Sunday, March 14, 2010

Spice Friends

My dear friend Tina had been perusing a well loved spice catalog and was inspired to ask me and a few other folks what their favorite spices were. I replied, thinking I could dash off a quick list and suddenly I found I had a dissertation. I had no idea I cared so much about this. So I saved the email, and I'm sharing with you here. I feel like I should have a good reason for doing so, but mostly I am just amazed that I really care that much about this topic. As I'm just noticing as well how personal spices are -- how each person creates their own little culinary world.

(By the way, the photo is from a very old Nantucket herb garden we visited last June. I dream of having such a garden some day: fresh spice beats jarred hands down anyday).

First off in my list of smug spice advice, pre-filled spice racks aren't that helpful as they will include lots of stuff that you'll never use and is often all dried out anyhow. If the spice no longer has a strong smell, it won't have much taste either.

Daily/weekly most used spices:
  • We use a lot of peppercorns in a grinder. They aren't cheap when you buy them in tiny bottles from the grocery store, so I like to buy a bag at any specialty store within reasonable price. The multicolored peppercorns are the most fun and supposedly give you more flavor.
  • Red pepper flakes -- used so much in our house that we buy the big containers from the store. Not even usually in the fancy spice catalogs, but boy do we like them.
  • We use a lot of vanilla. I might use almond extract or anise extract once a year or so. Orange extract is handy to have around to use instead of orange peel or lemon peel when you're feeling lazy. Not a spice, but I'm ok with including it because it's my list.
  • Cinnamon (Penzey's is supposed to be super awesome, although truly I'm not sure I notice the difference but it smells good!)
  • Bay leaves -- I use these a lot in soup, sauces, beans, etc . When I lived in California I was very excited to be able to find them on trees in the neighborhood. Free spice! What a country. They smelled so good.
  • Oregano (turkish or greek are both fine, Mexican is different) -- pizza sauce, spaghetti sauce, etc.
  • Cumin -- used in pretty much any mexican food or indian food.
  • Nutmeg -- I love this stuff especially whole with a grinder. You can survive on the pre-ground stuff; it just isn't as wonderful,
  • Cayenne powder -- for heat without adding much of a flavor.
  • chipotle powder -- I love the smoky flavor this gives things with a little heat
  • thyme -- I like this stuff and use it pretty often. I recently learned it is often used in herbal tea.

For monthly use (very good to have on hand and annoying if you don't have on hand:

  • ground mustard -- used in Indian cooking, sometimes in cheese sauces
  • curry powder -- it's really annoying when you don't have it even if it doesn't come up all that much. My latest intel says the Tone brand at the warehouse stores is best
  • Mr. Right likes garlic powder, but I don't think it is anywhere near as good as the real thing but it's easy for garlic toast or if you have no garlic
  • White pepper: I have found their white pepper to be really interesting and has a much different flavor than black pepper. I use it in soups alot. You only need a little because it is intense! I just buy a little shaker of it.
  • Rosemary -- you won't use it much, but it will come up for lamb, stews, carrots, potatoes, potatoes
  • Chili powder -- for chili, duh. But I tend to use chipotle powder more
  • ground ginger -- not nearly as good as fresh, but it's good to have
Nice to have but you won't use very often at all:
  • cardamom gives a really nice flavor to baked goods, kindof an interesting exotic taste to banana bread or muffins
  • coriander seed (you have to grind it up yourself though which is annoying
  • cinnamon sticks (for mulling wines or cider and being fancy)
  • vanilla beans (if you like strong vanilla flavor in something or are making puddings or panna cottas)
  • allspice -- pops up in baking, especially around the holidays. I think you can sub in cinnamon/nutmeg if you have to.
  • Paprika -- for chicken -- I like Penzey's Spanish a LOT. Really different.
  • Cream of tartar -- it comes up for meringues and cookies and stuff, but you won't use it much.
  • Dried sage -- you know, I just never ever use this. I'll use fresh sage on eggs. My mom uses it. I just don't.
  • Tumeric -- sortof a hippie spice. I like it for some things and it is supposed to be a superfood, really good for you.
  • Saffron -- I never ever feel the need for it. It's super expensive. Some people swear by it in rice.

What I really never use, and I mock it when I see it:

  • cinnamon sugar -- so easy to make your own it's ridiculous to buy it unless you MUST have it on hand at all times in a special shaker.
  • "italian seasoning" I just make up my own with the ones I have
  • dried parsley flakes-- dried out it doesn't add any flavor, it just adds green specks. Feh. I mean, maybe sometimes you need green specks I guess, but I don't like it, and it annoys me that it pretends like it adds something.
  • dried basil flakes -- see above. Feh again.
  • dried cilantro flakes -- see above.
  • dried lemongrass -- see above
  • dried jalapeno bits -- see above
  • dried chives -- see above
  • dried marjoram -- see above
  • dried mint -- see above (although I do like mint tea which is made from dried mint)
  • onion powder -- just use onions, people!!!!
Obviously, I spent way too much time on this. But my friends, being the dear souls that they are, put up with me. One of these friends, Allison, said if you count butter as a spice, that would be her favorite. Which led us down the road to a lively discussion of condiments, of which I am a big fan. But that's for another culinary obsessed post, isn't it? What's on your spice list? Did I forget anything?

Color me inspired. I have been reading Cold Antler farm, a blog about a city-based woman who decides it is time to make her dream come true by starting a farm. This has always been a dream of mine in some form or another, although I wouldn't say it is has been the number one fore-front topic on which I obsess. We all have our over the top obsessions, some more heroic than others (ok, mine appears to be, um, brownies), and then we have our more manageable passions and quiet dreams. And if I never live and work on a real honest to goodness farm, I'll be OK. However, I do think I've got come compost in my blood (ick?), and combined with that oh-so-trendy desire to live more greenly, I think we can make even our lives in suburban MA a little closer to the earth-based vision I hold in my head. And for the next house … who knows … Vermont or rural NH are not that far away, and Mr. Right likes the sound of both of them. Even if he's not completely convinced he loves the idea of cleaning up after chickens. But I dream of having hens scratching about in the yard and gathering still warm eggs with my family. Of trying to figure out what to do with all that extra goat's milk we are getting. Of surpluses of rhubarb and of a real root cellar.

Now that we are more or less installed in the new homestead, what steps can I take to get the place running in the right direction? First off, this is the first time I have ever been a homeOWNER which I guess is another way of saying LANDowner (which immediately makes me feel guilty in a kind of "nobody owns the land" kind of way, but you know what I mean). This is important only in that it is the first time I've ever known for pretty sure that I'd be living in one spot for more than just a year or two.

Which means, for the first time, I can plant PERENNIALS!!!! This may not be cause for celebration in your world, but in my world, there is nothing more wonderful than thinking to myself, "I'd sure like some fresh raspberries right now," and be able to go out in the garden where there are raspberry bushes begging to be picked. As opposed to going the store and feeling depressed at the tiny plasticky box with 12 moldy berries for $4. Or aspargus stalks popping up, signalling that spring really IS coming, despite the fact that April in New England can be worse than February in New England. Or … eating blackberries right off the bush at dusk in early August while they are still warm from the sun and the mosquitoes are buzzing around your ears. Sounds like heaven to me! Rosebushes! Morning glories! Fruit trees!
Of course, all these visions are even now, years off. You don't get much year one, you're not supposed to eat them while they settle into their new spots, so tells me all those to whom I've been waxing enthusiastic. But you don't get any if you never plant 'em, I say!

In addition to the most wonderful perennial lifestyle we can now adopt, there are things like composting bins and rain barrels. I really miss composting as I got pretty used to it at our last place. It cuts way down on the amount of trash output, and so it's less taking out the trash, less stinky trash in the house, free fertilizer, and all kinds of happy smug feelings when you aren't throwing away piles of beautiful rinds and peelings that you know can be put to use.
Now chickens … well … that probably isn't going to happen anytime soon. We have a shared backyard, so I'll be lucky if I can get away with composting. Someday, please forgive me for saying this, but I can't resist: the chickens will come home to roost.