Variety is the Spice of Life

My peppermill was running low on peppercorns last week, so I rummaged around in my spice drawer amongst the unlabeled bottles and bags and came up with some for a refill. I was busy cooking, so I didn’t really notice that they were light brown and smooth – they were probably a little past their prime, but still okay. I quickly refilled the mill and got on with the business of cooking.

When we sat down at the table for dinner, everything was delicious. But the mashed potatoes could’ve used a little more pepper, so I brought the mill to the table and ground a generous turn on top. Hmm, “smells like cookies in here” I said to my husband. He agreed that it did seem to, all of a sudden. Thinking nothing of it, I took a bite of potatoes and was shocked by the overwhelming flavor of – cloves. I filled the peppermill with cloves.

Fortunately, I’m always looking for a reason to go by the Spice House, and a peppermill full of cloves was as good as any. So Friday after work when the Loop was emptying and the bars were filling up, we were grabbing the LaSalle bus to Old Town. When you walk in the door, the most wonderful aroma envelops you – it’s warm, it’s spicy, it’s good. There are large jars of every herb and spice imaginable lining the walls and set up on tables and small bookcases. It’s a cook’s dream. A woman on a mission, I arrived with a shopping list in hand and the helpful staff was there to assist me.

The first thing I needed, obviously, was whole peppercorns, in quantity. I like to buy enough so that it lasts me about six weeks at a time. Enough so that I’m not running low every five days, but not so much that it will go bad before I use it all. Spices shouldn’t be kept in the cabinet forever. The more “exotic” it is, the smaller the quantity you should buy. Herbs and spices are not staples that should be stockpiled. But anyway, the peppercorns – I decided on the all-purpose black Tellicherry, which is nicely spicy but has some fruity undertones. I got a large four-ounce bag.

Then for holiday baking that’s coming up, I needed nutmeg. I know that freshly grated nutmeg is superior to the powdered stuff, but I had to be honest with myself – was I really going to grate nutmeg every time I wanted to bake a batch of cookies or a coffee cake? Chances are I’d just elect to skip the whole shebang. So I got a two ounce bag of finely ground nutmeg. I’d normally only buy an ounce of a baking spice, but I do like to use nutmeg in a few savory dishes as well, such as sausage pasta sauce and béchamel sauces (for pasta or scalloped potatoes).

I also needed granulated white onion, which I use in meatballs (can’t stand chunks of onions in meatballs) and sausages. I also needed to replenish my supply of Chinese five spice powder, which I use in so many things but mostly barbecued pork with bamee noodles or country style ribs. I also got an ounce each of cracked rosemary and dill.

I also needed oregano but I ended up getting two bags of it, because I couldn’t decide between the Mexican oregano and the Greek. They have a subtle but noted difference – the Mexican is a little more pungent and aggressive with a darker green color. The Greek is a lighter green, with more vegetal aromas. I’ll likely use the Mexican for both of my bourbon-based chilis and maybe salsas, paired with sopaipillas and refried beans. The Greek oregano will be fantastic in marinara sauce or added to Greek-style chicken with lemon and olives.

And though it wasn’t on the list, I threw in a bottle of red chile pepper flakes when I saw them. Though I probably shouldn’t admit it, there is (quite shamefully) a bottle of red pepper flakes in my spice drawer that… well… that I got back in college. The beginning of college. I’ll just say that was double-digits ago in my life. I don’t know why or how that bottle has ended up in every kitchen I’ve cooked in as an adult, but it has. In this seventh kitchen, it’s finally out with the old, in with the new!