Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Spiceman Cometh

I’m staging a coup.  It’s been over a year since The Reluctant Foodie sat down and wrote a post, despite the numerous pokings and proddings of his not-so-reluctant wife.  Do you think he’ll notice the hostile takeover of his blog?  Let’s write this puppy and find out!

Happy New Year!  When you hear this phrase, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?  Champagne and parties?  Resolutions?  OMG another year and I haven’t cleaned out that front hall closet?  How about your spice hangar?  You know, the drawer, little corner of the pantry, or box in the bottom of the cabinet where you keep your spices?  Do you ever clean that out?

McCormick, Durkee, Penzey’s, The Spice Hunter, Frontier - wherever and from whomever you buy your herbs and spices, are going to tell you that’s it’s best of you throw out your spices every six months and buy a whole new set.  And I would too, if I were trying to sell you herbs and spices.  The simple fact of the matter is:  they’re not spoiling, they’re just less potent than fresh.  So while the dried mustard you inherited from your Great Aunt Nellie is probably a good candidate for your compost pile, the fenugreek you purchased to make the deliciously satisfying Adasi is just fine.  Yes, it’s lost some of its potency, and is probably a little stale.  Solution?   Use your eyes, nose and tastebuds  - is it not too terribly faded from what you remember?  Does it still have a nice fragrance?  Does it taste ok when you dab a little on your tongue?  Then save your money and use it!  You may need to be a little more generous with it to get the same taste profile, but it is certainly still a viable product.  Bloom it in a little warm oil or water if you’re in doubt as to whether or not it’s still suitable for consumption.   Worse case scenario?  It’s wayyyyy past its prime and you have a good excuse to head to your local specialty spice store for a nice shopping spree.  And unlike shopping for shoes or single batch aged bourbon, you won’t have to hide the receipts.  

For what should you be shopping?  What are the base herbs spices everyone should have in their pantry?  Well, that’s actually complicated.  What do you like to eat?  What turns you on in the kitchen?  (Regarding food, people!)  Are you a heat miser who gets all weepy at the thought of a scorching hot and spicy chili filled with chiles?  Do you enjoy a good bake, and want a cabinet full of warm spices that remind you of your Nana?  Does the freshness of a salad dressing full of bright herbs from Provence do it for ya?  There’s an herb or spice for that!  And you should seek out your favorites.  But just in case you need a basic stock to pull from, here are some of my Must Haves:

---Salt.  A basic cooking salt, like kosher AND a finishing salt, like fleur de sel.  I’m seriously into salts right now, and I won’t confirm what a geek I am by telling you how many I have in my pantry, but there is a difference.  If you’re still using the basic iodized salt your gran did, I will tell you that you’re missing out.  That salt has been mined and stripped of everything that makes it interesting - all the minerals have been dissolved out and sold.  Find something unrefined and see what a difference it makes.  If you can’t tell, you probably shouldn’t be reading this blog, it will just confuse you.

---Pepper.  Whole, in a grinder, even if it’s a disposable one that comes full of pepper berries from your Super Shop Here Market.  Branch out when you’re feeling frisky, add a little white pepper, or pink pepper, or even Szechuan pepper.  I’m a pepper, you’re a pepper, he’s a pepper, she’s a pepper, wouldn’t you like to be a pepper too?

---Whole nutmeg, with its own dedicated mini grater.  Rachel Ray let the cat out of the bag with this one, but it bears repeating.  Fresh grated nutmeg is that je ne sais quois in any recipes, whether it is your macaroni and cheese or your bloody mary.

---Garlic powder, not garlic salt.  Find one you like, some are hotter than others, some have more crap mixed in with the garlic.  If you can find Sylvia’s Garlic Powder, you will have found my hands down favorite.  If you can’t find it, send me a note and I’ll send you some.  It’s by far the best I have used, and sometimes fresh is just too fresh and you need the maltier tones of the dried.

---Marjoram or oregano.  To my mind, they’re really not interchangeable, marjoram is much more subtle and complex, but you should have one or the other in your possession.  Greek or Turkish oregano in a bag is superior to anything in a bottle, and Mexican oregano is not really an oregano (origanum for all you other plant nerds out there) but a member of the verbena family and a lippia.  Nevertheless, you should be using that for anything with chiles, if you’re after a truer hot climate flavor.  Origanums are native to more temperate climes, and marjoram and oregano are both in the mint plant family - use with veg, eggs, especially good with lamb, pizza and pasta...If, for some reason the flavor of marjoram or oregano doesn’t do it for you, try rosemary.  This is my preferred flavor over marj/oreg, but not as suitable for some dishes.  That’s why I have both, but if you could only choose one, marj/oreg is more versatile and slightly easier on the palette.   You should have a green herb in your spice drawer, but please don't waste your time and money on something dried that should be used fresh, like basil, parsley, cilantro or chervil.  For these, Dorot brand of frozen herbs from Israel is a nice alternative to fresh, and will always be on hand in your freezer.  Look for them at Trader Joe's, Wegman's and Whole Foods.

---Bay leaves.  Turkish.  Whole.  Don’t forget to count them as they go in to flavor your soup, stew, stock, rice, what have you, and count them as they’re coming out to throw away before service.  I cannot stress the importance of making sure you don’t serve these leaves enough - they are a serious choking hazard.   

---Crushed red pepper or cayenne.  Different companies use different peppers for these, try a few to get your fruity to hot balance perfect.  McCormick is our house crushed red, followed by Penzey’s Aleppo.  

---Cinnamon.  Real cinnamon, not cassia.  It’s not just for sweets, try it in a pork rub or in a maple cinnamon rosemary glaze for winter squashes.  Penzey’s sells my favorite.

---Cumin.  Whole, if you have a spice grinder or are handy with a mortar and pestle.  Would life really be worth living without a good curry and chili?  Cumin is the basis for both of these delicious meals, and a little goes a long way, so purchase in small quantities.

---A spice blend.  Yes, I said it, you heard me, purchase a pre-made spice blend.  Which one?  What are your comfort flavors?  My brother loves McCormick’s Montreal seasoning blend, my Mom loves the no salt blends from Penzey’s, especially Mural of Flavor, I’m a Herbes de Provence gal, and my husband, the overthrown Reluctant Foodie dictator, loves a certain smoked seasoned salt.  Now you could go ahead and make your own blends....but that’s another story.

There are so many other herbs and spices I would like to include, like paprika in sweet, half sharp and smoked, celery seed, dill weed, coriander, fennel and caraway - but these are my top ten must haves in the spice drawer.  What are your favorite herbs and go to spices?  

PS - just so we're completely clear - the brands I mention in any blog post have not paid me to do so, they're my completely unbiased (and unpaid) opinion.


  1. Hello and a warm welcome back :) A great blog post and one that I need to do! (sort out the spices)...just bought a jar today for my ground cardamom and pretty labels too hahah...can't wait to read more, don't leave it so long next time :)


    1. Leila, so nice to hear from you! I'm trying to find the time (and motivation) to get back to posting regularly.

      P.S. I wanted you to know that we still make and enjoy the wonderful Adasi recipe you shared at least once a month. Hope all is well with you!

  2. I'm so glad you enjoyed it! I have changed site locations and names and trying to blog anew....same as you really! Life gets in the way sometimes ;) I'll have another one for you to try very soon...lentils, dates, sultanas, almonds....


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