You Are Your Spice Cabinet – Guest Author Marisa Dobson


When I moved into my first apartment my senior year in college, I remember feeling liberated by all the space and the reality of my own genuine kitchen. No longer restricted by the microwaves and mini-fridges of dorm life, I set about preparing fresh simple meals. Outfitting my new kitchen was a hit or miss process. I would be in the midst of cooking up a storm – smoke alarm beeping, vegetables sizzling – and I would realize that I didn’t have THE essential utensil. “My kingdom for a slotted spoon!” As a side note, I’ve finally found the perfect basting brush at Le Gourmet Chef at the Mall of America, about twenty minutes from my new home in Minneapolis.

What I always have had, however, is a spice collection. My father, the chef, had stocked my cabinet with a few must-haves for my first kitchen and they’ve been with me ever since. If you peek into my , you’ll immediately see my towering 16 oz can of Old Bay. Old Bay is a classic seasoning consisting of: celery salt, mustard, red pepper, black pepper, bay leaves, cloves, allspice, ginger, mace, cardamom, and paprika. You’d recognize Old Bay as the dominant flavor in all Maryland seafood dishes, like steamed shellfish or cream of crab soup. Being a child of the Chesapeake, I couldn’t go far without that seasoning.

My spice cabinet also sports the basics (basil, thyme, oregano), cilantro leaves, minced garlic and garlic powder, steak seasoning for my carnivorous dinner partner, kosher salt, and Worcestershire sauce. The latter is a definite must-have for households which consume hearty meat dishes. There are a few other exotics in there as well, such as curry powder, cumin, and dashi mix.

One could write a neat paperback from extrapolating from the spices in my cabinet. What’s in your spice cabinet? What does it tell you about your cooking? Or, (gasp) about YOU? If you’ve just begun outfitting your first kitchen, or simply haven’t a clue where to start, I’ve got a few suggestions.

All spice racks should include: Basil, Thyme, Black Pepper, Onion Powder, Granulated Garlic, and Salt (preferably not the iodized stuff, get a coarser flavorful salt for seasoning). If you’re a little more adventurous, I would also suggest red pepper flakes (if only to spice up leftover pizza), chili powder, ground mustard, and oregano.

Here’s an interesting article I’ve just read in the Twin Cities City Pages about
artisanal salts
. Great Chefs know it: quality salts add taste and texture. Spices bring out the soul of a dish, so don’t be contented with the unassuming and predictable flavor of salt and pepper. There are always new offerings at your local grocery. And, if you don’t feel like investing the $6 per bottle (McCormick style) which might end up sitting full for years in your cabinet, then head to the bulk product section and weigh out a bunch of samples. You will feel a trifle scandalous running home with loads of little unmarked baggies, but your dinner later that night is sure to be all the better for it.

Call for HELP!
Yours truly, the newbie gourmand is facing the prospect of preparing her first Thanksgiving dinner. Any tips, recipe suggestions, or funny stories not to be emulated, please drop a note here.

A word from your editor:
A couple of additional spice notes:

Spice blends make great hostess gifts or stocking stuffers. I wrote about a Cajun spice blend in Suite101’s tribute to New Orleans series. It’s getting to be gumbo weather!

October is Fair Trade month and I found two terrific products that add sophistication to your spice cabinet and also support Fair Trade:
Learn about exotic black peppercorns and Divine Sonoran Oregano.

~ by jacqueline1230 on October 20, 2006.

2 Responses to “You Are Your Spice Cabinet – Guest Author Marisa Dobson”

  1. I LOVE herbs and spices, although I’m a thrifty gal so I don’t buy everything. But I do keep a big can of Old Bay on hand – it’s classic! I was surprised by how really basic the spice cabinet collection was otherwise. I also consider these things basic which means when I am running out, I automatically put them on the grocery list: celery seed, the “pumpkin pie” spices (but heavens, not MIXED), turmeric, bay leaves, and parsley. I also keep some spices on hand that some might consider exotic, but they enable me to make some dishes that we eat quite often: whole cardamom, Adobo (like season salt, only better), rosemary, coriander, and sumaq ( a Middle Eastern spice blend that we use like pepper). My collection has a cabinet to itself with a double lazy susan and is loosely alphabetized so I can find what I want. I have started a few kitchens from scratch and the spices and herbs usually get my special attention early on because I consider them so useful.

  2. Margo, sounds like a great cabinet! I have Ana Sortun’s Za’atar blend (with sumac, of course) as well as cardamom. I love allspice berries too, one of my ‘secret’ ingredients.

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