Click inside for the weekly food for thought with items on exotic spices, “The Essential New York Times Cookbook" by Amanda Hesser and a Pumpkin Parfait recipe and more. Or check out these links:

With just a few simple spice substitutions, you can liven up classic dishes and create a whole new meal experience. You'll be amazed at the difference small changes can make, and you'll have fun bringing new, creative flavors into your cooking.

Here are some ideas for more flavorful and interesting everyday spices from the spice experts at Frontier Natural Products Co-op:

Cinnamon is an especially popular spice that comes from the bark of an evergreen tree. For an even sweeter seasoning, try Vietnamese cinnamon. Compared to the more familiar Indonesian types, it has a distinctly sweet flavor and exceptionally high volatile oil content, the key flavor component. Gourmet cooks rate it as the highest-quality cinnamon in the world. Try using it in oatmeal, baked goods, desserts and beverages.

Cayenne adds color and heated flavor to Southwestern salsas, Indian chutneys, Thai curries, Mexican enchiladas, Chinese stir-fries, Texan chili con carne, Cajun hot sauce and more. But for a smokier flavor, try chipotle peppers, which are actually dried, smoked jalapeno peppers. Their smoky-sweet flavor is often used in Southwestern and Mexican dishes. Add a dash to liven up chili and barbecued fare.

Ground black pepper is popular in a wide variety of foods and works well in combination with other herbs and spices. For an exotic twist, try using Sichuan (Szechuan) pepper. Gourmet Sichuan pepper is grown in China and offers an unusual, pungent flavor that begins as warm and lemon-like with woodsy overtones and finishes with a more intense bite. It intensifies the flavor of fish, poultry, cheese and vegetables.

Vanilla extract is used to flavor all kinds of desserts and beverages. To ramp up the flavor, switch to vanilla beans, instead of the liquid extract. Simply substitute one vanilla bean for each teaspoon of extract, cook it with the liquid used in the recipe and then remove it. Bourbon vanilla beans are very aromatic with a full, rich taste. Papua New Guinea vanilla beans have a fruitier taste, with some notes of cherry that add a deep, long-lasting flavor to ice cream, frosting and beverages.

Nutmeg is the dried seed of the fruit of an evergreen tree, which most often comes in ground form. However, like many spices, it loses both flavor and aroma after it is ground. Instead, buy whole nutmeg and grind it yourself, producing a more robust and fresh flavor. Warm and sweet nutmeg adds depth to desserts, cheeses and vegetables. Sprinkle it on eggnog, mulled wines, mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes.

-- ARA

Easy recipe: Pumpkin Parfait

1/2 cup canned pumpkin

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 1/2 teaspoons milk

2 teaspoons sugar

6 ounces low-fat vanilla yogurt

1/4 cup granola with raisins

In a small bowl, stir together pumpkin, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, milk and sugar. In two small bowls or ramekins, layer the pumpkin mixture and yogurt. Sprinkle with granola. Layer in a parfait glass for a fun treat.

-- ARA

Did You Know?

Although they are prepared much the same way, sweet potatoes and yams are two different vegetables. Yams are grown on a vine, mainly in South and Central America, and can be found at international food markets.

-- EatRight.org

Critic’s Cupboard: Columbus Passion & Patience Salame

Jennifer Mastroianni: Artisan bacon. Artisan sausage. And now the trend in gourmet meat continues with artisan salami. I recently found Columbus Passion & Patience Salame (an 8-ounce log). It comes in several varieties, including cabernet sauvignon wine with a hint of juniper berry.

This one is a keeper. It is an authentic, slow-aged Italian recipe and has no gluten, MSG or trans fat. It comes in the prettiest paper packaging, which also makes it a nice hostess gift. 

Jim Hillibish: Columbus’ new Passion & Patience Salame, slow aged in their plant in San Francisco, is genius. Slow aging allows the salami to ferment. They add cabernet sauvignon and essence of juniper berry to this, and here you have it, a greased gin and tonic. (The juniper has a pronounced rosemary flavor).

This art work must be consumed in the proper Italian manner: thin rounds on chunks of white bread fresh from the oven, plus a sharp table cheese and a dry red wine. It’s an appetizer that may become the main course, depending on how much wine you drink. You can order it at www.columbussalame.com.

-- The Repository

Food Quiz

This vegetable is found in several different varieties in Thai cooking and is a staple of green curries.

A. Broccoli

B. Eggplant

C. Tofu

D. Cucumber

-- funtrivia.com

Answer is at bottom of column

Wise to the Word: Taleggio cheese

[tahl-EH-zhee-oh] Hailing from Italy's Lombardy region, this rich (48 percent fat), semisoft cheese is made from whole cow's milk. Its flavor can range from mild to pungent, depending on its age. When young, its color is pale yellow. As it ages, it darkens to deep yellow and becomes rather runny. It's excellent with salad greens or served with fruit for dessert.

-- epicurious.com

Number to Know

100: There are 100 calories in three ounces of broiled lobster from Whole Foods Market.

 – calorielab.com

The Dish On …

“The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century” by Amanda Hesser

Hesser, a food columnist for the New York Times, offers a superb compilation of the most noteworthy recipes published by the paper since it started covering food in the 1850s. She has produced a chronicle of American culinary history, an evolutionary progression that marks the notable and sometimes regrettable changes in our approach to food. Every category of food is covered, and each recipe is accompanied by serving suggestions for complementary dishes within the book.

From the Beer Nut’s Blog: Beer Drinker of the Year contest

Oscar winner. Nobel Prize winner. Beer Drinker of the Year.

All are great honors, but at least two of them are probably out of your reach. The Beer Drinker of the Year is a goal that you can strive for.

I’d love to be the Beer Drinker of the Year. I would love to go to a beer festival and introduce myself as “Norman Miller, 2011 Beer Drinker of the Year.” Heck, I’d have business cards made up.

But, alas, I’m not going to enter the competition. However, you can enter. There hasn’t been a winner from Massachusetts yet, and I know there are some exceptional beer drinkers here. Even if you don’t care about the title, a lot of free beer kind of rocks. For complete details, visit www.wynkoop.com.

To read more from the Beer Nut, visit http://blogs.townonline.com/beernut/.

Food Quiz Answer

B. Eggplant

GateHouse News Service