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?


Anonymous said...

a giant jar of fresh minced garlic is well used in my house. Such a time saver! I had to peel and mince my own garlic. I am lazy that way.
Becky K

joanna said...

You crack me up! But I am actually very thankful for this post. I want to know how to use spices but I never quite know what goes with what. I am a big curry-powder user and recently discovered the joys of all the different peppers plus coriander in a grinder. Thanks for the info!