Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Parlor and the Kitchen- Spices

There are certain milestones along the path to becoming a passionate home cook or foodie. When you realize it has been months since you bought bottled salad dressing, since it is so easy to just make your own. When you know the names of your butcher, cheesemonger, local baker and produce vendor. The first time you spend more for one good knife than you have usually spent for whole sets. The investment in good pots and pans. The gradual accumulation of many different oils and vinegars.

For me, I knew I was a serious foodie when I stopped buying dried herbs and spices at the grocery store and began my relationship with The Spice House. I use a lot of fresh herbs in my cooking, and since I have the blackest of black thumbs, I buy them at the grocery store, organically if I can get them. But while I grew up with the famous little blue and red topped bottles in the spice rack, I have entirely stopped getting my dried versions in that aisle.

For starters, it is actually less expensive to buy from a spice vendor. You can get larger quantities when you need them, custom blends, and exotics that you just can’t find in the chain grocery stores. The products are fresher, unadulterated by fillers, and will last longer. The quality of your cooking will jump a notch, even though you won’t have changed anything about your recipes or cooking methods.

And which is best, as long as you think a little bit ahead, you can always have your spices delivered right to your door if you aren’t lucky enough to live near a store!

Some of my personal tips about dried herbs and spices:

When properly stored, dried herbs last about six months at room temp and spices about a year. So I keep small amounts out, and the rest in the freezer for refilling. Once a year I do a clean out and refresh the ones I know don’t get frequent use. Here is my homemade spice rack…I bought the little metal canisters online and printed the labels myself. Because I am a total geek.

Every savory recipe will tell you at some point to season to taste with salt and pepper. For me, that often means choosing something besides traditional black pepper, which I don’t love. Once you begin experimenting with spices, and different types of peppers, you will discover that there are wonderful ways of brightening foods. For me, the introduction of grains of paradise, which I use almost exclusively in place of black pepper, was a revelation. It brings some of the heat you want from a pepper, with floral notes and subtle citrus elements that are just magical.

When Charming Suitor first cooked for me at his house, I was delighted and horrified to see the following:

On the one hand, how wonderful for him to be a committed and interesting cook, and to keep such a variety of grinders at the ready for his most-used spices.

On the other hand, seriously? This motley crew of random grinders, none of which, he confessed, he actually liked. We immediately kitted him out with a Unicorn Magnum peppermill for his Tellicherry Black Pepper so that he at least had one decent go-to peppermill. And then, for his birthday, I gifted him with these…

Aren’t they gorgeous? Peugeot, maker of great mills forever and ever, their mills have a spectacular range of grinds, smooth as silk operation, and different mechanisms for salt and spices (always the mark of a good mill). I got him one for finishing sea salt, and then five peppermills filled with his go-to faves…grains of paradise, white pepper, coriander, long pepper, and comet tail pepper. The long pepper really brings intense heat without the vegetal flavor that chilies would add, and comet tail pepper has some sort of menthol-y eucalyptus notes that work well when the floral elements of grains of paradise isn’t quite what you want.

I cannot recommend strongly enough that you put together your own set of mills for the items you use most often, having them at your fingertips makes your cooking seamless.

I also recommend buying a small coffee grinder that you can use exclusively for grinding your own spices.  Mine is this one from Krups:

And if you are a pepper hound, William Bounds makes this handy electric version that will whir you up a flurry of flakes in the blink of an eye.

If you are ready to rethink your spice cabinet, head on over to The Spice House (in person if you are local, and online if you aren’t) and get ready for everything to change. Their products are impeccable, and I’m a huge fan of many of their custom blends. Charming Suitor uses almost equal parts of their Bronzeville Rub and Milwaukee Ave Steak Seasoning as the basis of his famous Rib Rub, and we both love the Trinidad Lemon Garlic blend on chicken. I give endless gifts of their products to my foodie friends, gift cards and gift baskets alike, and at least every other month I have to find an excuse to go to one of the stores and putter around. Not sure what you need? Give them a call, their salespeople are all very knowledgeable and can help you find exactly what you need.

The comet tail pepper I get from Salt Traders, they also have an awesome array of salts to play with, check out their Viking Smoked Sea Salt, a favorite ingredient of Grant Achatz at Alinea.

In celebration of spices, here are a couple recipes that use them in unique ways:

Parsnip Spice Cake

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3/4 teaspoon ground allspice
3/4 teaspoon ground cloves
3/4 teaspoon ground grains of paradise
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs
1/2 cup canola oil
1/2 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tightly packed cups peeled, shredded parsnips
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter and flour a 9-by-13-by-2-inch pan. In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, ground ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, grains of paradise, cloves, and salt. In a medium bowl, combine the eggs, oil, milk, and vanilla. Pour the wet ingredients over the dry ingredients and stir until just mixed. Stir in parsnips and walnuts. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for about 25 minutes, until a tester comes out clean from the center of the cake. Cool completely on a rack. When cool, frost with Ginger Spice Cream Cheese Frosting, below, if desired, or any frosting of your choice.

Ginger Spice Cream Cheese Frosting

4 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
2 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon peeled, grated fresh ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup confectioners' sugar

In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, combine the cream cheese, butter, ginger, spices, vanilla, and salt and beat until very smooth. Add the confectioners' sugar a little at a time, beating after each addition, until all the sugar is incorporated and the frosting is smooth. Spread over Parsnip Spice Cake and serve.

Apple Spice Rice Pilaf

1/2 pound butter
3 cups brown rice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon grated orange peel
1 cup chopped onion
1 1/2 cups chopped celery
3/4 cup minced parsley
1 t ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary
7 1/2 cups apple cider, preferably fresh

In one or two large skillets, melt the butter. Add the rice and cook slowly, stirring, until the rice is golden.

Season with salt, pepper, orange peel, onion and celery and continue sautéing for about five minutes longer. Add one-half cup of parsley and the rosemary.

In a separate saucepan, bring the cider to a boil and then stir into the rice. Cook the rice, tightly covered, over low heat, about one hour or until all of liquid is absorbed and rice is tender.

Serve sprinkled with the remaining parsley.

Roast Loin of Pork With Caraway, Anise and Lemon
(adapted from NYT)

6-chop loin of pork on the bone (about 5 1/2 pounds), rind scored and bone cracked so that chops cut off easily
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 teaspoon kosher salt, more as needed
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds
1/4 teaspoon anise seeds
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon olive oil
Freshly ground comet tail black pepper
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, sliced into about 6 disks

Heat oven to 425 degrees. Set pork aside at room temperature. Using a mortar and pestle, crush garlic with 1 teaspoon salt to make a paste. Add (but do not crush) cloves, caraway, lemon juice, chili oil and black pepper to taste. Crumble in bay leaves, and mix well.

Rub spiced garlic paste into around pork, leaving rind dry. Coat bottom of a roasting pan with 1 tablespoon olive oil, and place onion disks in an overlapping line down length of pan. Place pork rind-side up on the onion, and sprinkle lightly with salt.

Roast pork for 1 1/2 hours. Remove pan from heat and allow to rest for 10 minutes.

Yours in Good Taste,

The Polymath


  1. I have almost as many spices as you, but no where near as organized. In fact, I was just thinking this weekend that my spice shelves need an overhaul. I buy them dried from our local farmer's market for pennies and they come in little plastic tubs which isn't awful but not airtight.

    Two birthdays ago, my hubs bought me the one-handed pepper mills from Williams-Sonoma which are super wonderful when cooking. I originally had one for salt, one for pepper, now I have both with two different kinds of pepper. I will have to try the grains of paradise...sounds right up my ally.

  2. How have none of my chicago foodie friends told me about this?
    please expect a scathing email from my betrothed about how much money i will spend at my forthcoming trip to the spice house.

  3. We've been buying all of our spices from The Spice House for over ten years. It all started when I opened a Guest House and started a marathon of baking. With the arrival of the Cassia Cinnamon, I was in love. It was the Hungarian Paprika (who knew it actually had a scent and flavor???) that cinched the deal.

    I collect old jars and they are put to good use with all of my spices. I just cut out the labels that comes on the little bag of spices from The Spice house and use packing tape to 'laminate' it to the jar. . . that is, when I don't buy the spices already in one of the cool little jars.

    The down to all those jars? My current kitchen doesn't sport much space for our vast collection of jarred spices. . . the cupboard gets emptied each time we cook:-) But it's a GREAT excuse to open each jar and simply inhale the tasty aromas.

    Thanks for the recipes and I can't wait to try them!

    Robin Z

  4. I am so glad that someone else is a spice and herb nut! My husband has a tight rein on my spice-buying at the moment because we just don't have the space to store them properly. But even he cannot deny the amazing quality, variety, and affordability of The Spice House. My brother and sister-in-law, who are the chef-owners of Lula Cafe and Nightwood Restaurant in Chicago, got me started off with a gift set from them to help me make my own sausage and I fell in love right away!

    I'm extremely excited to try the ginger frosting recipe-- just reading it makes my mouth water and it should be a great justification to my husband for having recently bought some of The Spice House's ground ginger (yes, I love to experiment with substituting ingredients, in this case the ground instead of fresh grated ginger). Thanks for sharing the love!

  5. I LOVE LULA AND NIGHTWOOD!!! I eat at Lula at least once a week, my girls and I lunch there whenever possible, and my Charming Suitor and I like to bop in for dinner now and again. And I have taken a bunch of different friends (and my parents) to Nightwood. LOVE.

  6. Sweet! My brother and his wife are amazing-- even if he weren't my brother! I love, too, that they run a very locally-grown, ethical operation. It just makes you feel good on every possible level to eat at one of their restaurants. And they have been a great resource to me when I start experimenting with my cooking-- I would never have felt as confident about making sausage if it weren't for them. Not to mention, I am forever indebted to them for introducing me to Hungarian Paprika and the Telicherry Black Pepper!

  7. Tell Jason I absolutely love his places. The recent rabbit tagliatelle with morels was so good we came back twice just for that. If he asks Mirian, she will know who I am :)

  8. Stacey, the spices reminded me of the fact that I'm in the market for new measuring spoons. What type/brand do you prefer?

  9. Jamie- I have a Nigella Lawson set that I like http://www.amazon.com/Nigella-Lawson-Bliss-Measuring-Brushed/dp/B000BOK55U