Keys to Having a Bad-Assed Pantry, Part 1: Spices

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Are you one of those people who complain about how expensive it is to cook for themselves? Or perhaps you have a friend who says that all the time. I say to you (or your sad, hungry friend), that’s nonsense! The problem is this, beginner cook. You don’t have a stocked pantry. If you had the basic supplies the times you got the itch to cook it wouldn’t cost very much (unless of course you decided you needed to make New York strip steaks with lobster tails and truffle butter sauce. For you, my friend, yes, prepare to empty your bank account). Once you have a stocked pantry, you will be ready to cook up a storm. You’ll no longer look like you’re on a drunken scavenger hunt for cumin seeds and panko bread crumbs. Now simple recipes will seem easy as pie (actually pie can be somewhat difficult when made from scratch, so I hate that dumb saying).

Here’s what you need to do. Build an impressive pantry. Spend a chunk of change on your pantry now (consider it your tools for creating art) and then when you want to cook it’ll be soooo much easier and less expensive. Want a peek inside my pantry? (Keep your dirty thought to yourself, you pervert!) Okay, sassiness aside, lots of these things I can’t live without and when I run out I get more. It’s simple, just like that.

Today let’s talk spices.

Spices you should have: Stay away from that ten year-old sawdust sold in the pre-packaged jars at your local super mega-mart. If you’re really serious about cooking first thing you gotta do is buy a little spice grinder. (I use a little coffee grinder for grinding whole spices, but once it’s designated for spices don’t use it for coffee. No one wants to drink a black pepper, garlic latte. Ick.) Buy your spices at a spice store or bulk bins at some of the nicer grocery stores. They will be fresher. Buy them whole and grind them yourself if you can for better flavor. I also use a pepper mill for fresh cracked black pepper but the grinder will work fine if you don’t want more gadgets. Here’s what’s always in my pantry:

* Kosher Salt (I like Diamond Crystal. Don’t use that iodized table salt shit.)
* Sea Salt (Just a little brinier than kosher. Not necessary but yummy for certain things like seafood.)
* Finishing Salts (Pink Hawaiian, Alderwood Smoked Salt, Fleur De Sel. For a little extra flavor after cooking. Also, not necessary but fun and tasty.)
* Black Peppercorns (For fresh cracked black pepper.)
* White Peppercorns (A bit more potent that black pepper and leaves no appearance of pepper flecks)
* Cumin Seed (You can’t cook Latino without it.)
* Cinnamon Sticks (The whole sticks have way more flavor than the powder.)
* Cloves (The spice, not the gothy cigarettes)
* Chili Powder (There are a lot of choices here. I like New Mexican for heat and ancho for smokiness. You can buy dried chilies and grind them yourself if you have time.)
* Star Anise (They look like cute little star fish and have a licoricey flavor)
* Cayenne Pepper (Bring on the heat.)
* Coriander Seeds (Yummy earthiness used a lot in Indian cooking and in curries.)
* Paprika (I like hot Hungarian and simply cannot live without Piménton – hot smoked Spanish paprika.)
* Turmeric (Make things yellow and musky in a good way.)
* Crushed Red Pepper (Italian heat.)
* Allspice (Caribbean earthiness)
* Cardamom Pods (Strong and aromatic, used in curries and in Middle Eastern dishes.)
* Mustard Seeds (Great for kick and pickling.)
* Nutmeg (Get the pods and grind them with a fine grater or rasp. Apple pie anyone?)

Here are a few spice mixes, dried herbs, and pre-ground things that recipes sometimes call for that I tend to keep around. Always use fresh herbs when possible otherwise dried will do in a pinch.

* Garlic Powder (Garlic in powder form.)
* Onion Powder (Onion in powder form.)
* Dried Oregano (I actually use this one a lot. Not as good as fresh but still works.)
* Dried Thyme (Not nearly as good as fresh but it’ll do.)
* Dried Basil (Nothing near as good as the fresh version but sometimes you need it now.)
* Dried Sage (See the two above)
* Dried Bay Leaves (The one dried herb I actually prefer over the fresh.)
* Celery Salt (Bloody Marys!)
* Curry Powder (If you can, take the time to make your own but sometimes in a pinch pre-made curry powders will certainly do.)
* Chinese Five Spice (It has five Chinese spices in it, Cloves and Cinnamon being the strongest.)
* Old Bay (Great spice mix for seafood)
* Creole Seasoning (For some Bayou cookin’)
* Filé Powder (Sassafras root to thicken and flavor Cajun cooking.)
* Sazón (Excellent Caribbean spice packets. I use these all the time for my family’s recipes.)
* Adobo (It’s a Cuban spice mixture that is also prominent in my family’s Cuban recipes.)
* Poultry Seasoning (Don’t ask. Just once in a while I reach for it.)
* Chicken/Beef/Ham Bouillon (Make your own stocks whenever possible for the best flavor; otherwise these little processed salt cubes will have to suffice.)

Now for the really interesting ones in my pantry. These spices are very specialized and exotic.

* Asafoetida (Super intense Indian spice. Smells like feet but tastes like chickeny.)
* Bacon Salt (Also perfect in Bloody Marys.)
* Annatto Seeds (Cubans call it poor man’s saffron.)
* Bijol (Cubans call it poor man’s annatto seed.)
* Za’atar (Ground sesame seeds with dried sumac and other herbs. Middle Eastern citrusiness.)
* Grains of Paradise (Pungent and peppery African flavors. Was a popular spice in the Middle Ages.)
* Black Limes (Smokey sour Middle Eastern sun dried limes.)
* Shichimi Togarashi (Japanese spice mixture of peppers, citrus peels, sesame seeds and nori.)

Okay, I have lots more in my spice cabinet but those are the important ones, I think. I have lots of different kinds of curry blends and dried herb blends and a ton of different kinds of salts and chili powders. If you live in Seattle or don’t have access to fresh spices, check out my favorite spice shop, World Spice Merchants. They are super helpful and inexpensive and will ship to your home wherever you live, so there is no excuse to have dingy old sawdust in your spice rack.

Stay tuned for The Keys To Having A Bad-Assed Pantry: Part 2 – Oils, Vinegars, and Condiments. Oh, and let me know if you feel I’ve left something out. I’m not a robot, ya know.

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