I refer to some spices as flavor catalysts. In addition to bringing their own flavor to the party they seem to make other flavors stand out.
Everyone knows about salt. There are recipes where you want just a pinch – a quarter or even an eighth of a teaspoon – and if you fail to add it the resulting dish seems a little flat. (Even though you can’t taste the saltiness.)
Another favorite of mine is a bit of capsaicin – usually in my fudge. Next time you make something chocolate – a cake, fudge, even ‘just’ pudding – try adding an eighth to quarter teaspoon of cayenne. If you sorta like hot, go as much as half a teaspoon. More and everyone will recognize the heat and will decide (except for heataholics) they don’t like it. Keep it small, however, and the chocolate stands out even more and nobody knows you’ve done it. They just rave about your chocolate.
A third catalytic spice is cloves. The worst thing about using cloves is that they are so powerful – an eighth to quarter teaspoon is not an uncommon quantity for a recipe in which you want to taste the cloves. I’ve a minor trick for that, however; I make a tincture. I have some of those wonderful glass bottles that used to hold “extract of…” – tinctures. I clean the jar thoroughly (over and over). I then add a pure alcohol – everclear by preference, vodka as a second choice – add two cloves, and let it steep a week. I then strain out the cloves and return the tincture to the bottle (labeling appropriately). A half-teaspoon of this tincture adds the cloven catalyst without bringing the spice. Its problem is that you’re bringing a wet spice which can be frustrating. With that exception, it’ll excite the flavor buds quite well.
That said, I will toss a clove or two into a strongly flavored dish. If you have a favorite chili recipe, for example, see what happens when you add a pair. If you make home-made sauerkraut, grinding a few cloves and tossing a bit in each layer brings out a lot of flavor. I’ve taken to adding one clove when I make spaghetti sauce as well. Everybody knows about salt, but there are other boosters out there – take advantage of them.