Friday, January 21, 2022

Spice is the Key to Life

Cayenne Pepper
Freshly ground, homemade cayenne pepper on the left and store bought cayenne pepper on the right.

Fresh vegetables? ... Check
Olive oil? ... Check

Next we need to add a little spice.  This is the main way you are going to vary how your dishes taste from meal to meal.  If you take the same basic vegetables, then each time you cook you use a different spice (or different amounts) then you will end up with a completely different tasting dish.  Hooray!  Spice does not necessarily mean heat though.

The first time I went to India was the first time I was exposed to large amounts of spice in food without that same food being hot.  Before that I always assumed that spice was synonymous with hotness but alas, that is not so, there is a distinct difference.  Spice is the general taste of the food, which may include being hot but it does not exclusively mean hot.  Spice is the general, all-encompassing term for getting your food to taste a certain way and for adjusting how that same food tastes.  Hotness can refer to both the physical temperature of the dish or the actual hot ingredients present in the dish that are physically making you hot.  If the physical temperature of the dish is very hot, you will burn your tongue.  If there are hot peppers in the dish then you'll find your tongue dancing and tingling while your whole body heats up, perhaps you'll even break out in a sweat.  A dish can have one of these or none of these or all of the above or any combination of them.  It took a very long time and a whole lot of delicious food being devoured in India for me to disassociate those terms in my mind to get them straight.

The quality of the spices you buy is extremely important, you want fresh spices, as fresh as you can get.  A jar of cayenne pepper that's been sitting around on the grocery store shelves is going to be vastly different from freshly ground cayenne pepper.  The taste, smell, and look will be extremely and noticeably different.

You should not be buying spices from your normal grocery store ... ever, plain and simple.  I have yet to come across okay spices in a grocery store setting, it always turns out to be crap.  If I have a choice of spending $5 on a jar of crap to add to my food and spending $0 and adding nothing to my food, I'm going to spend $0 and just add nothing to it while I embrace the blandness.  The gourmet spices in the grocery store are not any better, they are just very expensive jars of crap that are not of any better quality, none whatsoever.

We want quality spices.  You get quality spices by knowing your spice company, where they get their spices from and how they operate.  I bet you didn't see that one coming at all!  This is an area that I admittedly have put the least amount of research into for my own cooking.  That is simply because I grew up in a family that was fed home cooked meals on an almost daily basis.  My mother did the majority of this cooking and she always used good spices (which I did not realize until well into my adult life) so I have quite simply stuck to using the same spice company that my mother used while I was growing up.  This has a large nostalgic factor for me but I have strayed away from this company here and there and I always come back to it quite simply because I have yet to find better spices, aside from going to the actual source of where a spice is grown of course.

Penzeys Spices is where I get almost all of my spices from.  If I was brand new to cooking and was unaware of the quality of Penzeys Spices, they would honestly be my last choice to try.  Quite simply because they currently have zero information on their website about their company, origins, where they source their spices from, etc.  If I was a brand new customer you only see their spices but nothing about their company or why you should buy from them. Not really a good start if you're a new customer looking for transparent information.  Having said that, if you find yourself inside a physical location of Penzeys spices it's basically just like walking through their catalog, you're surrounded by spices and you can smell any of them that you would like.  You basically get to try it before you buy it.  Once you're in the physical store you can see and smell the quality of their spices.  Once you buy some of their spices and cook with them, you will be hard pressed to find a better source of spices.  Which is why I have always found myself coming back to Penzeys Spices time and time again.  You can find parts of their story scattered across the internet but I'd much rather hear their story straight from the horses mouth.  As you look through their site, you're likely noticing that they are far from the cheapest option for spices.  It is true that their products are more on the expensive side but the quality is high and the spices actually have taste to them, unlike the tasteless spice brands in your typical grocery store which might as well be ground up cardboard that you buy for $5 a jar.  It's also important to point out that a little bit goes a long way when it comes to spice, a single jar of a spice will likely last you for a while and you really don't need a lot of spice plus you are in direct control over how much you add to every dish (regardless of what recipes tell you, don't let them tell you what to do).

Now that we have a source for our spices, what spices do you need?

This is going to vary quite a lot from person to person and is very much personal preference but you really don't need a lot.  The two main spices are:  salt and pepper.  If you want to be a minimalist cook then that's all you need.

There's a lot of joy in having more spice in your life though.  In addition to salt and pepper, the spices that fall into the category of necessary spices, in my opinion, are:

-Dill (Grow yourself if able)
-Paprika - Smoked Spanish Style
-Italian Herb Mix
-Sunny Paris

That's 16 spices, including salt and pepper.  I can make an endless amount of different tasting dishes with that arsenal by not only varying the spices used but also the quantity used in each meal.  Sometimes I'll add all of those into a dish, other times I might use just one or two.  If you don't like some of those or if you'd rather venture into more "fancy" spices, additional spices that I currently use from time to time are:

-Hot Curry Powder
-Lamb Seasoning
-Sunny Paris
-Fox Point
-Sweet Curry Powder
-Garam Masala
-Ginger Powder
-Fenugreek Seed
-Fennel Seed
-Crushed Red Pepper
-Lemon Pepper
-Taco Seasoning
-Chili 9000
-Sandwich Sprinkle
-Bangkok Blend
-Pico Fruita

As with anything in life, you can keep your spice collection simple or you can go extreme and gets lots of very expensive spices, most of which you'll likely use sparingly and probably find yourself with excess spice that just sits around.  I fall in the middle of that.  My spice collection is far from simple but it's also not very extreme.  I do have some spices that sit around and don't get used much but they're few and far between and those ones I make a point to not re-buy, except for special circumstances.

The initial list of 16 spices is my go-to list which is used in probably over 90% of my cooking.  I do also use vanilla extract in a fair amount of baking however I make my own vanilla extract which we'll go over how to do later.  If you've only had store bought vanilla extract than it may be worth it for you to buy a bottle of Penzey's Vanilla Extract so you can see what real vanilla extract should taste like then you'll be more motivated to make your own later, which will save you a boatload of money in the long run.

For salt, I actually get my salt elsewhere which we'll get into at a later date.  To plant the seed in your mind now though, the majority of the salt on the market is sea salt sssssoooo salt from the oceans.  Our oceans are increasingly a giant floating trash pile, do you really want your salt to come from a trash pile?

Now you have a starting place for which spices you may want to start with and a good source for where you can get these spices from.  Don't worry too much about what these spices actually are or how to use them at the moment.  Once you get them read the label, give them a good smell and add a dash to whatever you're making if the smell seems like it will mix well with the smell of what you're currently cooking.  That's a great place to start!  Once we start getting into actual cooking we'll get more into which spices to use when but ... just start using them, you'll figure it out much quicker that way.  Every spice has something unique to offer and we all like different things.  What I may find very enjoyable you may find repulsive and vice versa.  You may not like spices that add hotness to food and may instead prefer to go with more savory spices that pack a kick in a different way.  We are all different as are all of the spices, you just have to experiment, try them out and see what you like.  Spice it up!!!

Giant ladybug??  Nope, it's fresh nutmeg, straight off the tree in India.  I bet you didn't know nutmeg was so colorful and looked like that!

Important Note:  I'm not associated with Penzeys Spices in any way, shape or form.  I merely very much enjoy their spices and I've never been able to find a better source for spices.

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