commodorified: A cartoon of a worried looking woman in a chef's hat (cooking for people who don't)
[personal profile] commodorified
My father-in-law (who took a year-long chef's course when he retired) and I were talking food recently and I mentioned spice mixes. "Oh, I don't use those," he said. "I mix everything fresh myself."

I ... changed the subject. I love him, but my God, he gets so bloody ... cheffy. And he cooks for fun, basically, which I'm not going to hold against him because I eat his food and it's awesome (if you were at our wedding you've eaten his food too) but most of us cook because people are hungry and living on takeout is ruinous to the wallet and one's health, both, and so we have to cook and would like the results to be tasty as well as vaguely nourishing.

I mention this here not to give FiL a hard time - I can do that in person - but because I hear it fairly often from what Peg Bracken refers to as Good Cooks Who Like To, and I think it is entirely wrong-headed and that it makes beginning and casual cooks feel like they're just not making the cut, and that's crap.

My cooking has improved tremendously since I a) discovered Penzeys (because we have to ship or carry the stuff we buy there back to Canada what we buy is pretty much mixes. For herbs and single spices, I have excellent local sources) and b) through using - and running out of - their stuff, developed the confidence to make and store my own mixes, and just generally relaxed and quit trying to season everything from scratch everytime like a real cook, whatever THAT means.

Just for starters, I have bad allergies and my sense of smell comes and goes and my cooking duties ... don't. I haven't pepper-bombed anyone in months thanks to seasoning mixes.

So here are some reasons why I love, love, love spice and seasoning mixes:

1) Convenience

Sometimes (ok, often) I'm not making an Incredibly Detailed Special Meal. I'm trying to get everyone fed and stave off the anguished cries of Oh God Is It Canned Beets Again? So I put Tsardust (Ian spent a year in the USSR just as it was ceasing to be the USSR. He ate a lot of borsht, and this is basically borsht or Russian sausage seasoning, which now reminds him of the trip and makes him feel warm and fuzzy, so I bought some to surprise him and now consider it a staple and I use it in just so many things, you guys it's amazing on lamb) in the beets, or Old World (goulash seasoning) on the spinach (reviews of that one were mixed. If you like smoky greens you'll probably like it) or Krakow Nights (Polish sausage seasoning, actually) on the potatoes. I put Fox Point in my scrambled eggs and Ozark and bouquet garni in the breading for fried pork chops and I use steak seasonings (two kinds) and Adobo seasoning and various rubs and cajun seasonings and chili powders and there is just no end to it and I have a pretty good idea which seasonings go with what for main and side dishes and my day to day cooking is so much faster and simpler and better and I swear less. A bit less. I do swear a lot.

2) Consistency.

I have an excellent book on Cajun cooking by Paul Prudhomme, and he mentions in a few places that in his restaurant they use spice mixes for almost everything, because restaurant cooking must be consistent.

They make them onsite and make them in batches big enough for no more than a week or two, to keep the quality high, but they make them and use them in damned near everything and he recommends that home cooks using his book do the same. (You can buy his mixes, he sells them on his site, but in the book he also tells you how to make your own).

I know damn-all about celebrity chefs, so maybe there's something terrible about Prudhomme's cooking I don't know, but let me tell you what, based on his writings and recipes I like the cut of his jib and wish to eat his food if I ever get a chance.

Home cooking doesn't have to be consistent in the same way, you can always tweak the seasoning of a dish just because you want to try something new, or are craving salt or spice, but if you've made something and you like it, you want at least the option where it comes out more-or-less the same the next twelve times.

The more daring and complex your dish is, the more of a problem this becomes. I can spice, say, gingerbread (powdered ginger, allspice, vanilla) or lamb burgers, (cumin, dried onion, rosemary) from individual seasonings and get beautifully reliable results, because a) the number of things I need to add to each is small, and b) the amount I need to add is correspondingly large (2T ginger, 1t allspice, 1t vanila).

If I put together bouquet garni or rogan josh curry together, from scratch, for family-sized dishes, every time, I'd be operating in 1/8 teaspoons, and I would screw up, a lot. I'd forget things. I'd be estimating by sight, because I have no actual idea where my 1/8t spoon is I never use it what is that even for my God.

3) Expense and storage

Spices and seasonings are comparatively expensive for things with no food value, ranging from about $5 per jar to Oh My God Was It Watered By The Tears Of A Unicorn?

As I said before, bouquet garni and herbs de provence and similar herb blends call for 4-7 ingredients, depending on your method, and Indian and Chinese and Portugese (etc etc) spicings can get into the low teens. Plus you can't always get the makings in small sizes, and many blends call for tiny bits of many things, so you end up with a huge pile of variously perishable stuff. And I don't see any particular freshness or quality boost to keeping the exact same spices and herbs, in the exact same drawers, only, you know, in separate jars, the way the Victorians (never actually, it's a myth) kept books by unmarried persons of the opposite sex apart.

If I made my own curry powder I'd have one large container of one kind of curry. Currently I instead have maharajah, sweet, vindaloo, rogan josh, three garam marsalas, and madras. Sometimes I mix them. Often I add more cumin, or coriander, or something.

Also, when I was on a severely limited budget and trying to rebuild my kitchen from scratch, I budgeted, once the absolute basics were in, for one spice jar per shopping trip. I bought a LOT of seasoning mixes, because I wanted a reasonable range of options and I wanted them fast.

4) Education and adventurousness.

If you like Mexican food and think you'd probably enjoy making it, you could go find a specialty store and stock up on the required herbs and seasonings and peppers and buy a recipe book and teach yourself how to spice everything ... Or you could pick up a decent chili powder and some adobo and some chile verde in a jar and start playing around. It's cheaper. It's simpler and less intimidating, and assuming your spicemonger stocks decent quality stuff, the proportions will be right. If and when you want to start doing your own blending, you'll have a base to start from of knowing roughly how things are meant to smell and taste. It's handy, and it's terribly reassuring.

I have a chili seasoning (okay, three), a taco seasoning, adobo seasoning, a chipotle-based seasoning, currently two salsas and five hot sauces. With those plus some basic all-round stuff like cumin and cinnamon and oregano, I can do a ridiculous number of really tasty things. Now, they do all contain mostly the same stuff, but only mostly, and in different proportions.

We do enough stuff with Mexican-style flavouring that I also have epazote and mexican oregano, but you can get by without those for a very long time. I bought them when I'd gotten good enough at the basic style to realize I wanted them.

The Tsardust was a total shot in the dark, as were the Adobo, the Old World, the Ozark seasoning, Mitchell Street steak seasoning, Krakow nights ... I smelled them and went "hey, I want to play with that" and bought a small jar. Some of the small jars I've bought have languished, but most have gotten used up and many of them have gotten refilled. A few of them have been refilled with my own version. Lots of them get used (Tsardust, Ozark, Krakow) for things they weren't originally intended for, and that's just fine too.

Seasoning mixes, in short, helped me learn to cook and continue to make me a better cook.

And then there's the one downside

Quality can be a huge concern, especially if you're largely limited to grocery-store mixes. A lot of the inexpensive ones are mostly salt and sugar, or at least contain far too much of both. Some of them have MSG. (I use MSG, but lots of people loathe/react to it).

I love Penzeys, obviously, but they're only in the US and while they will ship internationally, it's a faff.

There is no perfect solution to this. Mostly, it's a matter of reading the labels, looking for better groceries or actual spice stores and going there or ordering online if you can, buying the best you can find and afford, taking your time eking the money out and buying one or two things at a time, and remembering that if your seasoning tastes good to you, it's good, even if it's generic storebrand (in Canada, President's Choice is actually very good in general). If you and the people you feed are happy, you have done well. (Unless there's a specific reason why you have to avoid an ingredient to feel or be well).

Some non-US online (I can't begin to hunt for local options for everywhere, but this is a start, at least) options I've found:

Canada:
Spice Blends at Silk Road

Also Herbies (mentioned below) has a Canadian site.

I need to try these, when the current glut - you guys we have two drawers, a breadbox, and a little spice storage unit on the table and they're all FULL, I may have a small problem - runs out.

UK:
Spice Blends at Seasoned Pioneers (Ships to EU)

Australia:
Spice Blends at Herbies

ETA: more awesome suggestions in the comments.
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