Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Spice of life

I like to cook. Yet, what I really take pride in is my spice rack. I consider it part of my vanity and arrogance, to be able to at any given time cook any style I like. Spanish? Garlic powder, sea salt, paprika, cumin. Indian? Cumin again, turmeric, an assortment of curry powders. Italian? Garlic, basil, oregano, red pepper flakes. Simple continental? A variety of salts and peppers from coarse to fine. I traced back my affinity for spices to when I moved permanently to New Jersey in my teens.
The catalyst? Ketchup. Or my hatred of ketchup. Ketchup is the condiment of the devil(no, I don’t claim that he exists, but if he or she does and has a condiment preference, it might as well be ketchup for all the evil that it brings). I lie awake at night, images of burgers, eggs, kitsch, poor, defenseless food drowning in vats of this vile oozing liquid. I can still hear the cries at night, in the distance. I swore that anything I made would never, ever get treated that way. My food would be adorned with flavor and dignity. Don’t get me started on the whole “green” and “purple” ketchup campaign. Horrific.

Next time you make a beautiful, sunny side up fried egg throw a dash of cumin on. Try the summer barbecue burgers first, off the grill, savor it, and then if it’s too bland, dash the salt and pepper, maybe some garlic. But, please, please, save the food.
Here are some basic spice suggestions that won’t break the bank and can impress him or her on the 3rd or 4th date.

Salt: Have your regular, fine grain table salt available and a course grain like sea salt not only to flavor food but give good texture and appeal to your food. Think of potato wedges with some nice granules of salt on it. Looks great and gives it a nice crunchy texture. Remember, don’t go dousing your food in it, your body only needs less than a teaspoon of salt(sodium) a day to function, plus many things we eat that are not fresh carry tons of it already. Once, I made a great pseudo-Asian meal with just the right amount of ginger that everyone was enjoying. A late arriving guest sat down and proceeded to drown it in salt, without even tasting it first. He was never invited again.

Black pepper: Again, same as above, fine grade for cooking, a course one for look and flavor. Pepper mills are great, but spend money on a decent one if you are going to use it often. Want to have a wild card in your deck? Bring in cayenne pepper, red and spicy, if your buds can handle it. I know some people get hives from pepper, so try a white pepper (or pepper corn for the mill), it tends to be milder. Also, pepper is a great for first aid.

Cumin: Very versatile and can spice up anything from meats to morning eggs to salads. Get some, especially if you like curry, guacamole, stew and Spanish style seafood.

Cinnamon: Another versatile entry. On oatmeal, pancakes, ice cream, rice pudding and surprise, surprise meats! With cumin and oregano I put in ground beef and meatballs. Great contrast of flavor with the other spices in the meat. Throw some in your fresh coffee grounds before brewing your java in the morning. Plus, it has some health benefits.

Paprika and Parsley: The “Spice Girls” if you will of the rack. When dry and powered, both have a little or no flavor, but give great color to anything. Try both on those potato wedges with your sea salt.

Oregano and Basil: Soups, salads, chicken, fish and any Italian food. Or on those lazy Fridays, pizza!

Powered, but I also have dry flakes. Another in the “jack of all trades” mold, flavor anything from anywhere with it. Of course, throw it on that aforementioned pizza too. I once had garlic ice cream at a fantastic restaurant back in Jersey, but some of you might not be ready for that yet, if ever. I don't need to remind the garlic it's role in our body's armies of inner conflict.

There you have it, honestly, all you really need in the kitchen. Of course, there are tons more and I am discovering new ones all the time, but this will get you by. Combine them, different amounts, discover new flavors on favorite dishes. Remember, especially with salt, always start with less and spice up from there. Too much, and everyone will be jockeying for the bread and water. Just ask Agador Spartacus.
Now, how do I rid the world of ketchup without hurting the tomato crop?