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Did you know that if it weren't for spices, you might not live where you do today? Much of the exploration of the world, including the discovery of North America, can be linked to the world's passion for spices. In 11th century Venice, pepper was valued as highly as gold. Later, explorers Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan raced to find faster and more direct spice trade routes, and discovered new worlds in the process.

Spices are seasonings derived from the seeds, stems, pods, berries, bark, roots, buds or fruits of plants. Herbs, on the other hand, are the leaves of plants. Spices have been prized throughout history for uses ranging from preserving food to making perfume to practicing religious rituals.

Certain spices are thought to have medicinal qualities, soothing the stomach or clearing a stuffy head. And when it comes to cooking, they enliven, enhance and add depth of flavor to almost any dish.

Buying, storing and using spices

Most spices are sold dried, either whole or in powder form. Whole spices such as cumin seeds will give you the best flavor, but you'll need to grind them before use. Whole nutmeg or cinnamon can be grated with a fine, hand-held grater. Peppercorns and allspice berries can be ground in a pepper mill. Small seeds can either be pulverized with a mortar and pestle, or ground to a fine powder in a coffee grinder.

To clean your grinder and eliminate residue between uses, run some soft, fresh bread through it. The bread will sweep away tiny spice remnants and absorb odors. Be aware, however, that even after a thorough cleaning, spice flavors can linger. Consider designating a separate grinder for your spices unless you like to taste them in your morning coffee.

If your recipe calls for spices to be toasted before grinding, heat them for a few minutes -- until they become aromatic -- in a hot, dry skillet. Shake the pan often to keep the spices from scorching.

Properly stored in airtight containers and away from heat and light, spices have a shelf life of six months to a year. After that, their flavor deteriorates quickly. For that reason, it's best not to buy them in large quantities.

It's easy to add variety to your cooking with spice blends. Sample some traditional blends, such as curry powder, then experiment by creating your own mixtures. You can sprinkle them on fish before grilling, use as a rub for chicken, or add a pinch or two to a stock or sauce.

Jars of your special spice blends also make wonderful hostess gifts. Make sure to include a recipe or two. If you come up with a great blend, why not share it with others on our cooking bulletin boards? You'll find them on

Spice glossary

The following is not a comprehensive list of the world's spices, but an overview of many of the most common.

Allspice. This dried berry has a fragrance similar to that of nutmeg or clove.

Cardamom. A warm, aromatic member of the ginger family, cardamom is sold either ground or in seed pods. It is native to India and Central America.

Cinnamon. This familiar holiday spice is actually pale to reddish-brown tree bark, stripped and rolled into sticks.

Clove. The dried, unopened buds of the myrtle flower are sold whole or ground.

Coriander. The seed of the cilantro plant (also called Chinese parsley) has a sweet, lemon-sage flavor.

Cumin. This pale-brown, nutty-flavored seed is an important ingredient in chile powder. Available whole or ground.

Fennel seed. This sweet seed of the common fennel plant provides the distinct flavor of Italian sweet sausage.

Ginger. A knobby, pungent root that can be purchased fresh or dried, whole, powdered or candied.

Mace. The reddish, lacy covering of a nutmeg husk, mace is similar in flavor to nutmeg. Sold powdered or in blades.

Nutmeg. The spicy-sweet seed of the nutmeg tree, this tropical evergreen native to the West Indies is usually sold ground, but it is well worth seeking out whole seeds and grating them yourself for better flavor.

Paprika. This blend of dried, powdered red chiles can be hot or sweet.

Pepper. Peppercorns, the processed berries of the pepper plant, are either white, black or green, depending on ripeness. Pink peppercorns are the dried berries of the Baies rose plant.

Saffron. The dried stigmas of the crocus flower are the most expensive of all spices.

Star anise. This eight-pointed, dark-brown fruit pod, native to China, is often called for in Asian cooking.

Turmeric. A root with a bright orange-yellow color and sharp flavor. Turmeric is related to ginger and native to India.

Questions should be addressed to Martha Stewart, care of New York Times Syndication Sales Corp., 122 E. 42nd St., New York, N.Y. 10168. Questions may also be sent to Stewart by electronic mail: Questions of general interest will be answered in this column; Martha Stewart regrets that unpublished letters cannot be answered individually.

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