Spice Up Your Life

Feature by Kristina Kerley


Often times I wonder why white salt and black pepper always appear as the leads on the dinner table stage, serving as the go to accoutrement’s for just about everything edible. I’m not here to argue their place in our hearts, because let’s face it, a dish with too little salt is almost not worth eating and there truly is nothing like fresh cracked pepper. I am here to ask, do we settle when it comes to all the other spices in our cabinet?

I have come to realize that, yes, we do. The best reason I can think of is that spices, more so than any other food accessory, can be extremely daunting. Too much cayenne and your dish is inedible; being heavy handed with cinnamon will leave your mouth puckered and dry. And unlike a lot of other ingredients, with spices, a little can certainly go a long way, and inexperienced eyes aren’t the best judges. On the other hand though, there is nothing quite so visually pleasing as dark red paprika atop your morning eggs, with that amazing smoky flavor to boot, or the instant comfort of just enough nutmeg in your holiday slice of pumpkin pie.

I came to know most of my favorite spices from eating at various restaurants. I have come to love the rich thick taste curry powder brings to a soup, the fresh pop roughly chopped basil adds to any tomato sauce, and the way Star Anise brightens the body of a warm mug of Chai tea – with the beauty of the drink improved by leaps and bounds at the sight of the spice floating whole inside.

While I wouldn’t by any stretch of the imagination call myself an expert on spices, I feel confident saying that in the past few years I have come to be a spice explorer, working my way from one new world to the next. Trial and error, along with a timid hand, have been my best friends along the way. When I am trying a new spice, I start with a small pinch, test, add more, test again, continuing this process until I am satisfied with the result. I have made the mistake one too many times of adding far to much chili powder and feeling like I can’t taste correctly for days. But these missteps have led to something great, a real love of the flavorful intricacies contained in each jar.

On my usual peruse through my favorite cooking blogs, I stumbled upon one of the cutest DIY projects for organizing your spice cabinet; small clear glass jars with lids that have been painted and written on with chalk. With my fascination and interest in spices on the rise, I knew this would be the perfect way to not only simplify my spices, but also allow me to get to know them more intimately. My initial hunt for glass jars resulted in a website that was priced two dollars a jar. As a college student, and a sensible person in general, there was no way I was about to drop that much on a tiny glass! So, the journalist in me kept researching and, boy, did my labor pay off when I found a company selling those coveted small glass jars for 54 cents each for the size I wanted; thank you very much. I was satisfied, considering I needed quite a few plus extras for the spices yet to come. When I finally got down to the big transfer, I took my time examining and interacting with each spice, testing each one on its own with my pinky finger, admiring the way my freeze-dried basil (an emergency purchase when the store didn’t have fresh) was so flat, while my dried parsley and oregano curled over on itself. The tasting, the studying and just the mere act of looking at my proud collection of 50+ spices filled me with new ideas and applications for all my flavors.

Now, if you’re still scared of bounding out into the unknown, start with small steps within the salt and pepper arena. This past Christmas, I was given a salt cooking plate, which is a thick slab of Himalayan pink rock salt that can be cooked on in the oven, on the stove and barbeque or just to serve cold foods like sushi on. While food cooks, the plate imparts a wonderful salty flavor that really sinks into the ingredients. It has been suggested that because rock salt, like Himalayan pink, hasn’t been exposed to impurities that pervade the ocean, it is purer and for all intensive purposes, healthier. I can see the logic in that, but I can’t and won’t claim that’s why I use it. Personally, I believe the ideology that different minerals impart color into salts, like black salt, which boasts a more robust taste, which in turn adds unique flavors to the foods it goes into. I have been favoring white pepper over black because of its slightly different flavor due to the removal of the outer layer of the actual peppercorn.
If you would like some one-on-one help, check out the San Francisco Herb Company. The shop features larger quantities of spices, herbs, and teas for wholesale prices; rather than spending six dollars for a two-ounce jar of curry, buy a pound for five dollars. And the smell inside, oh my, it is intoxicating and enchanting all at once. The deepness of some spices blend with the sweetness of others, making it impossible not to be drawn to the racks of bags that hold all wonder. Greg High, the buyer for the shop, has been with Herb Co. for thirty years and is the perfect person to get guidance from.
“What you’re supposed to have in your spice cabinet isn’t what you should have. You need your spice selection to match what you cook,” High advises new spice connoisseurs.
The foods of the world are full of flavors just waiting to be enjoyed and admired, so next time, before reaching for your old standbys, take a chance and make the change to spice up your life, and dinner. The San Francisco Herb Company is located at 250 14th St. @Mission St. 415.861.7174A Breakdown of Kristina’s Spice Drawer:
All-Spice: Adds a deep “fall” flavor found in many Thanksgiving dishes, perfect in soup, gravy, starchy dishes like rice and potatoes
Cardamom: Deep and sweet in flavor, delicious in rice pudding and curries
Cayenne: Obviously extremely spicy, I like eating it when I’m sick to clear out my nose, and to add some kick to my chocolate desserts
Celery Seed: Can be slightly bitter, it is a great addition to pickling spices and vinegar based coleslaws
Cinnamon: Dense and rich in flavor, traditionally paired with sweet dishes, this however, is my secret spice in gumbo
Cumin: Pretty much tastes great on everything, I like it best in stew and in spice rubs for meat, especially poultry
Curry Powder: The best to use when you want a warm and comforting flavor with a touch of heat, I put this in soups to thicken them, on eggs, mixed in with mayo, cream cheese, or sour cream, in dipping sauces, and sprinkled on sweet potato fries
Cocoa: Aside from its obvious uses in sweet dishes, I have found that when paired with chili powder and coffee, cocoa is amazing to dry rub red meat with – especially venison
Fennel Seeds: Has a licorice taste, amazing baked in bread and in sausage
Ginger: When Europeans first acquired ginger, it found a place in between salt and pepper on the dinner table, a habit that has unfortunately been phased out. Because of its spicy yet sweet flavor, I adore adding this to cookies and steeping it to make tea
Juniper Berries: A deep piney flavor, used to flavor gin, steeping crushed berries in hot water makes the most soothing tea
Mustard Seed: Hot and extremely pungent, my favorite spice for pickling
Paprika: Smoky rich flavor, great to garnish eggs, perfect undertone for stews and gumbo
Pink/Red Peppercorns: Hot and peppery, this is the best unexpected addition to sweet dishes, like strawberry compote
Poppy Seeds: Tiny crunchy seeds with a faint nutty flavor, I love them when paired with citrus, especially in breads or muffins and bright salad dressings
Saffron: Mild flavor, great for adding a warm yellow color to rice dishes and cakes
Seaweed: Not exactly a spice, this is my new favorite way to add a salty flavor to bread, not to mention an interesting green color
Turmeric: Known as curry powder with a kick, amazing for simple salad dressing, guacamole, and atop butternut squash before roasting, goes well with pretty much anything you want to give deep earthy flavor to