I’m always on the lookout for herbs, spices, vinegars, & other ingredients to stock my pantry. Sometimes the meal I’m envisioning needs “a little something”, which sends me to the store. Or, just as often, I’m out & about exploring, and my curiosity will be peeked and I’ll pick up something that’s new to me.
As it stands now, my pantry has taken years to develop and evolves continuously. I make regular use of a lot of items, but have just as many that only come out from time to time. I’d like to share some of the less run-of-the-mill staples with you, just in case you’re as curious as I am.
Dabba – my spice keeper from India. Whenever my long-time friend, RMJ, goes to India to visit her family, she offers to bring me something “from home.” Being me, I always ask for something food related, and years ago I asked her for a traditional Indian spice box, a dabba. Its a double lidded metal box that contains 7 small bowls and tiny spoons for your 7 most used spices. My most frequently used spices, kept accessible and fresh in the dabba, are: roasted ground coriander, ground cumin, smoked paprika, whole cumin seeds, whole black mustard seeds, turmeric, and garam masala (a fragrant, flavorful spice blend of coriander, cumin, cardamom, cloves, black pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg). I keep other herbs & spices in a couple of towers of interlocking lidded plastic containers.
Miso Paste – a staple in Japanese cooking, I picked up miso the first time to try my hand at homemade miso soup. The white miso (labeled “sweet”) seemed a safe starting point and after making myself a warm bowl, with soft tofu and seaweed, I knew I was hooked. The top of the miso package has an easy recipe for a miso-Dijon dressing, and that inspired me to start putting miso in salad dressings for its salty, rich, umami essence. Red miso, a recent addition to the pantry, is much saltier, more robust and bold, and even seems to have a hint (on my tongue, at least) of heat. It does really well as the base for red wine vinegar dressings, as well as being able to underpin bigger, bolder flavors without being overwhelmed.
Nutritional Yeast – A great article on the history of “nooch” https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2018/12/28/675280193/how-a-little-science-and-a-lot-of-shady-advertising-boosted-yeasts-popularity
Preserved Lemons – I use lemons all the time; I’m more than a bit of an addict of sour, bright, sunshiney-citrus. Every so often, I’d have the chance to enjoy North African cuisines that had something citrusy, but deeper, in them, and my curiosity was piqued. Rather than buy preserved lemons, I decided to make them (cutting the lemons into quarters, layering them in the canning jar with sea salt, lemon juice, & whole black peppercorns) and then experiment with the possibilities. I waited 8 months, with the jar untouched in the back of the fridge, before digging in. Now, I regularly have a jar ready to go, and I use the lemons (rinsed) to impart a deeper lemony flavor, umami, and a floral-pepper note to soups, dressings, stews, and sauces.
Sumac – The ground berries from a Middle Eastern bush produce a deep red, tangy lemony-tasting powder with a flavor that is less tart than lemon juice. I love its rich, vibrant red color and the subtle, citrusy flavor is a great way to brighten up a dressing, soup, or pilaf in place of vinegar or lemon juice. I find it at my international market but its also available online.
Za’atar – I first discovered this woodsy, lemony herb blend on a trip to Baiz Market Place in Phoenix for exploratory shopping and a delicious lunch. The blend of thyme leaves, oregano leaves, sesame seeds, salt, and sumac provides a herby, tart, savory flavor to a wide range of meals in my kitchen: from sprinkling on eggs, to flavoring pan-wilted chard, into salad dressings, and onto roasted veggies, I use Za’atar all the time.