The spice road

It’s been a long time since I completely started over with my spice rack. I ditched my spices when I moved to Iowa, but already had a spice rack of sorts waiting for me when I got there, so I didn’t have the delicious opportunity to start from scratch.

I like to use moves as the opportunity to clear the shelves and begin again—I try to be good about turning over spices, but the fact is that I am not as diligent about it as I think I am. Case in point: in the car from Iowa to California, I packed a container of dried lavender flowers harvested from my plant, absolutely certain that it was a worthy thing to bring along. I think these buds were from last summer, but I’ll admit that it’s entirely possible these were harvested the year before and I just completely forgot. When I got to my Oakland apartment and opened the container, I was dismayed to discover that, in fact, the flower buds were completely musty and gross. There wasn’t anything close to a lavender scent anywhere near there.

Does everyone start losing their mind in their early 30s? Or is it just me?

Anyway, this move was no exception. I didn’t throw any of the spices out—in fact, there’s more to the story of how I disposed of them, but you’re going to have to stay in suspense for the time being—but I did dispatch them to an alternate location rather than bringing them with me to California.

This has led me to the particularly delicious dilemma in which I find myself. It’s time to restock, and since I arrived in the Bay Area, I’ve bought nothing other than some sea salt and some peppercorns. (After all, a girl can get far on sea salt and peppercorns.) I did bring out one sealed can of smoked paprika that I bought at the frou-frou cooking store in Iowa City a month ago.

That’s all I have in my current incarnation of my spice cabinet. And so, readers of mine, I ask this question: given this opportunity, what would you consider your three must-haves (besides salt and pepper and smoked paprika) from the world of spices? And, if you’re a Bay Area insider, I’m taking suggestions, as well, about where to go purchase the good stuff, preferably a place with BART access, because I just put 2500 miles on my car and it deserves a bit of a rest.

Throw out your ideas, folks. I’m looking forward to spicing it up, and while I have plenty of my own thoughts on the matter, I’m open to a communal adventure, and happy to report back on how I used what I purchased.

32 Responses to “The spice road”

  1. 1 Kalyn May 27, 2008 at 9:13 pm

    Ground fennel (or seeds and a mortar and pestle)
    Ground cumin (or same as above)

    Waah, only three!

  2. 2 deb May 27, 2008 at 9:21 pm

    I have started mixing my own herb blends. You could have some fun with that. What do you cook every day? Fish-dill weed and tarragon, red meat- your sea salt and dill seed. This could be the most fun shopping trip ever.

  3. 3 inadvertentgardener May 27, 2008 at 9:22 pm

    Kalyn, I do have a mortar and pestle coming with all the rest of my kitchen stuff — the seed option is intriguing! I like your list!

  4. 4 inadvertentgardener May 27, 2008 at 9:23 pm

    Deb, I’m definitely thinking it’s going to be a blast. And I like your herb blends idea! There’s almost nothing that I can say I cook every day — I really do like to mix it up — but putting together some blends would be really fun.

  5. 5 Monica May 27, 2008 at 10:06 pm

    Yeah, early thirties sounds about right for mind losing. I mean, no, no, nothing to worry about, it only gets better with age. Heh. I am embarrassed to say that most of my spices are, erm, about, um, (hangs head, shuffles feet) more than 7 years old and they weren’t self-harvested. I have been *meaning* to replace them for a long time now. Maybe NOW is the time!
    ~ Monica
    P.S. How are you liking Oakland?

  6. 6 destabee May 27, 2008 at 10:32 pm

    The first one is easy — cumin
    The second — cinnamon
    The third — good chili powder

  7. 7 the mint killer May 27, 2008 at 10:42 pm

    well, a certain four-and-a-half-year old would say corriander (and for those keeping track, that certain four-and-a-half-year-old will be five-and-three-quarters come next week….) i myself would say cardamom and ginger. but then again, there’s always mint!

  8. 8 Annie in Austin May 27, 2008 at 10:44 pm

    This is a terribly hard question! Cayenne pepper, cinnamon and marjoram would at least be a start, Genie. Of course that’s assuming there are fresh basil leaves so they don’t have to come in a jar and count toward the three choices. If there is no fresh basil, I’d kick out the salt and add the dried stuff to the list.

    What is life without basil?

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  9. 9 Susan May 28, 2008 at 1:22 am

    As I was driving to Oakland airport today, I send you good wishes on your move and new west coast life.

    1. cilantro.
    2. vanilla
    3. I keep all sorts of curries in fridge.

    When you have time, visit Kara’s cupcakes in SF. mmmmmmmmmmmmmm…..

  10. 10 ourfriendben May 28, 2008 at 5:11 am

    Wow, Genie, I’m so jealous!!! There must be some things that are more fun than spice shopping, but I’ve (ahem) forgotten what they could be… I’m so impressed that everybody’s been good and just given you three recommendations, as you requested, but I say, well, forget that! Couldn’t you have asked for top ten?! (Of course, I’m the one with herbs and spices exploding from every shelf, and yes, I really do use them!) Here’s a (very) short list of must-haves, after, of course, salt (we like Real Salt): black mustardseed (whole), cumin (whole), oregano (leaves, not ground; Greek and/or Mexican), cinnamon (recently discovered Korintje cinnamon and love it). Every sort of curry and garam masala. I find that fenugreek (whole) adds a subtle, sweet warmth to everything from rice dishes to chicken; good with sweet potatoes, potatoes, and squash, too. Try Trocamare and Herbamare for great premixed herb and spicy herb blends. Okay, I’ll stop now… really…

  11. 11 ourfriendben May 28, 2008 at 9:05 am

    Ooops, I’m back. Just had to say that I agree with Annie that fresh basil, and fresh cilantro, for that matter, are absolute essentials. I just think of them as garden staples rather than spice-rack stuff. And without vanilla for baking, I’d be lost, but again, I guess I think of that as a flavoring rather than a spice. (Darnit, this year I really am going to break down and buy a vanilla orchid!) I use alliums (onions, chives, garlic chives, garlic scapes, shallots, scallions, etc.etc.) for seasoning as much as any spice. And fresh ginger (not, God help us, dried) adds an ecstatic flavor, with its lemon undertones. which reminds me, lemons and limes… and Balsamic vinegar… and…

  12. 12 inadvertentgardener May 28, 2008 at 10:15 am

    Monica, you’re due for something new in that spice rack! Although…I know the rule of thumb is not to keep anything more than a year, the more obscure spices always languish in my cupboard…I’ll admit it… As for Oakland, I’m loving it! It’s so great to be back in a city.

    Destabee, that’s an excellent and solid list — I’m considering checking out some of the fun chili powders I can get from Penzey’s unless I find a better spice purveyor here in the Bay Area.

    Mint Killer, you’re absolutely right about that coriander — I will most definitely have to get some just in case the five-and-three-quarters-nee-four-and-a-half-year-old comes to visit. And definitely cardamom and ginger — I’m dining on fresh mint daily here, thanks to the farmer’s market, so I’ll probably avoid the dried mint as long as I can!

    Annie, I have to admit, marjoram always confuses me unless I stumble across it in a recipe — how do you generally use it? And yes — there is no life without basil, so I’ve been availing myself of the fresh stuff — both of the Genovese and Thai variety. It’s wonderful!

    Susan, thank you so much for the good wishes and the tip on those cupcakes — I’m definitely going to check them out! And that’s an excellent list — I think it’s time for me to splurge on some really good vanilla, because I know it’s got to be better than the cheap stuff…

    Ourfriendben, I’ve been hearing good things about Korintje cinnamon, and yes — garam masala! I have a garam masala story I’ll have to save for later on the blog…but I’m definitely getting some of that. I’m a big fan of fresh herbs and alliums, too — use them constantly in cooking, in salad, etc., so no worries there — I’m just trying to figure out how best to outfit myself with the dried/powdered goodies! Your list is amazing — I have never actually used fenugreek, but I’m definitely going to have to give it a whirl.

  13. 13 hotfessional May 28, 2008 at 8:50 am

    Assuming you’re planning on growing basil, parsley, sage, etc?

    whole allspice

  14. 14 Jenny May 28, 2008 at 11:45 am

    That’s tough. But spice rack, not herb garden, helps…my three would be cinnamon, cumin, and coriander (whole, to be ground in mortar and pestle, as Kalyn said).

    We’ve been trying to go with the good vanilla too, for making ice cream (among other things), and it really does make a difference. (Fresh homemade vanilla bean ice cream is a beautiful thing. Especially with a friend’s homemade fudge sauce.)

  15. 15 Jen-Ben May 28, 2008 at 12:26 pm

    Early 30s? Think mid-30s, my friend. I vote for cinnamon, nutmeg (what’s a good bechamel w/o a little nutmeg), and ground mustard. I also like dill and celery seeds.

  16. 16 VegeYum Ganga May 28, 2008 at 2:37 pm

    raw ginger

    I keep a little pot by my stove. Periodially I go through my spices (I must have 30 or 40) and any spices that I want to replace or those where there is only a teaspoon or so left, and some that are not being used up very fast, get tipped into that little pot. But no one spice dominates. The contents of the little pot get used in all sorts of ways – into or onto potatoes, soups, bakes …. Just a little. Gives an undefinable quality to the food that people comment on.

  17. 18 Heather's Garden May 28, 2008 at 8:44 pm

    Since I only cook a few things, my list is a little funny:

    Herbes de provence — you haven’t had grilled chicken breast until you’ve had it enhanced by herbes de provence
    Dill seed — one of the few things I cook is beef stew and my family’s recipe calls for lots of dill seed

    Yeah I don’t have a third, I know I really should learn how to cook.

  18. 19 Michelle May 29, 2008 at 1:42 am

    Cumin, cardamom and….ok, this is really pathetic, but I LOVE lemon pepper. I know it’s probably got preservatives and goodness knows what in it, but it’s great on everything!!! OH, and garam masala. Can I have four?

  19. 20 NC Heather May 30, 2008 at 1:22 pm

    Even before I read what others had said, I had thought of the exact same list as destabee. I can’t imagine not having cumin, chili powder and cinnamon. Of course, when I do cook, it is often TexMex, so that’s probably why those would be on my list. But, they all have such a depth of flavors, you can do a lot with them.

    Have you been to the Ferry building in SF since your move? I’m jealous!

  20. 21 Roshani May 31, 2008 at 8:05 am

    This place might have some good spices and herbs.

    My top spices:
    Since I cook Indian food, it would have to be the following:
    1. turmeric
    2. ground red pepper
    3. mustard seeds
    4. asafoetida

    Other spices I enjoy:
    1. cinnamon
    2. cayenne
    3. cajun spice mix (if you are ever in New Orleans, check out the Kitchen Witch bookstore. They sell an amazing cajun spice mix. I enjoy mixing it with some cool cucumbers and some lime. It’s a delicious, spicy summer snack!

  21. 22 Jeanne June 1, 2008 at 2:15 pm


    – sorry I can’t decide on 3.

    With the last two, you’ll need a microplane. But I’m sure you brought that west with you!

    Have a great time shopping!

  22. 23 plot_thickens June 2, 2008 at 9:04 am

    I’m SO STOKED you’re over here!!!!

    Top three: Oregano, Thyme, Cumin

    Herbs that grow very very well in Oakland (very very very): Rosemary (this will grow so well it will become a weed), Parsley, Chives, Basil, Oregano, Thyme, and some others I’ll think of later.

    Go by a Trader Joe’s for five (five!!) non-rootbound genovese basil plants stuffed into one beautiful gallon pot for $3.29 or thereabouts. The local hardware stores are GREAT for getting herbs and such — local nurseries will have everything in one stop but will gouge the heck out of your pocketbook.

    BART is a little restrictive, AC Transit is great for the East Bay and you’ll get to see everything as you ride, bonus!

    Hey, tell me when you want to do that get-together thing and I’ll divide my Garlic Chive clump and bring it as a housewarming, k?

  23. 24 plot_thickens June 2, 2008 at 9:05 am

    Oh, and Gardener’s Delight and Sweet 100 are the best cherry tomatoes for this area if you have room. Massive F-wilt around here, hybrids keep the heartbreak of early plant death at bay. Best pea is Mr. Big.

  24. 25 magpie June 2, 2008 at 7:43 pm

    get the penzey’s catalog…

  25. 26 inadvertentgardener June 4, 2008 at 7:26 am

    Jenny, fresh homemade ice cream is immeasurably good.

    Jen-Ben, mid-30s is such a relative thing. As far as I’m concerned, I have more than another month to go!

    VegeYum Ganga, that’s a great way to manage those last bits of spices — I’m going to copy your idea!

    Lydia, those are definitely on my list — especially saffron.

    Heather, that’s an interesting list, though — I agree that Herbes de Provence are awesome…I think it’s because of the lavender!

    Michelle, you can most definitely have four. I’m not as big a fan of lemon pepper, but I do like it — I’m just usually more likely to use lemon and pepper rather than roll them all up into one.

    NC Heather, and a darn good Tex-Mex chef you are! I haven’t been back to the Ferry Building since the move, but it’s definitely on the list…

    Roshani, thanks for the link to that store — I should check that out. I love your list — really great!

    Jeanne, to tell you the truth, I would have a hard time with just three, as well. I do have a microplane, but it’s packed up in my stuff rather than here…it should be here soon, though!

    Plot_thickens, awesome tips on all fronts — thank you so much! I’ll be in touch re: the get-together — I’m still trying to get some other things worked out before I get that on the calendar.

    Magpie, I have already been to their site (but have not yet placed an order) — stay tuned!

  26. 27 wayne June 5, 2008 at 4:03 am

    SPICES: cinnamon, cumin, allspice

    dried herbs: lavender, thyme, oregano

    greatest wish– that dried basil even came close to fresh

    as for losing your mind… research shows it is downhill from the early 20’s… meaning mine has been going down as long as it went up.

  27. 28 inadvertentgardener June 5, 2008 at 6:37 am

    Wayne, I totally agree with you — dried basil? Barely even worth it next to fresh. That’s an excellent list — I hadn’t thought about throwing allspice in the mix!

  28. 29 southernmaledemocrat June 12, 2008 at 7:05 pm

    Twp words – bacon salt.


  29. 30 southernmaledemocrat June 12, 2008 at 7:06 pm

    argh. twp=two

    A zinger loses all effectiveness to a typo.

  30. 31 inadvertentgardener June 13, 2008 at 6:29 am

    Yeah, SMD…but Penzey’s doesn’t sell that! Can you imagine, though, a plate of sliced tomatoes with bacon salt on them? Hmm…I’m getting some ideas…

  1. 1 Where the spice road led me « The Inadvertent Gardener Trackback on June 9, 2008 at 5:08 am

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