In my last post, I wrote about how to transform leftovers into something incredible. Might I even say, better than the original? The key to being able to elevate any meal and turn it into a masterpiece is having a Well-Stocked Spice Cabinet and understanding your herbs and spices. If you are a seasoned cook, you probably already have many of these, but I challenge you to read on and see if you can add something new. My travels have taken my taste buds to places they have never been before. Have you ever eaten a stew with marigold and hyssop, two ingredients in Khmeli Suneli? A strong brew of coffee with cardamom? Camel Biryani? We have such a variety of things available to us these days with global shipping and the ease to travel, but I bet there’s a thing or two that you haven’t tried yet. Let’s dig in, shall we?
Where should I get my spices?
I know you know where the spice aisle is in your local grocery store, but that is probably the last place that I would recommend buying your spices. There are a few reasons for this.
First of all, grocery store spices have a reputation for not being very fresh. The older a spice or dried herb is, the less potent it will be. The prices are also typically higher due to the smaller amount that you are buying. And lastly, have you walked through a spice aisle recently? I don’t know about you, but around here, the pickings are slim. Its hard to find things sometimes. You might be surprised to hear where my number spot is for getting herbs and spices- your yard!
A Culinary Garden to Fill Your Spice Cabinet
If at all possible, I love to grow my own herbs and as many spices as my climate will allow. We purchased a home this year that sits on less than half an acre, so I’m not growing here for self sufficiency, but you better believe I’m growing as many herbs and spices as I can fit in my little garden and have imminent plans for expansion.
I grow the usual- basil, thyme, mint, parsley, dill and cilantro. I have some medicinal and tea herbs as well such as anise hyssop, echinacea, catnip and lemon balm. Next year I want to add oregano, sage and lavender. You might notice that these are all herbs. I can of course dry them and add them to my pantry as well as use them fresh, but there are a couple of spices there that you might have not have noticed.
An herb is simply the leafy part of the plant, a spice is typically the seed, bark or root. When my cilantro flowers and then grows seeds, the seed is a spice known as “coriander.” My dill will also go to seed and give me dill seed. I’m also going to try growing cumin and black cumin next year. They are supposed to have beautiful flowers. I’ll let you know how that goes.
Lastly, some other spices you can grow from your veggie garden are onion powder, garlic powder, paprika and chili powder. Paprika powder that you have grown, dried and ground yourself is simply the best. There is no comparison. It does not last long in my house. Next year, I would like to grow my own ginger and turmeric.
If you can’t grow it yourself
Depending on your climate and dirt accessibility, your list may look different from mine. There are spices that I simply cannot grow here. I don’t have a place for a cinnamon tree, clove buds don’t favor my climate and I don’t have the patience to baby a vanilla orchid. I have seen them growing in their native habitat, Zanzibar, and they are beautiful, but that’s a far cry from zone 8a.
For the spices you can’t grow, I recommend looking for bulk sources. My local city has a spice shop and there are some wonderful online sources as well, such as Mountain Rose Herb. I have heard nothing but good things about their company and they come highly recommended from Shaye Elliott at the Elliott Homestead, an actual blogging Diva. When I’m looking for something specific with free shipping, my go-to is usually just Amazon. You can find some people that deal specifically in spices who have a pretty good turnover so you have higher quality.
The Starter Pack
If I was just starting to set up my kitchen, and I had to narrow it down to 10, here is a list of my essentials:
- Quality Salt (don’t underestimate a good salt)
- Peppercorn Grinder (ground pepper has its place, but there is no comparison to fresh. I have this one.)
- Chili Powder
- Nutmeg (whole nutmeg is 1000x better than ground)
What do you think? What would your top 10 be? You will notice that I left out a couple of very common spices- onion powder, garlic powder, and ginger. This was on purpose. The fresh counterparts can be used in their place, often with better flavor.
Now, once you have the basics and want to add a little more, this is where I would start:
- Turmeric Powder
- Whole and Dried Cloves
- Ginger Powder
- Onion Powder
- Garlic Powder
- Coriander powder
- Bay Leaf
- Curry Powder
The Well-Curated Spice Cabinet
In addition to the above I would add these:
- Fennel Seeds
- Cayenne Pepper
- Sesame Seeds
- Dill Seed
- Celery Seed
- Smoked Paprika
- Star Anise
There are certainly more than this, but these are the ones that I use on a pretty regular basis and we have very eclectic tastes in our household. Many of the spices above can be combined to make basic blends like taco seasoning, ranch seasoning and Italian seasoning.
Sometimes, it just makes sense to have a spice mix on hand. These are the ones that I find very useful:
- Chinese Five Spice (traditional ingredient in many chinese dishes, also makes amazing spiced nuts!)
- Adobo Seasoning (one word: chicken.)
- Garam Masala (the best cheat for making delicious Indian inspired dishes)
- Sumeli Kuneli (Georgian spice mix, makes the most amazing beef stews, your family will say “What IS that?”)
- Zataar (Middle Eastern spice blend, delicious used as a dipping sauce with olive oil, a bread or salad topper or as a traditional seasoning)
Stocked and Loaded- Now What?
Now that you have the culinary world within arm’s reach, its time to exercise your culinary muscles! Several times a week, I like to pick a country and focus the entire meal on that country’s culinary traditions. We will have Chinese food (so much better than take out!), German food, Thai, Georgian, Middle Eastern, Tex Mex, Indian, Etc. The more you try different cuisines and recipes, the more you will learn about which spices play well together, which ones to use more or less of and in no time, you will be creating your own concoctions!
Did I leave something out? Comment on this post and let me know. What are your go- to herbs and spices? I find myself reaching for thyme and oregano very frequently. Be sure to sign up for my weekly email list to get more informational posts like this as well as some great recipes and diys!