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With its sunny color, distinctive fragrance and warm flavor, turmeric has long been one of the world’s most versatile and popular spices. It’s an essential element in curries and Middle Eastern spice blends such as ras el hanout, and lends its golden color to many other dishes. Let’s get to know this colorful rhizome a little better, and look at the best ways to cook with turmeric to release its fine flavor and long-documented nutritional benefits.

In the bazaars of the Middle East, India and other south Asian countries, amid the vast array of clove buds, coriander seeds, cinnamon bark and peppercorns — and all the other spices the world has come to love — you will see heaps of turmeric powder looking like a mountain range of gold.

A perennial relative of the ginger family, turmeric comes from the root of the Curcuma longa plant. The rhizome has a tough brown skin and deep, orange-red flesh which, dried and ground, yields the turmeric powder found in most spice cabinets. In southern Asia, where the plant is grown, fresh turmeric leaves are also used to wrap food for cooking.

For thousands of years, the turmeric rhizome has been used as a remedy for cuts, concussions, aches and pains and other ailments. Modern medical researchers have been studying the molecular properties of curcumin, the chief chemical compound in turmeric, as a way to effectively prevent cancer. Curcumin is also being studied as an effective means to fight against diseases such as arthritis, Alzheimer’s and stomach ulcers, to name a few.

At our Napa shop, customers often ask us about how to use this versatile, powerful spice. Here are our top tips for cooking with turmeric:

With its slightly bitter taste, turmeric can overpower a dish if you use too much. The best way to release its delicate flavor is to use small amounts per recipe, first sauteing it in hot oil for just a few seconds.

Also, piperine — a compound in black pepper — appears to help the human body absorb curcumin more effectively, so we always throw in a pinch of black pepper with the turmeric.

For the best results cooking with turmeric:

Use about 1/4—3/4 tsp per recipe, depending on number of servings.

Saute the turmeric in hot olive oil before adding other ingredients.

Turmeric can burn very quickly: Prepare all the ingredients in advance.

If using onion or garlic, saute these first.

Once the onion is browned, mix in the sauteed turmeric and saute for about 20 seconds, allowing the oil to soak up the flavors. The turmeric will start to change color rapidly, from bright orange into darker orange.

Quickly add the rest of the ingredients to prevent the turmeric from burning.

Once you start using turmeric on a regular basis, it’s fun to find new ways to use it in home cooking.

Turmeric Quinoa

Serves 4

1 cup white quinoa

2 cups water

2 Tbsp. olive oil

1 1/2 cups chopped white onion

1/2 cup black raisins

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1/4 tsp. ground cumin

1 tsp. turmeric powder

1/4 tsp. chili cayenne powder

1/2 tsp. chili California powder

1/4 tsp. coarsely ground black pepper

3/4 tsp. fine sea salt

1 tsp. fresh lemon juice

1/2 cup roasted, unsalted sliced almonds

1 cup chopped Italian parsley

Rinse quinoa well and place in a pot with water. Cover, bring to boil and reduce the heat to low. Simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, for another 15 minutes.

Warm olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and fry until golden brown. Lower heat, add raisins and cook until some are scorched, but not burned. Add spices and salt and toss for 30 seconds. Add lemon juice, almond, cooked quinoa and parsley and mix well.

Enjoy warm or at room temperature.

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Shuli Madmone owns Whole Spice, a hands-on spice shop in the Oxbow Public Market at 610 First St. in Napa and online at Do you have a question about herbs, spices, cooking or food, or a recipe you’re looking for — vegetarian, vegan or otherwise? Drop him a note at