The holiday season is just around the corner with a long to-do list that accompanies it. You know you’ll have to clean the house, put sheets on the guest bed and dig out the punch bowl for Aunt Gladys’ secret recipe for eggnog. (The secret is to just wave a small amount of cream and sugar over a big bowl of bourbon. Eggs are optional.)

For many of us, that means plenty of cooking and baking, much of it involving spices. That makes it the perfect time of year to talk about the importance of spice maintenance.

It’s the art of keeping your spice drawer full of fresh and fragrant spices. Cooking with old, lifeless spices can turn a potentially wonderful dish or baked good into something unmemorable, or worse — definitely not the effect you’re looking for when you’ve just spent an afternoon baking gingerbread cookies or pumpkin pie.

Most herbs and spices maintain their freshness for only about a year. If they’re whole spices, which you should try to buy when possible, they may last for another year or two.

That may sound like a long time, but my guess is that one peek into your pantry would reveal a bottle of fennel seeds you bought for a recipe five years ago and haven’t used since. Trust me, those seeds are now past their prime.

Now is the time to pitch those old bottles and buy new ones. You’ll be happy you did, especially if you use them in this dinner-party-worthy Beef and Butternut Squash Tagine.

A tagine is a Moroccan spiced stew of meat, vegetables and sometimes dried fruit and nuts. It’s infused with warm spices like ginger, coriander, cumin and cinnamon and is often served over couscous. It’s topped with a generous sprinkling of crunchy almonds, along with prunes, which may seem strange, but they lend the perfect amount of sweetness to the dish.

Incredibly fragrant, this dish will warm up a crisp fall night.

Beef and Butternut Squash Tagine

Serves 6.

Note: This North African stew will fill your house with the fragrance of warm spices. Wonderful when served over couscous. To toast the almonds, roast them in a 400-degree oven for 8 to 10 minutes. From Meredith Deeds.

• 18 prunes

• 2 lb. beef chuck, trimmed and cut into 2-in. cubes

• 1 1/4 tsp. salt

• 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

• 2 tbsp. olive oil

• 2 medium onions, diced

• 3 garlic cloves, minced

• 1 1/2 tsp. ginger

• 1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon

• 1/2 tsp. ground cumin

• 1/2 tsp. ground coriander

• 1/2 tsp. turmeric

• Pinch of saffron

• 2 c. water

 1 small (2 lb.) butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 2-in. chunks (about 6 c.)

• 1/4 c. chopped fresh cilantro

• 1/4 c. toasted almonds (see Note)

Directions

Soak the prunes in warm water for at least 30 minutes, or the entire time the tagine cooks.

Season the beef with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Sauté half the meat, uncovered, stirring only occasionally, until well browned, about 8 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the beef to a plate. Repeat with the remaining beef.

Lower the heat to medium and add onions to the Dutch oven. Sauté until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic, ginger, cinnamon, cumin, coriander, turmeric and saffron, and sauté for another minute or until fragrant.

Add the reserved beef to the pan, along with 2 cups water, butternut squash and cilantro. Cook, partially covered, stirring occasionally, until the liquid thickens and the meat and vegetables are tender, about 2 to 2 1/2 hours, adding a little more water if the stew appears too dry. Season with more salt and pepper to taste, if necessary.

Drain the prunes.

Transfer stew to a serving bowl or platter and garnish with the prunes and the almonds.

Nutrition information per serving:

Calories 330 Fat 17 g Sodium 540 mg

Carbohydrates 27 g Saturated fat 5 g Total sugars 12 g

Protein 20 g Cholesterol 50 mg Dietary fiber 6 g

Exchanges per serving: ½ fruit, 1 ½ starch, 2 ½ medium-fat protein, ½ fat.

 

Meredith Deeds is a cookbook author and food writer from Edina. Reach her at meredith@meredithdeeds.com. Follow her on Twitter ­at

@meredithdeeds.