Part of what allows me to have tasty food no matter what is that I have found what works for me spice-wise. Granted, I am always looking to add to my collection because you can never have enough herbs & spices. However, I’ve found a way to make sure I have the bare essentials while I work with my limited means. Combining these few things adds pizzazz to your meals no matter how simple they may be, and you’ll learn to find what works for you. Here are just a few of my absolute must-haves:
Garlic salt (I prefer Lawry’s over Schilling or Morton’s or McCormick because it has far more garlic, while the others use more salt)
A good curry powder
Black peppercorns & a grinder (ground pepper is fine but you’ll get a lot more flavor from freshly ground peppercorns)
Lemon pepper (I get the one from Trader Joe’s because it’s made with real lemon rind, sea salt, and black peppercorns. WAY better than the synthetic powdered stuff. And it comes in a handy li’l grinder!)
Oregano (when I’m really rolling in it, I make sure I have both Mediterranean and Mexican, as their flavors do vary)
Red chili pepper flakes
Cinnamon (both ground and whole sticks)
Chinese Five Spice powder
Again, this is just the absolute bare-bones minimum that I ever have on hand. On a good day, I’ll also have:
Herbes de Provence (if you’re lucky, you can find some good blends at your local farmer’s market. Or you can just make your own.)
Saffron (both ground and in threads)
Paprika (regular & smoked)
Vanilla extract (and when I’m really lucky whole vanilla beans)
Etc, etc, etc.
I also make sure to keep plenty of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and either white or red wine vinegar on hand. I am a big dressing maker and prefer to make it from scratch (though my dressing weakness, I will admit, is Wish-Bone Italian), so it’s important to have these on hand. Good olive oil should always be in one’s pantry anyway because it’s used in many ways, from actually cooking to making dressings, aiolis, etc. Unfortunately, good olive oil is also worth a pretty penny, so I recommend heading to Trader Joe’s and getting one of their bottles of oil. A small bottle of their extra virgin olive oil will run about $5.99, an absolute steal compared to the $9-15 most grocery stores will charge. Trader Joe’s also carries other for cooking and for health, such as grape seed and flaxseed oils.
Herbs and spices can be expensive if you go the prettily packaged, name-brand route. There are a couple of ways to get around this. When it comes to herbs, I prefer buying them fresh at the farmer’s market then drying them on my own.
Spice-wise, instead of buying bottles and jars that can run from $4-7 each, head to the “Hispanic foods” aisle of your grocery store. There, you will find a ton of the same spices in little plastic packets for about $1-2 tops. They’re the same spices you’d find in a jar, sometimes fresher and of better quality and larger quantity.
You’ll also find random stuff you might not usually find in a regular spice aisle, and for such tiny prices, you can afford to experiment with stuff you’ve never tried before. Don’t worry, most of these packages have the names of the spices in English as well, so you will know what you’re buying. Taking a trip to your local Latin American/Mexican food market will also uncover a whole new world of very inexpensive spices. Don’t have a place to store ‘em? If you’re really in a pinch, keep each opened package in its own little Ziploc bag. Otherwise, head to a thrift store and invest in some cute jars & bottles. You might even score a nice spice rack in the process!
Anyway, the whole point is: build your spice pantry. Salt and pepper are great, and ketchup is too; but if you want to eat more “gourmet” or “grown-up meals”, start experimenting with herbs & spices. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at the new flavor combinations and will also be eating a wee bit healthier if you start substituting them for the standard salt or fatty/sugary condiments that line the store shelves. Simplicity can sometimes be your best friend when it comes to cooking.
What are some of your go-to herbs & spices?