Spice Rack & Spice Girls: Two Things to be Deployed Sparingly

What’s the opposite of allspice? NO spice!…Get it?

Okay, but seriously, it occurs to me that the spice rack is the crutch of any home-cook trying to, I dunno… spice things up? (last one, I promise!)  But all joking aside, I remember my first experiences playing around in my kitchen at home with anything other than eggs and potatoes.  I started off with a main ingredient or two, and then I went to the spice shelf and started smelling things.  Once I came across one that I thought made a harmonious pair, I used it.  I don’t mean to disparage this practice, as it’s a perfect prism through which one can see the real rainbow of combinations of flavors, smells and textures that exist in the culinary universe — many of which haven’t even been touched yet.

That being said, knowing that rosemary goes great with potatoes, or that dill and salmon work really well together, is hardly letting you “taste the rainbow”.  I’m not telling you that if cooking is your casual hobby and you’re known to throw dinner parties that are a reliably good and satisfying time, that you’re doing anything wrong.  I don’t knock the hustle: keep riding what works for you until it bucks you.  But if your goal is to really explore the world of cooking, and what you can do with a few veggies, an oddly-stocked pantry, and a piece of chicken, your answer is not going to be found among a dozen bottles of dried herbs and spices.

First of all, if all you have to work with is some olive oil and spaghetti, would you rather be lubricating the dried oregano, parsley and basil you’re trying to stuff down your suddenly parched throat with more olive oil? Likely not.  My point is that this simple dish works all over Tuscany, and even most parts of southern France and northern Spain, not because they use fresh pasta or superior olive oil, respectively (although those things certainly don’t hurt).  In those regions, the idea of dried herbs tends to be confusing, unless being used for curing or incense.  The instances where dried herbs are preferable to fresh ones are few and far between.  If you’re eating simply or frugally (whatever your reasons), a $1.50 head of garlic, a $3 liter of mid-grade commercial olive oil, and a $2.49 box of pasta can make you a really solid week of meals, if you have a few sprigs of fresh herbs handy*.

*side note: if you have the moderately green thumb to keep one alive, and the facilities to do so, grab a balcony herb garden at your local organic food store… I’m not sponsored by any specific one so I won’t suggest, but you know what I’m talking about.

When I decided I would pursue a culinary career, I immediately notified the Chef (or kitchen manager, as he would humbly prefer to be called) of this.  I’d kept him abreast of my explorations of flavor combinations, courtesy of my spice rack, and I asked him what I should work on next in my pursuit of culinary mastery.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, his response was “work on your stocks and sauces,” and subsequently handed me his culinary school bible, which starts teaching culinary students how to cook, through how to make a proper stock. The beautiful thing about stock is not only does it require attention to every core principal upon which cooking is founded, but it also is a lesson in minimalist simplicity… which can be easily interpreted as: “at no point does it call for anything on a spice rack other than whole peppercorns”.  Roping the discussion back to the oft-unnecessary spice rack, you’re supposed to achieve superior flavor and even umami (to borrow a wonderful term from wonderful Japanese cuisine) through technique and practice, as oppose to addition of more and more shallow flavors.

It’s fair to recognize at this point, that I’m unfairly attacking the spice rack as a whole, as I have only cited dried herbs as the main culprits.  What about the actual spices? Cayenne, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, peppercorns, juniper, etc. are all very important and essential elements to a well-crafted kitchen, and can make or break certain recipes.  That being said, of the above ingredients, the only one you should keep stocked as a pre-ground powder is cayenne pepper.  This, I understand, is reflective of an ideal world, but of all the things I’ve been accused of being in my day, an idealist is one of the ones of which I am the least ashamed.  Invest in a microplane (commonly referred to as a “zester”) and shave your nutmeg yourself.  Buy fresh bay leaves instead of dried (don’t feel bad if you didn’t know they existed — some of my current co-workers didn’t until recently, and their collective minds were blown when I asked some to be ordered and they saw the difference.  Take the Pepsi challenge and try it for yourself).  And throw some clove into your stock to give it that extra panache — but instead of ground clove, throw the whole ones in a sachet and let it steep like a good tea.

If most of what I’m saying isn’t really clicking, it seems you’ve left yourself with one of two options: 1) continue to patch together culinary experiments with marinades, rubs, and delusions of cooking supremacy, or 2) take the time to learn the basics, which are actually really intuitive, and while not immediately gratifying, they will make the whole world of cooking and food a lot less mysterious, and a lot more navigable.

The point I’m trying to make is that spices in general are indeed important, but they should be the last phase with which you concern yourself when learning how to cook.  If you’ll allow a final analogy: living in a tent with extravagant decorations, pales in comparison to the barely clad home built on bedrock.  Trying to build a dish on your spice rack instead of on sound technique has a similar probability of success as does playing the lottery vs. working an honest job every day: against all odds, you might win, but when one considers reality, don’t you think it’s a better idea to rely on something more proven than your intuition?

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