Kitchen Essentials: Spices and Spice Blends

New weekly series here at Al Dente — my recommendations for essential kitchen stuff.

There are just some things that every kitchen needs. Not that you want…need. For me, this breaks down to spices, tools, cookware and books. We’ll start with reading material.

Spices affect our food experience. Think about chicken for a second. Have you ever eaten plain cooked chicken? Probably, but you don’t remember it because it was boring. Salt and pepper notwithstanding, the spices you use speak not just your favorite flavors, but you style of cooking. Look at your spice rack. Is it the regular lineup of McCormick’s little plastic containers? That’s a good start. Now ask yourself this…when did you buy that container of marjoram? 1998? 2003? Yeah, see, diversity and having a lot of spices does not always translate to good cooking. It means that you wasted $4 on a spice that is so old that it doesn’t taste like anything.

Serious Eats writer Max Falkowitz offered his list of 10 spices he can’t live without. These are my ten, salt and pepper notwithstanding:

  1. Herbes de Provence. We’ve covered this one already.
  2. Parsley.
  3. Basil.
  4. Oregano. Nothing beats fresh when it comes to the Holy Trinity of Italian spices. But, in the dead of a Northeast winter, good luck with that. You can’t just run out to the planter and snip what you need. Instead, you end up with a bunch of parsley that you end up throwing away because it’s 10 times more than necessary. If I’m going to braise, simmer or otherwise cook something for an entire afternoon, yes, I will spend the $1.99 or $2.99 for fresh versions. But a weeknight recipe or something quick gets the one teaspoon of dry instead of one tablespoon of fresh.
  5. Sazon. Goya Sazon packets add a neat flavor to marinades, soups and stews. I add a Sazon packet with garlic and onion to fresh garlic, lemon, lime and orange juice for a Cuban mojo marinade. The Wife and I like yellow saffron rice and, if I remember, I will add a packet of Sazon to the water with the oil before boiling.
  6. Creole seasoning. Sometimes the recipe calls for an extra punch. You could make your own blend of chili power, cayenne, salt, pepper, sugar, paprika, et al, but there are two very good versions available at grocery — Zatarain’s creole seasoning and Dinosaur Barbque Cajun Foreplay.
  7. Rosemary.
  8. Thyme. These two add complex flavors that stand on their own and complement each other nicely. I keep separate containers above and beyond the herbes de provence because they are so versatile.
  9. Sesame seeds. I’m actually out of these right now, but these are almost essential if you do any sort of Asian cooking at home. They enhance stir fries by complementing the sesame oil and stir fry sauce, as well as adding a crispy texture to the meat and veggies.
  10. Paprika. Check the container when shopping. Most paprika is Hungarian — red and smoky — and perfect for Eastern European dishes. Spanish paprika brings a spicy heat to a dish. I keep the former on hand as it adds a great deal of depth, in terms of color and flavor, to meat dishes.

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