When I baked a batch of molasses cookies for Halloween last month, I pulled ground ginger, cinnamon, and cloves off the spice shelf without so much as a glance at the labels. I recognized the spices by their colors and textures. Had I taken two seconds more to peruse the other spices nearby, I would’ve noticed the thin layer of dust on their bottle tops. Yep, my life needs a change of season-ings.
Here’s the count, at least in my kitchen. On the spice shelf, I have fifty-two bottled or bagged inhabitants. In the spice drawer (essentially an overflow of the shelf) I have another twenty-six. No-calculator math brings my total to seventy-eight unique flavorings, yet how many do I use regularly? Maybe a dozen. I ask the same of you. How many spices live in your rack/drawer/shelf? Of those, how many do you use week-in and week-out?
We’re missing out on adventure, you and me. My recipes are bland enough to demand little more than garlic salt or oregano (on the savory side), and cinnamon or ginger (on the sweet). I could spice things up if I’d just explore more exotic recipes… or simply brighten the ones I already make. My mantra should be “Spice is the variety of life” (not the other way around).
For inspiration, I could take a trip to Indonesia’s Maluku Islands. Once upon a time, nutmeg, cloves and mace could be found only on the Malukus, earning their nickname “The Spice Islands”. I have this vision of a pungent-smelling tropical oasis of colorful trees, plants, and bushes, everything edible and delicious. I’m running around sampling this and that like a kid in a candy store. Kind of like (you remember the scene) the Chocolate Room in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Spices have tons of trivial facts and here are some of my favorites:
- Allspice tastes like cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves all rolled into one. Keep that in mind the next time you bake.
- Saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world. Some varieties ring in at $400 for a few ounces. Maybe because it takes a hundred hand-harvested flowers to produce a single gram of the spice?
- If you find a blend called Chinese Five Spice, you can season your food to be sour, bitter, salty, sweet, and pungent all in one shake of the bottle.
- “Masala” means “spice”… and nothing more. In other words, be wary of that next dish of chicken masala; the seasoning could be a blend of anything.
- Spice blends are often associated with countries, as with Harissa (North Africa) and Jerk (Jamaica). The United States? Pumpkin pie spice, of course. We Americans obsess over anything pumpkin spice.
Because the musically inclined want to know, I took this opportunity to read up on The Spice Girls, the British girl group from the 1990s. I was disappointed to learn the name has nothing at all to do with spices. Each of the five women took on a nickname to include the word “spice” but only Geri Halliwell’s (“Ginger Spice”) made any reference to a real spice… and that reference was only to her red hair.
[On that note, can anyone explain ANY connection between “ginger” and “red hair”? My bottle of ground ginger is decidedly yellow…]
Here’s the real crime with my spice shelf. Almost all occupants are standard brands, like McCormick or Spice Islands, uniformly bottled in identical quantities. Neither brand is organic (let alone an advertised proponent of fair trade). Furthermore, their spices are processed and packaged in a factory, while I have zero excuses not to be shopping at a local store like Penzeys. You only buy as much as you need at spice stores, and you can be assured of fewer steps in the journey from source to you. Of course, you can also shop spices online at places like Diaspora and Burlap & Barrel.
Speaking of “as much as you need”, I can say with certainty most of my spices are past desired shelf life. No, they’re not expired; more like “faded”. They won’t pack as much punch as they did in their prime. Here’s the rule of thumb with spices: if whole (i.e., cloves) best used for 2-3 years; if ground (i.e., cinnamon) best for 1-2.
If I took a poll of “favorite spice” I’d get a different answer every time (including a few men who’d choose a Spice Girl). My favorite spice? Red pepper flakes. I use them liberally in a lot of dishes, including pasta and soups. I describe them as a convenient after-thought, a final flourish as I’m about to sit down at the table. Fire on top of my food.
Maybe if I invested in one of these spinning countertop racks, the mere visibility of so many options would spice up my life. I’d be more in line with Simon & Garfunkel’s “… parsley, sage, rosemary & thyme”. But if I’m limited to a shelf (and a drawer) my spices are out-of-sight, out-of-mind. Just a shake of red pepper flakes and call it good.