies, cinnamon rolls, or breads and pastries that call for cinnamon, raisins, or nuts. Any pastries with almonds will taste better with cardamom. Also, try in carrot cake or banana cream pie. Cardamom pairs really well with peaches and apricots, so think about adding it to peach cobblers or apricot jam.
  • Tropical: Add in with anything you use mango or coconut with, like a mango lassi, coconut cake, or a pina colada (!). Some Indian rice puddings, usually served cold, use both coconut and cardamom and taste so good.
  • Dairy: On the pina colada train, cardamom goes well with many dairy-based desserts, like ice cream, flan, and custard. Sprinkle some into your mocha or hot chocolate. Or even make your White Russian more Scandinavian.
  • Savory: Add cardamom to your other spices when cooking ground meat, like lamb or beef. Cardamom will take your everyday meatballs to a completely different level.

Marjoram: Marjoram was the one spice in my spice collection that was still sealed. It came with a spice rack, and I’ve always overlooked it. But after giving it a taste and cooking with it, it will definitely be something I use often.

Taste and Smell: Marjoram is very similar to oregano, like very similar. They look almost identical in their spice jars. The smell of marjoram is slightly more pleasant than oregano, a little sweeter and not as pungent. About the same goes with the flavor. Oregano is richer in flavor, but maybe a little too strong in some cases. Marjoram has a delicate flavor that allows you to be heavy-handed without overpowering a dish.

Cultures and Dishes: In general, you will see marjoram in similar cuisines as oregano. It is most popular along the Mediterranean. Marjoram is sometimes just called oregano in some cultures. Arabic oregano or wild marjoram is often found in za’atar, one of my favorite spice mixes. Marjoram or oregano, thyme, dried sumac, sesame seeds, and other spices are combined to create a flexible Middle Eastern spice mix that goes well on so many dishes. Marjoram is in another spice mix I use often: herbes de provence. Marjoram, oregano, thyme, rosemary, lavender (what I think truly gives it its flavor), and other spices are mixed and make an excellent French spice blend for meats, stews, and eggs (my personal favorite).

Flavor Pairings: Marjoram’s flavors pair really well with almost all everyday herbs. So if you’re using rosemary, basil, thyme, sage, or garlic, you can also add marjoram. Because of its milder flavor, it does well in mild dishes. Marjoram will get lost in spicy and super saucy dishes, but the flavor will shine through with lean cuts of meat (both white and red), mild stews and soups, and with vegetables. It also goes nicely with fats, like olive oil and cheese.

How to use at home:

  • Replace oregano with marjoram. In the other flavor pairings, I suggest to add a spice when cooking with others. Here, I think oregano is too strong to also pack on marjoram. So if you’re looking for a oregano substitute because you’re running low or want a milder flavor, use marjoram instead.
  • Dressings: Add to homemade salad dressings, like Greek or Italian dressings.
  • Meat: Sprinkle onto fish. Marjoram pairs well with most meats, but particularly white fish.
  • Vegetables: Sprinkle on top of raw or cooked tomatoes. Or add into tomato sauces, especially canned or jarred sauces to add some freshness. It also goes well with summer vegetables, like zucchini and yellow squash.
  • Soups: Finish off a thinner stew or soup with marjoram to add some fresh flavor. Think bean, chicken, or fish soups.
  • Fats: mix marjoram and olive oil together to dip bread in. Sprinkle on top of melted cheese to add a fresh flavor.

Sage: Fresh sage is quite delicate. Gray-green leaves with a mild citrus taste. Dried sage (what I’m working with) is much stronger, but a versatile herb. Sage is mostly used in the fall and winter months, but with a little research, I found some dishes for year-round.

Taste and Smell: Dried sage has a rugged, hay smell with a little peppery kick to it. Some people say it has a piney smell and others say it smells like marijuana. The taste is very warming and earthy in a good way. I feel like people either really like sage or they can’t stand it. I love it. I go heavy-handed on sage in my Thanksgiving stuffing.

Cultures and Dishes: If you are American, you are going to know this spice from Thanksgiving stuffing. But it also makes an appearance in Italian dishes, like stuffed pasta or a simple bean and tomato dish. English will associate sage with pork dishes. The French sometimes use it to flavor brown butter or vegetables.

Flavor Pairings: Unlike cardamom, you won’t see sage in many sweet dishes. It pairs nicely with hearty vegetables, particularly butternut squash, but also turnips, carrots, and parsnips. It famously goes with sauteed onions, and similarly pairs well with cooked apples. Protein-wise, sage holds up nicely to creamy beans (like cannellini), chicken, and pork. The combination of pork and sage is my favorite though. The two together create nice, rustic dishes. Lastly, sage pairs well with rosemary and the dishes that rosemary are seen a lot in: roasted potatoes, mushrooms, and lamb.

How to use at home:

  • Anything you would also put rosemary on. Roasted breakfast potatoes, rustic French fries, sauteed mushrooms.
  • Pork: Pork chop with an apple, onion, and sage reduction on top. This has some nice steakhouse flare. Or sprinkle on top of grilled sausage. Breakfast sausage and eggs with a sprinkle of dried sage makes for a great Saturday morning meal.
  • Pastas: cream-based sauces over raviolis or gnocchi. Mix in sauces or sprinkle on top.
  • Vegetables: roast root vegetables with sage, rosemary, and garlic.

Bonus: Here are some other spices that aren’t super common, but I personally love.

  • Sumac: Made from a flower, it has an incredible sweet and sour flavor. Mixes well with Mediterranean herbs. If you buy it, put it on anything that you would put lemon zest on. I particularly love it on fish and sprinkled on top of hearty grains.
  • Ground ginger: I cook a lot of Asian dishes, but don’t always have fresh ginger. I feel like ginger is another spice not common to the western palate and really makes many homemade Asian dishes actually taste Asian.
  • Ras el hanout: this is a North African spice mix with tons of warm spices, like cinnamon, cardamom, and cumin. It is used in savory recipes. I use it most to season red meats and to add a ton of flavor to sauces, stews, and soups.
  • White pepper: I use coarsely ground black pepper in most of my dishes, but when I want to add some heat without any texture, I use ground white pepper. I add it to chili and most my Asian dishes that I don’t want to put black pepper in.

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