Not too long ago, a good friend of mine, had been marveling over the copious amount of spices and oils I had in my cupboard. “Is it really necessary to have all of these spices?” she asked curiously. “Uhh yes.. it most certainly is,” I replied in mock horror, that she should question the goings on in my pantry. Now I will be the first to admit that I have become a bit more obsessed with spices, herbs , and oils, becoming a Culinary student, but even before that, I was intrigued with the way certain herbs and spices made food come alive. We have all eaten bland, lifeless, meals at some point in our lives, whether it was at a restaurant or someone’s home who has yet to discover the spice aisle, and when I have find myself in this situation, I can’t help but think, if only they had used some fresh herbs and spices this dish would have been banging.
I know it sounds a bit snobbish of me, but I truly believe that the reason most chefs and novices alike, fall short on that wow factor in their dishes, is for one thing, they do not taste their food as they are cooking it, and secondly, they are misguided and a bit timid, in using the abundance that is before them in the spice aisle, and even more so with fresh herbs in the produce section of most grocery stores. To me, finding innovative ways to use spices in every preparation is a challenge I welcome. For instance, one spice I can almost guarantee most people have yet to include in their repertoire, is Chinese 5 spice, this “miracle”spice is equally as good in sweet dishes such as pies, as it is in Coleslaw, and Pot stickers. It is a mix of Fennel, Star Anise, Nutmeg, Cinnamon, and Cloves. The best part is, it packs such a powerful punch, in terms of flavor that you don’t need very much to make a ho-hum dish come alive. It’s that little something in a dish that sets your food apart from the crowd and really wows!
So you are thinking, what should you have in your cupboard? For Italian cooking some must haves are, Garlic powder, Italian seasoning, Basil, Rosemary, Thyme, Oregano, Red Pepper flakes, Olive oil, Red Wine vinegar, Balsamic vinegar, Mexican cooking begs for, Chili powder, both mild and hot, two of my favs are Ancho Chili powder, or Chipotle Chili powder, I love the kick these little gems give my chilis, carnitas, and fajitas. Cumin, hot and sweet Paprika. For Asian cooking, Chinese 5 spice, Ground Ginger, toasted Sesame Seeds, and Curry, to name a few.
Some specialty items that are a nice addition, saffron, which is a bit pricy because of the method in which it is obtained from the stamen of the crocus, but is a must for Bouillabaisses and Provençal recipes, as well as Spanish cooking. Montreal steak seasoning, Barbecue spice, Adobo, Sazon, Coconut oil, Meyer lemon oil, Habanero oil, Garlic infused oil, Champagne vinegar, Malt vinegar, Fish sauce, Oyster sauce, Hoisin sauce, French Grey Sea salt, Sirracha salt, Smoked salt, Himalayan pink salt, as well as Cumin seeds, Mustard seeds, Pickling spices, Whole Nutmeg, Whole Cinnamon sticks, and Dried Lavender.
Another staple, I always have in my freezer is homemade stock, as well as a stockpile, pun intended, of a variety of supermarket, organic stocks, for soups, gravies, and sauteing, there are several great ones on the market, I particularly like Kitchen Basics, and Stop and Shop Organic Stock. One thing I would like to stress is, while it is tempting to use supermarket “cooking wines”for recipes, I implore you to reconsider doing this, and to instead, use the same wine in which you would drink, those cooking wines are loaded with sodium and other chemicals that impart a harsh unflattering , flavor to recipes. I promise you if you are using them and instead use drinking wines and sherries, you will be amazed at the difference in taste that your food has.
Having a well stocked kitchen is not only a time saver, nothing worse than being in the middle of a recipe only to find that you are out of an item, but it also helps inspire creative recipes and new uses for ingredients, further, it is great way to deviate from the everyday, and be adventurous with dishes. Food is sustenance yes, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyable, exotic, and tantalizing.