Post #504 The 10 Spices I Can’t Live Without

September 1, 2016 at 5:32 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Okay, so spices, herbs, and seasonings.  When I was first trying to get a handle on the whole cooking thing, my mom gave me a simple recipe for spaghetti sauce.  I browned and drained a pound of hamburger.  I added a large can of tomato sauce, and a smaller can of tomato puree, and a smaller can of tomato paste.  Then I added some garlic powder and onion powder and some dried oregano flakes.  I added two cups of water, brought it all to a boil, and simmered until it thickened, stirring occasionally to make certain it didn’t burn.  For months, that was spaghetti sauce in my house.  I didn’t realize until later that she was just giving me a simplified version of her own sauce because she thought it would be easier for me to handle.  After awhile, I grew dissatisfied the bland nature of the spaghetti sauce and ventured into the pantry where she had an entire shelf filled with spices and herbs.  I’m sure many of them she’d had for over a decade.  I’m also sure she had no idea exactly what was on that shelf beyond the first layer or two.

I pulled every bottle, can, tin, jar, and packet off that shelf.  If it looked old and dusty, or looked like it had “gone off”, I tossed it into the trash.  Then I sorted everything by the kind of container it was in and matched large and small containers together.  Then I alphabetized everything and started the real job.  I read every single one of those containers.  I didn’t just read them, I sniffed them too, to find out what their properties were.  If needed, I tasted them.  Then I grouped everything by sweet and savory (although back then, when I didn’t know any better, it was “sweet” and “not sweet”.)  Because I was going to make spaghetti sauce, I also set aside anything that said “good for Italian cooking.”  At the end of two hours, perhaps a little more, I not only knew exactly what mom had in her spice coffers, but I also knew what spices and herbs were supposed to be good for different styles of cooking, according to their own containers.

So when I made that batch of spaghetti sauce, I added a little of this and a little of that.  I didn’t tell anyone I was doing it, preferring to surprise everyone.  Back then, you didn’t worry to much about allergic reactions, or personal taste preferences.  When we sat down to eat, everyone remarked on how flavorful the sauce was and mom asked me what I’d done.  I proudly explained my process and everyone told me to keep it up.  Over time, listening to my family’s preferences, I omitted or cut back the amount of bay leaf I’d use, or not use chili flakes with cayenne pepper.  I’d found a jar called “Italian Seasoning Blend” and started using that as a jumping off place.  After a long while, I found myself back to garlic, onion, and oregano, with sometimes adding some basil.  Mom knew what she was doing.

After a lifetime of cooking, I found there are some herbs and spices that I keep around all the time.  They match my flavor palette and Partner/Spouse likes them.  I call them the staples of my spice rack and always make sure I have them on hand.  There are others that will come and go as needed, but these are always here.  So, in no particular order:

Garlic – I keep this one around in fresh, dried, and powdered forms.  Nothing is better than fresh garlic and it’s actually really easy to use.  Sometimes, though, I’ll reach for a bulb or clove (a section of a bulb) and it will be bad.  So I’ll have to get out the dried or powdered version.  And for the record, we no longer use the jarred version cuz they don’t seem to have any flavor.  Garlic enhances everything, except maybe peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  And donuts, although I bet someone has made a garlic donut at some point.

Salt – I used to keep just the standard round blue box of iodized salt around for decades.  Then I learned more about salt.  I much prefer a salt grinder now.  I keep boxes of kosher salt around.  I even have bottles of pink rock salt from the Himalayas but that’s mostly for chuckles.  I also have the standard blue box, but it lasts a lot longer than it used to.  Now, the salt I reach for depends entirely on what I’m using it for.

Pepper – Salt and Pepper just go hand in hand, don’t they?  I no longer even have a box of ground pepper around anymore.  I use fresh ground black pepper exclusively, when I use pepper at all.  When I started tasting how other herbs and spices tasted in combination, my use of black pepper declined to the point of almost non-existence.

Ginger – Ginger in any form is a great flavor, but it’s best used fresh.  Unless you’re baking with it.  Ground ginger is best for baking.  Unfortunately, fresh ginger root will expire pretty quickly and you don’t want that stuff around, so I buy it when I’m going to use it.  Ground ginger we get by the half pound bags.  We use a lot of it.  And we keep candied ginger in the freezer.  We also have ginger tea, and most of the time we have ginger ale hanging around.  Ginger is one of those natural “feel good” herbs that helps upset stomachs, among other things.  The fact that it tastes good is just a plus.

Cinnamon – Cinnamon is the only tree bark that’s good to eat.  It has a highly pungent and pleasing aroma.  In concentration, it produces a heat worthy of a five alarm fire.  In much smaller amounts, it provides a taste and flavor that sends many into ecstasy.  Combined with chocolate, it’s become the unofficial taste of Valentine’s Day.  I like cinnamon okay; I just don’t get crazy for it.  I know some people who would put cinnamon on there flip flops and eat them.

Basil – Easily, one of my favorite plants.  It’s versatile and easy to grow.  Just make sure it gets water, pinch off the flower buds when they appear, and two plants will handle an entire Spring-Summer-Fall season of meals.  By itself, it’s tremendous on pasta.  Added to sauces or soups, and it brightens flavors well.  It’s so good, it was the only topping along with cheese and sauce for pizza Margherita.

Mint – I love mint.  I love growing it and I love cooking with it.  I don’t use it as often as I should but that’s partly because I just like having pots of mint hanging around.  Of course, the best way to enjoy mint is with sugar, lime, and rum.  Mojito!!!

Sage – With Chicken.  Nuff said.

Cumin – Cumin has an earthy, hearty flavor that complements beef and enhances the inherent beefiness of meat.  It’s a staple in Mexican cooking.  It lends a light tang as well.  Just don’t over do it because then all you’ll taste is cumin.  It comes in seed form and ground.  Ground cumin is the easiest from to use and certainly the most popular.

Citrus – Whether you use citrus fresh, zest, juice, or crystal, it’s all good.  Lime has a unique flavor that enhances pork and chicken.  Orange has a sweet earthiness that can be enjoyed on its own or blended with nearly any meat on the planet.  Lemon can brighten plain pasta, plain chicken, plain pork, plain plain.  It’s just that good.  I keep the crystals around all the time, but buy it fresh to use for specific dishes when needed.  Growing up where I did in Arizona, citrus is a staple for us.

So what are your “go to” spices?

As I was writing this, I was reminded of something I heard a comedienne talking about years ago.  She’d been to a bridal shower for a not-too-close friend and one of the ladies had purchased a huge spice rack and thought it would be “cute” to wrap each spice individually.  She said for half an hour they were all sitting around saying “Oooh, paprika!” in hushed tones.


Oh, and just a side note:  spice racks ruin spices.  Spices should be stored in cool dry places to extend their shelf life.


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