Thursday, June 15, 2006

Variety is The Spice of Life

A spice rack says more about a cook than a trip to the medicine cabinet says about a bachelor.

My new kitchen is a galley kitchen. There just isn't enough space in the cabinets to store my spice jars so that I may read them and grab what I need in a hurry. Elevation between rows is critical, and the built in shelves that can't be moved are a real hindrance.

I ended up putting my spice rack on a counter, next to the stove. Handy for cooking, but probably a bit intimidating for visitors. I am proud to report that there are 39 jars of herbs, spices and other seasonings on this rack. Starting with Whole Alspice (back left) and ending with Fancy White Pepper (front right), this is what I affectionately refer to as the "A" Team.

The "A" Team ranges from the ordinary: Basil, Rosemary, Thyme, and Parsley Flakes. To the obscure: Spanish Mancha Saffron Strands, Ground Moroccan Coriander and Ground Szechuan Pepper. The Moroccan Coriander label will tempt you with, "..hints of orange, anise and cumin lend depth to savory and sweet recipes". The Saffron Strands are worthless without a hot bath. I learned in a cooking class at The Greenbrier that the best way to cull both flavor and color from Saffron is to put a splash of white wine in the hot water. It works. I've used the Saffron water in Milanese Risotto and as a stock for cooking white rice.

I've read that you shouldn't keep spices for more than a few months. I do my best, on occasion, to clean out the jars and replace the contents with more freshly dried herbs. Yet, the fact remains that these are no more than dehydrated plant life with no stamped expiration dates. So I ask myself, how stale could they really get?

There are three members of the "A" Team that don't sit on the rack: 1) The olive oil. I keep mine carefully stored in a hand painted glass bottle with a whiskey pour top. I feel very talented pouring without a drip. 2) My rock salt and whole peppercorn grinders. This is yet another affectation for a wanna-be chef and 3) A small ceramic canister of kosher salt that has a Barbie sized wooden spoon attached to it.

Then there is the "B" Team. These are stored in the cabinet above the counter. They include things like pine nuts, sun dried tomatoes, sesame seeds, dehydrated oyster and shiitake mushrooms and baking essentials. These are all great to have around when you don't feel like shopping but want to whip up something really tasty. However, I don't reach for these things every day, so they are stored off the counter. The "B" Team also includes spices I don't want anyone to know that I have...

No, I'm not talking about Spanish Fly here.

I'm talking about pre-fab rubs, pastes and marinades (a.k.a "RPMs"). A dear friend of mine, who is an outstanding cook, refers to RPMs as "cheaters". On occasion, the Glass City Gourmet will grab a jar of the Trader Joe's "21 Seasoning Salute" instead of creating her own masterpiece. Ditto for "Old Bay Seasoning", "Herbs de Provence", and the ever popular "Lawry's Salt". Sometimes, I'll even buy an overpriced marinade that was mass produced for a celebrity chef. No matter how good, or how beautifully packaged it may will remain part of the "B" Team. When I use it in a recipe and take it to a someone's house, I always add a pinch of something to try and disguise it. I try not to admit that some portion of my offering came from a jar. I can't bring myself to do it. I hope you are thinking, "I'm sure that doesn't happen very often, does it?". Not really. I'm not very good at being dishonest. Even if I tried to lie about my ingredients, my closest friends would be able to identify the offending "cheater" and lovingly give me a hard time for pretending it was my own creation.

"Cheaters" aside, the beauty of my spice rack is it's efficiency. With all this on hand, it is a rare occasion that I need to buy spices for any recipe I might choose to prepare.

If variety truly is the spice of life, the Glass City Gourmet is one spicy gal.

“Glass City Gourmet” is a chronicle of one woman's attempt to cook, eat, diet and entertain with both flair and whimsy while based in Toledo, Ohio. I encourage you to read on as the "Glass City Gourmet" attempts grand recipes, samples locally owned restaurants, visits indigenous markets and humbly pursues her quest to be formally recognized as the official "Glass City Gourmet".

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