When I started cooking for myself I didn't really know how to use spices unless I was using a recipe. I wasn't even really sure what flavors some of them brought to the table. Without the knowledge of how to create flavor, I had little ability to create dishes out of what was left in the fridge or pantry at the end of the week. All of this can lead to waste + frustration.
I find immense pleasure in experiencing traditional food from various regions around the world. Some of the most delicious flavors I've tasted were generously shared by neighbors originally from Iraq + India. Food is one of our favorite parts of traveling. We savor eating in restaurants with experienced Mexican, Thai, Chinese + Japanese (etc., etc.) cooks. My at-home cooking really cannot compare to these offerings, but spices can offer a hint of the flavors I wish to recreate.
A few spicy things to consider:
- spices lose their flavor with time, so using them up in a timely manner is key
- stocking a tight collection of spices + knowing how to use them helps me use them up
- figure out which spices you like/dislike
- take note of versatile spices
- in order to taste it, don't skimp on the amount of spice added (spoon it in!)
- salt enhances flavor...use it as a complement
- choose less expensive spices + ones that really add flavor, if budget is a concern
- many spices bought in bulk are quite inexpensive
The spices I stock include:
- pepper flakes
- seasonally: cardamom (winter) + dill (summer)
I try to keep things relatively simple in the kitchen for both my budget + waste concerns. But taste is still the number one priority. Here is my personal, simple spice strategy (including one example of something I make in each category):
- Indian :: cayenne, turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, ginger, salt (curry sauce: these spices, a jar of my tomato sauce, half can of full-fat coconut milk + half a lemon, squeezed)
- Mexican :: cayenne, cumin, salt (taco bowl: olive oil, onion, tomato sauce, these spices, beans on brown rice topped with avocado, lime, fresh cilantro)
- Asian :: ginger + cayenne (stir fry: jasmine rice + steamed broccoli + cashews + sauce made of tamari, lime, these spices, a tiny bit of brown sugar + spring onions or fresh cilantro)
- Italian :: cayenne, salt (pasta sauce: olive oil, onion, tomato sauce, these spices + pasta + parmesan + fresh basil or fresh parsley)
- (Alternatively, you could buy ready made spice blends. I found those expensive + not always to my taste...and that's actually what led me to figure this out.)
- Pumpkin spice :: substitute cinnamon + a little cardamom, if I have it
- Pickle spice :: dill, a tiny bit of sugar, salt, cayenne or pepper flakes
- Pepper flakes :: a liberal sprinkling goes onto just about anything we eat :)
Someone just starting out without a whole lot of cooking instruction behind them could try this strategy...but could also just be observant when eating food they like. Take note of menu descriptions/combinations. Try to deconstruct surprising flavors. And then try it at home.
Or just start with salt + pepper flakes. Some of our favorite meals need only those:
- pasta, a little butter, parmesan, salt + pepper flakes
- rice, frozen peas, butter, parmesan, squeezed lemon wedge, salt + pepper flakes
- add salt + pepper flakes to toast topped with an over-easy egg or mashed avocado
- roasted, root vegetables + onion tossed with olive oil sprinkled with salt + pepper flakes + hard-boiled egg
Obviously, you stock what you like + use. This is just my approach....and my belief that simple can taste so good!