Thursday, March 22, 2018     Volume: 19, Issue: 3

Santa Maria Sun / Eats

Pantry pride: Stock your kitchen with the right spices


I have so many spice-related puns at the ready for this column.

One of the secrets to being a successful home cook is having a well-stocked pantry ready at a moment’s notice to whip up something impressive for yourself or whatever friends you are trying to cajole into helping you move heavy furniture that weekend. I’ve covered some of this before, offering tips on staples such as pasta, beans, and rice.

Cumin is one of the most important spices to keep on hand. Used in Mexican, Indian, Middle Eastern, and many other cuisines, cumin is a necessary component for barbecue sauces, marinades, chili, and much more.

Now that you have this great pantry filled with everything from canned vegetables to linguine, what comes next? As any good cook knows, the key to most successful meals is the addition of just the right amount of herbs and spices, which you should always have on hand.

But what exactly should your spice cabinet look like? If you’re like I once was, you may have what scientists (OK, just me) term “fancy herbs and spiceitis,” an unhealthy addiction to overloading your pantry with jazzy sounding names that are literally still sealed in their jars because you have no idea how to use them.

Just as before, you need to give your spice rack a thorough cleaning. If you’re wondering what should stay and what should go, here’s a tip: Dried herbs can last about 1 to 2 years, ground spices can stay good for about three years, and whole spices will stay fresh for up to four years. So if you’ve got anything in that rack from when Ronald Reagan was still kissing Bonzo goodnight, you better toss it in the trash.

Once you sort out what is still fresh, the next thing you should do is get a good selection of basic spices (not blends; I’ll get to those in a moment) that you’ll use on a near-daily basis. For me, my go-to spices are garlic powder, onion powder, cumin, paprika, cayenne, chili powder, allspice, black peppercorn, and cinnamon. Each one of them is vital for different reasons, either individually or together.

Cumin is a godsend of a spice; its warm nutty taste goes well with just about everything, from chicken to fish to vegan dishes. It has a very distinct aroma, which makes it ideal for adding to stews or braised dishes. There’s also just the faintest hint of lemon that you can detect once you heat it up. I add cumin to just about everything, from taco seasoning to curry. Be careful that you don’t overuse it because it can become quite bitter.

You’re probably familiar (and regularly use) most of those spices, but one that you might be wondering about is allspice. Once confused by Spanish explorers for peppercorn because of its shape, allspice berries are similar to cloves—warm and sweet, with a strong undertone of floral scents. Allspice is used in Caribbean, Latin American, Middle Eastern, and many other cuisines. I find it an indispensable ingredient in barbecue sauce (my Aunt Becky Rose’s Sweet Slap Yourself Barbecue Sauce is a testament to how well it works). If you want to experiment with allspice, try putting a few berries in with meats such as beef or lamb, along with some garlic cloves.

Having a variety of spices on hand can help you come up with your own spice mixes. Za’Atar, Herbs de Provence, curry, ras el hanout, harissa, and more more can all be modified to accommodate your particular tastes.

If we’re really getting sophisticated, I would tell you to buy all your spices in their purest form: whole seeds and nuts. You can lightly toast them then grind them in a spice grinder (or a cheap coffee grinder) to get the freshest results. But, in the words of the immortal Ina Garten, if you can’t make your own, store bought is fine.

For dried herbs, I always have rosemary, oregano, sage, parsley, thyme, and some others. I won’t digress into a talk about fresh herbs (which don’t go in your pantry), but I will share that I have killed an army’s worth of innocent fresh herb plants despite promises from garden center workers that they were literally death proof.

Seasoning blends are also an important key to cooking. Sometimes recipes will just call for “taco seasoning” or “Creole seasoning” and that means you have a few options. You can buy this from the store pre-made or you can mix your own. I like to make some of my own blends, which lets me adjust slightly for ingredients I prefer.

Some important blends you should always have include taco seasoning, five spice, jerk, Creole, za’atar, Ras el hanout, lemon pepper, Italian, herbes de Provence, curry, and chili.

My favorite of all of these is herbes de Provence. The blend typically includes rosemary, fennel, bay leaf, marjoram, tarragon, mint, oregano, chervil, and more. It’s a great addition to almost everything but I especially love to use it in eggs. Add a few dashes to an omelette or a plate of scrambled eggs and you’ll instantly know why our French friends in Europe count it as a must-have in every kitchen.

Organizing your spices will help you feel less overwhelmed when it comes time to put a meal together. Keep spice blends grouped and separate from individual spices to avoid confusion.

Spice and Herb Checklist

  • Allspice (whole and ground)
  • Bay leaves
  • Cardamom (black/green pods)
  • Cayenne
  • Celery seed
  • Chili powder
  • Cinnamon
  • Cloves
  • Colman's English dry mustard
  • Coriander
  • Cream of tartar
  • Curry
  • Cumin
  • Dill
  • Epazote
  • Fennel (ground or seed)
  • Fenugreek
  • Filé powder
  • Five-spice powder
  • Garam masala
  • Herbes de Provence
  • Nutmeg
  • Old Bay Seasoning
  • Oregano
  • Paprika
  • Ras el hanout
  • Star anise
  • Tarragon
  • Turmeric
  • Za'atar

Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose is quite spicy. Contact her at

Don't miss burger night at PICO Los Alamos.

PICO Los Alamos now has a special kids section. Parents can enjoy the venue’s food and drinks (including a pretty incredible cocktail menu) while the kids play in a safe, contained area that’s tucked out of the way of waitstaff and other guests. The restaurant is located at 458 Bell St., Los Alamos.

If the rain and cold weather is getting to you, head to SY Kitchen where they are serving up generous bowls of minestrone soup to cure your winter blues. Warm up at 1110 Faraday St., Santa Ynez.

• In the mood for a classic? Scratch Kitchen has a hearty rustic lasagna dish made with three cheeses and beef. Go back to the old country at 610 N. H St., Lompoc.

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