The Spice Cabinet

It dawned on me recently that I’m in pretty good shape when it comes to a stocked spice cabinet. It’s become rare that a recipe totally stumps me, spice-wise. I monitor the age of some of them because they don’t last forever, and you just don’t use all of them all the time. I may use marjoram or spearmint leaves three or four times a year, but when I need them for a specific soup or tagine, I’ve got to have them handy. I keep my eye on the ones that I use a lot, so I never run out of them.

Some are food-variety specific. I do a lot of Italian cooking, so I’ve always got to have dried basil, rosemary, thyme, etc. And old faithful “Italian Seasoning,” which I will occasionally put in a pasta sauce or vinaigrette. Fresh is always better, don’t misunderstand, but when you need a pinch of this or that, it had better be there, and still be fresh.

I buy the large Costco sizes of many spices. I make dry rubs and use them on a wide variety of meat, poultry, fish, and even on a baked potato. My “Rubbit” concoction requires 1, 2, or 3 parts respectively of cayenne, salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, Italian Seasoning (there it is again!), dry mustard, and paprika. So I always have the large economy sizes around. The empty containers also serve as a perfect storage area for the rubs. Be sure to label these, by the way … rubs look like paprika, and they’re OH SO different in a stew!

Salts are a new fixation for me. I very rarely salt anything, commonly leaving this to my guests’ personal whims. I grew up in a family of 6 children (I have five younger sisters), and the dinner table would usually have a salt shaker for the table, and a second one that resided less than 3 inches from my mother’s grasp, assuring that she could salt every couple of bites. Her son is very different in this regard. Of course I’ll salt a soup or stew some, and the chemical reaction when you’re marinating a piece of meat is obvious, but I never over salt my foods. I keep a big box of kosher salt handy, as well as sea salt.

Recent discoveries (and I’m probably the last cook on the planet to do so) include several exotic Mediterranean varieties like fleur de sel. They’re expensive, delicate, and probably have a much shorter shelf life than any basic salt (they’re commonly packaged in a “moist” state), but oh how they add to a meal. A sprinkle on a NY steak fresh of the BBQ is to die for. Likewise on a salmon filet or a fresh risotto.

My latest favorite style of cooking is Moroccan tagine food. Tagine being both the device you cook in, and the end result dish. Great stuff. If there’s a more flavorful variety of food, I haven’t tried it yet. It’s a relatively slow cooking technique, commonly taking an hour or two for the food to slowly become a culinary masterpiece. Liquids make their way up the sides of the conical top, only to find their way back down into the stewing creation at the base of the tagine. The lid gets hot, but the brilliantly designed “handle” on the top stays perfectly cool, allowing the cook to life it off, stir the food, and replace it without the aid of a pot holder. Some are made for cooking only (like those pictured), some are specially decorated for serving, making an elegant statement at your table. Classic models are made of clay, but several of the top pots ‘n pan manufacturers are making some incredible tagines that are much easier to use and clean, and offer the benefit of going from medium or high heat, to the oven, and to your table. But at a steep cost.

Lamb, poultry, fish, lots of vegetables, a small amount of liquid, and spices that most cooks never thought they‘d ever have in their pantry. It’s the first thing since fly fishing tackle that’s made it to the “Christmas or birthday worthy” gift category. The best spices and ingredients are not easy to find, and I use them sparingly, and cherish their gracing my pantry. Cardamom, turmeric, fenugreek, rose and orange flower water, coriander, Spanish saffron, tamarind paste, garam masala, anise seed, spearmint leaves, Marrakesh za’atar and preserved lemon are necessities. And the exalted ras el hanout, the “top shelf” spice in Moroccan cooking. Like the right combination that creates a curry (which is technically a dish, not a spice), ras el hanout is a perfect combination of the best Moroccan spices that produces an absolute flavor burst. Try it, then try to do without it.

Middle Eastern cooking is perfect if you’re on a weight loss quest, or are just intent on eating healthy food. Very little meat, minimal liquids, longer than average prep times to let everything congeal, and the right combination of spices from the list above, and you’ve got a culinary treat in store.

One of my favorite dishes, which can be a side to a hot tagine or eaten as a main course, is Moroccan Chicken and Couscous Salad, which I found on Cooks.com:

3 cups of chicken broth
1 1/2 cups uncooked couscous
1 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
1/2 tsp dried thyme
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp good quality curry powder
1/4 tsp fresh ground pepper
1/8 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
2 cups snow peas, blanched (frozen or fresh both work fine)
1 1/2 cups diced, cooked boneless skinless chicken breast
3/4 cup thin sliced scallions (about 4)
1/2 cup chopped green or red bell pepper (or a combo)
2 tbsp currants (raisins will work, currants are smaller)
1/4 cup toasted almonds, chopped coarse

1. Bring chicken broth to a boil in a 3 qt saucepan. Stir in the couscous, parsley and thyme. Remove the pan from heat, cover and let stand 5 minutes, allowing the broth to absorb.

2. In a large bowl, whisk the lemon juice, oil, curry powder, black pepper and crushed red pepper. Add the couscous and toss to coat.

3. Add snow peas, chicken, scallions, green/red peppers, and currants. Toss to mix.

4. Cover, refrigerate at least an hour (great served warm). Sprinkle with almonds just before serving.

A word of caution with new spices that you haven’t used … the word is “moderation.” Like many things in life, less is better. You can always add more if you need it. Recovering from too much cardamom or turmeric can be a challenge. But with that caveat, I encourage you to spice up your foods! New flavors are wonderful, and you stand to open up a whole new world of taste for your family and guests.

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