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10.30.2008

Brick #5 - Spicing it Up

I don't have a one-note palate when it comes to food. I love variety and I love FLAVOR. But I read through gourmet cookbooks and magazines, and I get disenchanted. I don't buy into the idea that I have to invest in a bunch of exotic ingredients if I want to deviate from the basic meat and potatoes, or chicken and cream of *whatever* soup casserole. Budget does not have to equal bland!

Believe it or not, meal planning becomes easier (and a lot more fun!) once you realize that you can build a perfect companion to your stockpile of food when you start viewing seasonings as an investment in making inexpensive dishes more interesting...

Brick #5 - Invest in your spice cabinet

There aren't many things I'd feel ok about paying a little more for. But good seasonings are one of those things - kind of like that pair of shoes you spent good money on, that end up lasting forever and going with everything you own. With a good set of base spices, you can make one dish take on many personalities.

The cost of spices can be a little daunting. But most basic spices can be found at your local discount or dollar store for a buck or less (for a pretty big container!) and aren't any lesser quality than the brand names. The ones I find most commonly are pepper, cinnamon, paprika, oregano, basil, bay leaves, onion salt, onion powder, garlic salt, garlic powder, and parsley. These alone would provide you with a solid seasoning foundation, especially when you add in liquid seasonings (soy sauce, worcestershire sauce, vanilla) which I usually get at my local discount grocery store for a buck a piece.

But to really get the most mileage out of the food you prepare, you will want to invest in a few more expensive items. The ones I have gotten the most use out of (aside from the list above) are rosemary, tarragon, fennel, thyme, curry, nutmeg, cardamom, caraway, celery seed, and dill. If you compare some of your favorite recipes you may find that a few seasonings carry over into multiple dishes - those would be worth adding to your arsenal as well. Just don't be afraid of the price tag. Most recipes call for 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of the more expensive spices, because they are richer and a little goes a very long way.

Of course, if you are lucky enough to have a green thumb (I killed a chia pet - don't trust me with your houseplants!) you can grow many herbs either in your garden or on your windowsill, and get all the goodness for free! And the only thing better than inexpensive is FREE :) (I haven't found that fresh herbs from the store are cheaper than bottled, plus they go bad before I can finish using them.) I have also heard that some whole foods stores will sell bulk spices by the ounce, you can bring your own baggies and just get a little instead of buying a whole package. Haven't found that in my area yet but I'm looking! Investigate your spices the same way you are investigating your food prices, and find out where you'll get the most bang for your buck!

If you've been following along this series, you already know what your "pet" foods are - now you can scan your pet recipes and figure out what groups of seasonings appeal to your family's tastes. Start building with the things you will use most frequently, and then you can add to your arsenal slowly. Choose one pricey spice to try out, and experiment with it a couple of times before you add something else. You'll expand your culinary knowledge as well as your spice rack!

Next week, I'll talk more about why a little planning can save a lot of money!

Here are a few base seasoning combinations that will take you on a little trip around the globe:

Mexican: chili powder, garlic, onion powder, salt
Oriental: soy sauce, garlic, onion powder, ginger
Italian: oregano, basil, pepper, fennel
Indian: curry, garlic, onion powder, sesame seeds, cardamom
Szechuan: soy sauce, ginger, garlic, onion powder, red pepper flake

These are just starting points - with the right spices in your arsenal you can adjust any basic dish and make it as exotic as you like!

Some additional resources:

Ten herbs and spices that will make simple foods pop!

Homemade seasoning blend recipes

Spice substitutions if you don't have the exact seasoning in a recipe

Recipezaar and AllRecipes both have ingredient search options - if you want to try out a new spice just plug it in along with any other ingredients you might want to use, and see what comes up!











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3 comments:

Felicia said...

You have yet another award to pick up Saturday 7am Est time. Also, you have been Boo'd..posted Friday 6am! Happy Halloween!

Mama2ce said...

I love cooking with spices, I always buy them in very small amounts though - do you use large amounts of spice?

savvysuzie said...

mama2ce - I will buy the larger containers (more than a couple of ounces) for things that I use all the time, and traditional store-size for just about everything else. Most spices maintain their flavor for up to 2 years, so unless it would be cheaper by unit price to buy small, I go for the bigger sizes!