America remains the “comfort food nation,” according to a recent issue of Bon Appetit. In the magazine's annual reader survey, 74% of respondents said comfort food is a trend on the rise—and their most comforting comfort food was pasta.

In creamy macaroni and cheese, seasonings make a subtle but real difference in flavor and quality. The kind most commonly made at home includes dry mustard powder and ground white pepper in the cheese sauce. Other versions, more closely related to the Neapolitan original, include oregano, thyme, garlic powder, nutmeg and/or paprika along with a blend of several cheeses. Sometimes milk and herbs are simmered together and the herb-scented milk is strained before being stirred into the cheese.

Widespread interest in ethnic cuisines and immigration from all points south of the border—as well as from Asia—are helping drive the tremendous sales of spices in the U.S. Since 1981, spice consumption has nearly doubled to more than 1 billion pounds in 2000, according to the American Spice Trade Association (Washington).

These developments help explain the growing popularity of ethnic variations on traditional comfort foods. Pad Thai, a noodle-based dish native to Thailand, has the familiar texture of pasta plus a tastebud-tingling mix of seasonings that can include basil, paprika, garlic, red pepper flakes or roasted chili paste, mint leaves, scallions and lime.

Ginger, ground red pepper, garlic and sesame seed are common to many dishes native to China, Indonesia and India. A cultural cross-over, comforting both for its familiar form and its big flavors, is the recipe for Onion Curry Burgers (see photo and recipe), which enlivens ground beef with mango chutney, curry powder, garlic powder and instant minced onion. The same flavors can be incorporated into soy “hot dogs,” crumbles and other vegetable protein meat analogs.

Hot tamales pack real comfort for some. For the filling, cooked shredded pork is blended with tomato sauce, cumin, garlic powder, ground red pepper and a dash of allspice or nutmeg. A similar seasoning blend works well for meatless tamales filled with corn, chilies and Jack cheese. Because tamales freeze well, the potential for gourmet variations on this Mexican classic is excellent.

In some American cities, Argentinian empanadas are showing up as a convenience food in grocers' freezers. These savory turnovers typically contain a meat and vegetable filling, spiced up with oregano, cumin, red pepper flakes, sweet paprika and green olives.

Every bite of an All-American Meatloaf (see recipe) comes with a blend of seasonings such as onion, sage, thyme, dry mustard, garlic and ground black pepper. It becomes a mega-comforting meal when served with mashed potatoes with bacon bits, chives and garlic powder stirred in.

Ming Tsai, chef-owner of Blue Ginger restaurant (Boston), and host of “East Meets West” on the TV Food Network, makes an all-pork meatloaf bound with cooked white rice and eggs. Asian flavors come into play with hoisin sauce, ginger, garlic, fermented black beans, onion and other vegetables. It may contain or be accompanied by a sambal, a sweet-and-fiery Asian condiment that is, in its most basic form, a simple mixture of chilies, brown sugar and salt.

Energy bars, cereals, muffins, instant oatmeal and granola often take their flavor profiles from traditional comfort desserts. In American desserts made with familiar ingredients such as apples, pumpkins, cranberries, raisins and nuts, satisfying flavor is provided by ground cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, mace and ginger. Chocolate with cinnamon, traditional in Mexican desserts, is a popular combination in many desserts and snacks.

The comforting flavors of fruit desserts also are found in meal replacement bars as well as in prepared snack and breakfast foods. Blueberries, strawberries, apricots, pineapples and peaches all benefit from the addition of spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger.

Pastry chefs are making ice cream desserts with flavors that are unusual in their combinations, yet familiar and comforting. One example consists of peaches poached with cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg and peach schnapps, served over browned sugar ice cream. And here's another irresistible twist on a comfort food favorite: ice cream sandwiches made with soft spice cookies seasoned with ginger, nutmeg and cloves, then filled with lemon ice cream.

Recipes for “Spicing Up Comfort Food” were developed for Prepared Foods by the test kitchen of the American Spice Trade Association. Additional recipes on this theme are available at www.astaspice.org. For spice-related articles, visit www.PreparedFoods.com, click on the “Browse by Ingredient” button and select “Spices, Seasonings & Blends.”

Onion Curry Burgers

1 pound ground lean beef
1/2 cup prepared Major Grey chutney, chopped
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup instant minced onion

In a medium bowl place beef, chutney, curry powder, garlic powder and salt; mix just until combined. Shape into 4 patties about 3¼4-inch thick. In a pie plate, place minced onion; press each burger into onion, turning to coat both sides.

To grill: Preheat coals until hot; on a rack 4 inches over coals, grill burgers 4 to 5 minutes per side.

To broil: Preheat broiler; broil burgers on a rack in broiling pan about 6 inches from heat source, 4 to 5 minutes per side. Serve in hamburger buns if desired.

Yield: 4 portions

All-American Meatloaf

1-1/2 pounds lean ground beef
1/2 pound lean ground pork
1/2 pound ground veal
2 cups fresh bread crumbs
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 can (8 ounces) tomato sauce
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons instant minced onion
1 teaspoon light brown sugar
1 teaspoon sage leaves, crushed
1 teaspoon thyme leaves, crushed
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon dry mustard
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
5 slices (5 ounces) sliced smoked bacon

Preheat oven to 350Þ F. In a large bowl, mix just until beef, pork, veal, bread crumbs, eggs, tomato sauce, water, onion, brown sugar, sage, thyme, salt, mustard, garlic powder and black pepper are combined.

On a 13x9x3 inch baking pan, shape into a 10 x 5 inch oval. Place bacon slices over meatloaf. Bake until juices are no longer pink, about 1 hour. Let stand 10 minutes before slicing.

Yield: 6 servings

Spicy Southwestern Pasta

3 teaspoons chili powder
1-1/2 teaspoons cumin seeds
2 cans (about 14 ounces each) diced tomatoes
1/4 cup instant minced onion
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 can (16 ounces) black beans, drained and rinsed
2 cups corn kernels
1 can (4 ounces) chopped green chilies
1 pound wagon wheel or rotelle (spiral) pasta, cooked

In a deep skillet or large saucepan over medium heat, place chili powder and cumin; cook and stir until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add tomatoes, onion, garlic powder, cinnamon and red pepper; bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, covered, to blend flavors, 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in black beans, corn and green chilies; cook until hot, about 5 minutes; remove from heat. To serve: Toss sauce with cooked pasta. If desired, serve with shredded sharp cheddar.

Yield: 6 to 8 portions