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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

. . . And Everything Nice

From the Spice Rack Dept.: My kitchen is a wonderland of herbs and spices, from the commonplace to the exotic, expanding each time I experiment with a new cuisine or pass another street-fair display of possibilities. Here’s my 2006 disquisition on the topic.


SPRING CLEANING, in my house, starts in the kitchen. Even as I’m tossing out crusty old jars of Gulden’s and those desiccated piles of capers that collect in the corner of the fridge, I’m considering the most formidable of my culinary battlegrounds: the spice cabinet, which also serves as an extended pantry.

Street Fair, NYC | Photo by B. A. Nilsson
It’s a cabinet not far from the stove (bad idea number one: storing the spices near heat), with three shelves of herbs and spices, tea and powders in a mish-mash of old jam jars, tiny Tupperware caskets and crumpled glassine bags. They’re arranged in something that once was alphabetical order, a habit I’d might as well confess to, but that order deteriorates with each fancy meal.

Consider, first, the herbs and spices. I grew up, as you probably did, with a spice rack in the kitchen, a rack that boasted a dozen and a half identical containers cheerfully labeled and faded with age – especially the spices themselves. For years I thought paprika was a tasteless powder of dull orange, and didn’t see its brilliant redness until I got into the restaurant business.

Avoid those all-in-one spice kits. They’re past their prime to begin with, and none of your friends will take your cooking seriously. Your local health food store will have what you need.

The basic rules for storing the stuff are simple, in theory, but a nuisance to follow. Your enemies, besides heat, are light and moisture. Air-tight jars are my containers of choice, and I use clear ones to help me quickly identify what’s within, then store them in a dark cabinet.

In the best conditions, the shelf life of the dried and ground stuff is only a year, after which the flavors fade. Which is why this is a good task to include in spring cleaning, although the expense of these babies is high enough to encourage staggering their replacement throughout the year. And it’s better to replace, not replenish.

Whole spices, the stuff you grind yourself, should last you three to five times longer. Keep a dedicated coffee grinder on hand for this purpose, and try toasting your whole spices in a dry skillet before grinding them for even better flavor – it’s a staple technique of Indian cookery.

If you have guests watching, haul out that old mortar and pestle and persuade them how fanatical you are in pursuit of gustatory excellence. I particularly enjoy grinding peppercorns thusly, because it’s both impressive and it clears the kitchen.

There are some spices I use so often that I buy them in greater bulk and store them, against all good advice, out in the open near the stove. Although I used to rely on those oversized McCormick containers sold in places like BJ’s Wholesale Outlet, the Badia brand is showing up in the Hispanic section of my local supermarkets, considerably undercutting McCormick’s prices. Badia started as a mom-and-pop operation in Miami and has grown to become a major spice supplier in Florida and New York.

And the lineup on my open shelf comprises black pepper, both ground and whole; paprika, adding color body to my barbecue rubs; chili powder, for when I’m too lazy to mix it myself; cumin, for when I’m not; a container apiece of basil and oregano, vital for Mediterranean dishes, and granulated garlic, also for spice rubs and a last-minute fix for inadvertent blandness. And don’t forget the fresh bay leaves.

One chef I worked for mixed a meat rub that he kept near the grill: paprika, salt, pepper, minced garlic, rosemary, basil and oregano were the core ingredients, and the chop would be dredged in olive oil and then swiped through the mix just before hitting the fire.

You’ll want the fines herbes combo –  parsley, chervil, tarragon and chives – for classic French dishes, omelettes and such. A slightly more pungent flavor is imparted by the herbes de Provence, a mixture of rosemary, marjoram, basil, savory and thyme. But beware of thyme – it takes over. It’s my wife’s favorite herb, and you can tell from a mile away when she’s cooking. Even pointing out to her that it was used as part of the Egyptian embalming formula doesn’t dismay her.

I used to work for a nutmeg chef, so called because it was a spice he worked into many recipes. From him I learned always to buy the whole nutmeg and shave off portions as needed. Keep cinnamon on hand, ground and in sticks, and ditto cloves. Stick a couple of whole cloves in an onion when you’re making stock.

You’ll work up your own repertory as you experiment. The meat rub chef also insisted that I focus on the seasonings, one by one, to get the flavor – alone and in combination – into my taste memory. He deeply regretted the week I chose cloves and everything came out smelling like a baked ham.

With so much else on hand, it’s easy (and healthful) to overlook salt, but I keep a big box of kosher salt on hand that I decant, along with ground black pepper, into ramekins that live on one of my prep tables.

You need cornstarch for thickening sauces and puddings. Arrowroot is a kind of cousin, also a thickening agent, but, unlike cornstarch, it doesn’t cloud the mixture you’re thickening. As a big fan of pancakes and waffles, I make sure to keep baking soda and baking powder on hand (the latter is simply the former with a little salt and a lot of acid, like cream of tartar, added).

Oils and vinegars are other essentials that tend to live outside the cabinet. Good oil, too, will deteriorate over time, so keep it out of the sunlight. I use different olive oils for cooking and for dressings, and I keep canola oil on hand for a more neutral flavor.

Balsamic vinegar isn’t really balsamic unless it’s gone through a fancy aging process that involves wood containers; the cheap stuff is colored wine vinegar with a little sugar thrown in. Buy accordingly. I run through wine vinegar the most quickly, but rely on cider vinegar for barbecue sauce. The more subtle flavor of rice vinegar is often just what you need for a more delicate dish. Many fancy infusions are now on the supermarket shelves.

Nothing beats fresh lemon juice to liven a sauce, but I’m caught lemonless often enough to make a point of keeping a jar of concentrate on hand. Avoid the expensive ReaLemon brand and head (again) for the Hispanic section for a cheaper bottle of Goya.

And so my cleaning finishes for another year. I didn’t replace the turmeric, because I’m not convinced the stuff ever loses its pungency; the star anise remains because I’ve never actually used it. But many of the other jars are cleaned and newly filled, and there’s a backup box of cornstarch in place. With a summer ahead of fresh produce to cook, I may actually be prepared.

Metroland Magazine, 20 April 2006

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