Essential Herbs and Spices

Many cookbooks include a laundry list of essential pantry items, cooking tools, and so on. In my experience most are fine, though they tend to be overly inclusive. For many cooks the process of stocking a kitchen full of pots, pans and tools encompasses several or many years. Pantry and spice drawer selections and priorities are definitely the result of several years of trial, error and experience.

So what advice to give a new, enthusiastic cook who is starting from scratch? In these posts I'll share my preferences and recommendations for provisioning a new kitchen. I break it down to three major categories:
  • Herbs and Spices
  • Pots, Pans and Tools
  • Pantry and Crisper
Later, for more intermediate and advanced provisioning, we'll cover exotic staples (for example walnut oil, crystallized ginger) and specialty pans and cooking tools (e.g., crepe pans, olive pitters, the chinois) and specialty ingredients. Before we get to the items themselves, you'll also want to consider what is already on your shelves and in your drawers. If you have herbs and spices that are more than a year old - throw them out. If you already have some of the pots, pans or tools that I list, but they are many years old, inexpensive or worn out - keep them for now, but make plans to replace them in time. In each section I'll provide a rationale and recommendations on how to select high quality provisions and tools.


I. Everyday Necessities

  • Thyme*
  • Rosemary*
  • Dill
  • Oregano
  • Cumin
  • Basil***
  • Bay Leaf
  • Tarragon
  • Herbs de Provence
  • Chili Powder
  • Cinnamon
  • Nutmeg
  • Paprika
  • Sesame Seed
  • Cayenne Pepper
  • Whole Black Peppercorns
  • Red Pepper Flakes
  • Kosher Salt
  • Sea Salt

II. Other common herbs & spices

  • Sage
  • Coriander Seed (whole)
  • Fennel Seed
  • Marjoram
  • Curry Powder
  • Chinese 5 Spice Powder
  • Turmeric
  • Black Sesame Seed
  • Saffron
  • Mustard Seed
  • Allspice (whole and ground)

The strategy for buying herbs and spices is to find a high quality brand and buy in relatively small quantities. For the past few years I've liked the Morton and Bassett brand, but also have had positive results with Frontier. Spice Island is widely distributed and is a good second tier choice, but not if the others are available. I avoid truly mass-market brands like McCormack's, as it is generally believed that their products are often years old when on supermarket shelves.

In an earlier time and a more cosmopolitan place, I used to buy all my herbs and spices in bulk at gourmet or other specialty stores. I bought a couple dozen glass jars and hand wrote an initial or two indicating the spice on plastic screw top lids. This is a very cost efficient method, but there are few of these stores left. You might find some items in the bulk section of high end groceries, but you'll have to judge quality and freshness carefully.

The asterisk * indicates that it is nearly always better to use fresh versions of these herbs rather than dried. Though most recipes don't call for fresh herbs, they will be improved by using fresh. A general rule of thumb is to use 2 to 3 times by volume of fresh than dried. Exceptions would be sage and maybe oregano - but there herbs are not in the asterisked category of "definitely" substitute.

Basil *** is a special case. Fresh basil is one of the most fundamental herbs used in cuisines from Italian to Asian. It stands well nearly alone (slices of fresh mozzarella, tomato and olive oil), as a seasoning (in tomato sauce or pesto), or as an edible garnish or finishing flavor (strips tossed over past or meats). However, dried and fresh basil are not always interchangeable. Generally if a recipe calls for fresh basil, you are going to need fresh basil. If it calls for dried, you can substitute, though it isn't always recommended. In my herbed feta cheese dip, I would never use fresh basil, nor would i use it in the sauce for osso buco. Most of the time you can use fresh in place of dried. But I also don't particularly care for dried basil - to me it's a bit of a red flag indicating a questionable recipe, especially if it is one of the predominant seasonings.

A couple other notes:
  • Herbs de Provence can be assembled by mixing basil, rosemary, oregano and a few other herbs; already mixed versions tend to include lavender seeds and other minor amounts of ingredients I tend not to keep on hand. Plus, if it's a good mix the proportions will be the same in every bottle, which may not be true of home made.
  • Curry is awesome if made from scratch, and will have a pretty long shelf life. However, it also requires a number of unusual products that won't be used too often - I'm thinking of a jar of cardamom pods that has been barely tapped into. So I recommend, making your own curry sometime, but not as a primary way of keeping it in your spice drawer. Oh - also - some brands of curry powder are simply awful. Find one you like and stick with it.
  • Kosher salt can be used for nearly everything but baking. I find it more flavorful, easier to control saltiness, and overall improvement over table salt. A basic sea salt has some of these same characteristics, only more so. But cannot be substituted as easily as Kosher can be for table salt. Specialty sea salts - well, that's as much a budget consideration as a flavor one to me - but I've not plunged into many varieties.
  • Bay leaf grows will as a potted plant or outdoor tree. Fresh bay flavor is generally a little stronger, but can be used interchangeably with dried.
III. Your Herb Garden

Having read the prior comments on fresh herbs, here are my recommendations for an herb garden. All of these are easy to grow, several are perennial in the south, and sometimes even the north. I'd like to grow even more, but this selection already goes a long way and only required twice a year maintenance. A good sunny plot is all you need, very little water, definitely less than what lawn gets. Some, like thyme and oregano can be used as decorative ground cover, and I"ve seen them used in front yards I've grown plants from seed, but tend to just buy a couple pots of what needs replenishing in the spring to get a faster start. They tend to run only about $2 per pot anyway - less than the cost of one package of fresh herbs in the grocery.
  • Thyme - my favorite fresh herb
  • Oregano - not called for fresh in many recipes, but a wonderful flavor that differs substantially from dried. Will take over garden over time, so needs annual thinning (but not as aggressive as mint)
  • Sage - fuzzy leaves in an aqua/green shade. Also would like more recipes that use fresh sage
  • Basil - the backbone of the summer herb garden. Volunteers from prior year will be hardier than new plants.
  • Lavender - I grow it but have not used it for cooking that I can recall. Makes a nice addition to the garden, thought.
  • Chives - in garden and in pots. Would like to get these plants to be more prolific, as I seem to cut about 1/3 of my plant to get 2-3 T. Garlic chives and scallions are sometimes sold as plain chive. You'll want the delicate thin stalks for sure. The other varieties are useful, but do not have the delicate flavor of the classic chive.
  • Rosemary - after reaching maturity (thick, woody central stalk) will need to be thinned every couple yearsMint - in pots, since it will take over a garden in a matter of a 3-4 months. Many, many varieties and flavors.
  • Parsley - in large pots to grow full plants. Need to protect them from caterpillars, which can eat an entire mature plant in a day and a half. Grow both flat leaf and curly.
  • Cilanto - dried cilantro is not ever a reasonable substitute for fresh. Fortunately this is usually inexpensive and plentiful in the grocery store. In fact, Cilantro is a core herb in cuisines from Europe and the Middle East to Asia.
Cilantro and parsley do require daily watering in the south - so we grow them in pots and water them along with our flowers.

Shrimp, Tuna, Zucchini and Porcini Pasta

We turned the corner late last week and returned to beautiful temperate southern weather - more than sufficient for comfortable evening grilling. I enjoyed spending time Saturday with my buddy Paul, a single dad who is embarking on learning how to cook. A future post will cover some of that discussion, where we reviewed basic pantry needs and kitchen equipment.

We reviewed a number of recipes from How to Cook Everything, since it includes so many good foundation recipes. You know, "basic tomato sauce", "the basics of cooking fish", and so on. A recipe for orrechiette with porcini caught my eye, and I dragged out a large container of dried porcini to show Paul. Another recipe we discussed was the spiced crust for grilled tuna that I stumbled across last summer.

All this lead to the following menu for Sunday:
  • Spice crusted grilled tuna, Bon Appetit, August 2005
  • Shrimp with rosemary garlic butter, Cuisine Rapide
  • Grilled zucchini and nectarines, no recipe
  • Orrechiette with porcini and garlic, How to Cook Everything, pp.
The spice mix for tuna was part of an attempt by Bon Appetit to create a near one-dish meal that includes couscous and sauteed vegetables. It also included a simplistic aioli. From that mish mash only the tuna seasoning stood out. The recipe called for 2 1/2 pounds of tuna steak, but a large quantity of spices is needed for that much tuna. So for about 1 1/2 pounds of tuna, brush olive oil on the steaks, and coat with a spice mixture composed of 2 t fennel, 1 t whole coriander, 1 t black peppercorns - lightly toasted then ground. Add 1 1/2 t of kosher salt to complete the rub.

The shrimp and sauce is a very solid recipe from Cuisine Rapide - THE GREATEST COOKBOOK EVER WRITTEN. Coat shrimp in olive oil, put on skewers and grill for 2-4 minutes. The sauce was approx 2 T butter, 2 T white wine, 1 T finely chopped rosemary, S&P - combine all and bring to boil. Take off heat and add 1 T chopped chives.

This sauce was used last night by Amy to dip her broccoli. Mmmmmm.

Zucchini were brushed with oil, S&P and grilled just until marks appears, about 2-4 minutes. Simultaneously a halved, pitted nectarine was brushed with oil and grilled. Each were chopped into large pieces, about 1" and tossed together. What it needed was a little more kick - maybe a little cayenne would have done the trick. If not, then cayenne, garlic and fresh thyme ought to work.

The last dish was based on the HTCE recipe for porcini pasta. However, in substituting reconstituted dried porcini for fresh (which are exceedingly hard to find), that recipe wouldn't t have had sufficient flavor. So I added garlic and shallots to the sauteed porcini. The sauce was completed by simply adding pasta cooking water and the porcini soakcing water to the hot pasta and vegetables, topped with a generous handful of chopped parsley.

Cold Weekend - Chili Day

Day two of the cold weekend was dedicated to football and chili - after golf of course. 29 degrees in the morning and the first frost delay I can remember in Houston. So late afternoon chili was quite appealing.
  • Chili a la Franey, Cuisine Rapide
  • Green Chipotle Turkey Chili, Gourmet Cookbook
Also served leftover jicama and cucumbers, veggies and marinated tomatoes (see previous post).

The first chili is a long time staple from Cuisine Rapide (CR - the GREATEST COOKBOOK EVER PUBLISHED). It's not remarkable, and that's it's strong point. It's resplendent in fresh vegetables and flavor, has great balance and a nice little spicy kick. I substitute cayenne for red pepper flakes, but otherwise make this as written. Also the mix of 50/50 ground pork and ground beef seems to smooth the meat flavors and textures just a bit.

The Chipotle Turkey chili is a keeper. The body of the dish is four pounds of ground and chopped turkey, onion, garlic, green pepper and turkey stocks (I had rich homemade turkey stock still available). Key ingredients were two chipotles that were blended in a cup of water, allowing the chipotle flavor to be distributed into every bite evenly, via tiny flecks of pepper. Over a pound of tomatillos were blanched then blended - making up the majority of vegetable in the dish.

The chili was "thickened" with a tablespoon of corn meal. I wouldn't recommend that approach, and will revert to a cornstarch mixture, as in my regular white chili recipe. The only complaint about this dish is that it needed to be thickened more.

Both chilis were served with small pasta for 'chili-mac', sour cream and lime wedges.

Pizza Night

Unseasonably cold in Houston for the longish MLK holiday weekend. So we decided on Saturday Pizza Night with the kids, and two pots of chili on Sunday in order to have leftover for lunches during the week. That plan morphed into inviting family friends over late Sunday afternoon to watch the football games. None of which changed the menu, but I did replenish the excellent grape tomato dish.

Pizza Night
  • Jicama and Cucumber with chili and lime, Gourmet Cookbook
  • Marinated Grape Tomatoes, Gourmet Cookbook
  • Veggies & Dip for kids
  • Seasoned Pizza dough from Cooks Illustrated (garlic, pepper, herbs de Provence)
  • Toppings: pepperoni, crumbled bacon, ground pork, potato, garlic chicken, Sichuan flavored pork, chopped rosemary, tomato mushroom quick sauce, mozzarella, asiago, gruyere
The marinated tomato recipe required peeling grape tomatoes. At first I had no inclination for this tedious task, but looked out the window at the raw sky, back toward the family room at golf coverage from Palm Springs, and decided to pull up a stool and peel tomatoes (after a 3-4 second plunge in boiling water, then to an ice bath of course). A pint of tomatoes were tossed with 1-2 T vodka, 1 t rice wine vinegar, 2 T sugar, a little salt and the grated zest of a lemon. Marinate for at least 30 minutes. Doesn't keep well overnight - but if attempting, drain the marinate before storing.

As it turns out, the peeling step is the secret to this dish. The outer surface of the peeled tomato soaked up the marinade, which is sublime. Would also make a stellar garnish for martinis or bloody mary's, but the short shelf life makes this a special occasion treatment.

Pizzas made:
  • Alex & Amy: Meat lovers with pepperoni, bacon and pork
  • Potato, bacon and rosemary - thin slices, a little Asiago cheese sprinkled on top, S&P
  • Mulch Pizza: Sichuan pork (Chinese hamburger mixture), light mozzarella base, light sprinkle asiago
The Chinese hamburger pizza arose out of a post-sleepover breakfast discussion among Nora and another Girl Scout, who were extolling the edible virtues of Girl Scout cookies in favor of the mulch sold by Boy Scouts. On the spot I pictured "Mulch Pizza" with a topping of ya cai (pickled mustard greens), ground pork, onion, garlic, Sichuan pepper oil, black vinegar, Zioa Zing rice wine and lots of dark soy sauce - to create a tasty, but dark and crumbly topping.

Mulch pizza was good, but the pizza of potato slices with bacon and rosemary was the clear cut winner.

Paul's Italian Pink Sauce and Salmon

1 pound Sockeye salmon filet
1 pound fettucine (preferably high quality brand such as Rao's)
1 pound asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1" or 2" pieces
2 large shallts, sliced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2/3 C crushed tomato
1/2 t tarragon
1/2 t crushed red pepper flakes
1 C cream
1/4 lb gorgonzola or other blue cheese, crumbled
1/2 C grated parmesan

1. Saute salmon in skillet in 1/2 T olive oil. Press filets with spatula for 1 minute, cook one minute and set aside. Preheat oven to 450 deg.
2. Par boil asparagus in 1/4" of water in skillet 2 min max, less if using thin asparagus. Remove to plate, shock in ice water if asparagus is very close to finished.
3. Cook pasta and reserve, keeping warm (e.g. towel over colander).
4. Saute shallots and garlic in 1 T olive oil. Add tarragon, pepper flakes, tomato puree and S&P and bring to boil. Simmer 5 minutes.
5. Add cream, bring to boil, add gorgonzola and 1/4 C parmesan until cheeses are incorporated and sauce is thickened. Add more tomato if you'd like a "pinker" sauce. Add asparagus.
6. Transfer salmon to oven for 4 minutes.
7. Toss pasta and sauce.

Serve pasta topped with a salmon filet. Pass additional cheese.

OK - this recipe sounds like a coronary in the making. However, it's so rich that a small portion will do. If one person eats 1/2 or 1/3 of this recipe, then the waistline and cardiac police deserve to make a house call. But a little restraint, and a serving of about 1/6 or so of this should be ample and satisfying.

Busy Saturday Cooking

A perfect day in Houston this Saturday, but only a little time spent outside. Indoor chores and an unusual mix of cooking ensued.

M. was planning to take Sichuan Hotpot to a girls night out. So I prepped lamb, squid, shrimp, potato, bean sprouts (unusual for this, but included in my Sichuan cookbook), tofu, mushrooms and a couple dipping sauces. Wimpy sauce: soy, xaioxing rice wine, sesame oil. Sichuan sauce same as wimpy plus plenty of sichuan peppercorn oil.

My good friend Paul had a couple teenagers over at his house and wanted to cook some wings. He asked if I would work up the seasoning for African Wings, which I was glad to do. His son Daniel told Paul he wasnt' hungry, but once the smell wafted through the house, son and friends were eagerly awaiting the wings and devoured them in no time. Quite cool.

Paul also was planning to come over for dinner and watch the Patriots/Jaguars game. He told me he and Daniel like salmon with pink sauce (tomato cream) like they used to get in NY and NJ, so I planned to adapt a Cuisine Rapine standard, substituting salmon for chicken. Recipes follow in next post.

Burgers and Chicken for an Unseasonably Warm Weekend

Got a bit to say about two dinners over an unseasonably warm weekend. Great golf, a long bike ride with Amy and lots of good family time (despite a late Saturday night dinner after church - 5:30 service is too late if dinner starts at 7pm). Serious winners on Saturday night, disappointing losers on Sunday, about which I should have known better. Real soon, I'll put up a more detailed analysis of "quick cooking" recipes and why they should be ignored at all costs.

Saturday Burger Night
  • Chermoula Lamb Burgers in Pita with Tapenade, Gourmet, August 2007
  • Regular Burgers for Kids
  • Tomato, Caper and Roasted Pepper Salad, Gourmet, August 2007

Sunday Chicken and Veggies

  • Tomato and Herb Stuffed Chicken Cutlets, Gourmet, August 2007
  • "Chinese Hamburger" Stuffed Chicken Cutlets
  • Crudites
  • Balsamic White Bean Dip, BonAppetit, January 2008
  • Creamy Herb Dip, ???

First the good news. Cermoula is awesome. Gourmet's first issue published under the leadership of Ruth
Reichl in the late summer of 1999 included Chermoula Lamb Chops. This dish, among others in that issue, was absolutely over the top. We served them for our final "The Mulligan" couples golf tournament in the one year we lived on Haddassah Drive in the house that backed up to the farm. Fond memory. I've made it again several times, despite the expense of obtaining a large number of Frenched lamb chops. Well worth it.

This use of
Cermoula was very good. It's not on par with the serious killer coating on lamb chops, but it was solid and easy to prepare. Lots of cilantro, a few ground spices and that magic ingredient - ground coriander. Though the coriander should be ground from seeds, it seems to be an ingredient in some of the best dishes I've had in the last few years. The Chermoula might be transferable to beef, but it seems like we can get ground lamb pretty easily now, so I wouldn't bother.

Using pita instead of other rolls was a bit wan. A grilled burger deserves a slightly bigger bread payoff. I don't want much, but a little more than pita. For
tapenade I used a regionally available Muffaletta olive dressing - Boscoli Family Italian Olive Salad, Kenner, LA. It was a nice addition, but should be used sparingly - the Chermoula can stand on it's own.

From the quick cook section of Gourmet I made a tomato and pepper salad. Thus begins the first of many diatribes you'll see in this blog concerning quick cooking. I'll save the full measure of my frustration about these recipes for a dedicate post on the subject. In a nutshell, these "cook quick" recipes often seem appealing upon scanning the ingredient list. Then your enthusiasm is piqued when you see how the preparation is simplified.

For most cooks, the preparation will take longer than the recipe calls for. As a very experienced, fast, organized cook, I'd bet I still don't make the complete recipes in the 10 minutes or whatever short time is specific. I can to
RR's recipes in 30 minutes, but they tend not always) to suffer the problems of the rest.

Tom's Maxim for Quick Cooking Recipes: invest a small amount of time and without fail, you'll get a small payoff.

Since you put each ingredient into the bowl, pot, pan or on the plate, you know you combined some good stuff. But usually these recipes end up with one dimensional taste or simple alternating flavors. That is to say, there has not been enough time for flavors to meld, or the simplistic recipe design has been pared down so much that there are no flavors to meld. You'll taste some of each ingredient / flavor, but not the unique fusion created by more ingredients, better combinations of ingredients or more time consuming techniques.

OK - for the salad. Instead of flame roasting whole bell pepper, the recipe called for grilling the pepper in slices. This is a faster technique because you can get all the exterior pepper surfaces on the heat at once. If you char the skins to black, bag them and peel; if not, you can serve with skins. Nice win. I was feeling good about this recipe. While peppers grill, seed and chop a pound of Roma tomatoes (I can do this in 2-3 minutes, but most people take 5-8). Still feeling good. Toss peppers (chopped) and tomatoes with a couple tablespoons of capers (too many), 2 T olive oil, 1 T red wine vinegar plus S&P. Well - we just lost the battle. These proportions are terrible. Far too much
vinaigrette for the volume of tomato/pepper. Red wine vinegar is generally to crude on it's own - it needs herbs, maybe onion and a good ratio to oil to be a winner.

On Sunday I decided to treat the kids to veggies and dip as their main vegetable instead of any kind of regular veggie. The balsamic bean dip from BA suffered as described above. No depth whatsoever, despite great balsamic, high
quality cannelini, very good olive oil. It was really just brown mush, mild flavor. Kids might have liked it more if it didn't look so....light brown. Herb dip better - cilantro, parsley, scallion.....a few other things (???) in sour cream and yogurt. Needed 24 hours to sit for better flavors to develop (though not specified in recipe). All kids liked it,
not a lot, except for Amy, of course.

The chicken cutlets were a total loss. Again quick cook. Again, poor flavor development, poor balance of flavor (not to mention poor basic ingredient proportions). Technique would be intimidating and time consuming to casual cooks. Chicken breast pounded to 1/4" - easy for a seasoned cook, but also easy for a novice to over pound and create tears, or spend a lot of time trying to get cutlets just so. Garlic was mashed to a paste (takes some people a lot of time to do this, right M?), mix with 1T anchovy paste, 3T parsley, S&P (a little olive oil? maybe - but I don't care '
cause this one's not getting made again). Spread on cutlet, add a Roma tomato slice, fold cutlet in half and saute. No sauce (not quick), poor flavors, very easy to over cook the tomato slice in order to cook chicken through.

Knowing kids wouldn't touch the parsley, garlic, tomato chicken, (except Amy) I took some left over Chinese Hamburger (
ooops - just went to grab the link to my post about Chinese Hamburger. There is no post for Chinese Hamburger. Well, that will have to be addressed. See how important this blog thing is). Spread a couple T of Chinese hamburger in cutlets and sautee. Wish that was dinner for all of us.

So there you have it. Did I mention that you should avoid the quick cook recipes in Gourmet. And nothing ever from Food and Wine,
Bon Appetit, not even the regular recipes - most of which have the same characteristics.

I was thinking of testing Gourmet quick cooks recipes every month an blogging about them here. But I think the success rate of finding good recipes will be around 10%. I don't want to eat that much average food. Instead, I'll continue down the path of writing about our everyday fare,
and maybe throw in a special project - like cooking anything from Cuisine Rapide (the greatest cookbook ever written) that I've never made before. Stay tuned.

New Years Day Sausage and Shrimp Gumbo

The first gumbo I made was likely from the old New York Times cookbook, or the Shrimp and Crab recipe from Cuisine Rapide. No question, the CR recipe is solid, and I've made it many, many times. However, it would never be mistaken for an authentic gumbo. It cheats on the roux, has too much tomato, and is far too fancy with it's pound of crab.

Here's my New Years Day 2008 variation: Sausage and Shrimp Gumbo

2 pounds pork and venison sausage, in 1/4" slices
-- alternately, use andouille or other specialy cured soft sausage combination
1/2 lb tasso, cubed
2 cups onion, chopped
1 1/2 cups celery, chopped
1 1/2 cups bell pepper, chopped
6 cloves garlic, chopped
1 pound fresh okra, trimmed and sliced
1 cup crushed tomato
6 cups stock - (from shrimp shells, celery, onion, peppercorn, bay leaf; or other stock).
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon cayenne
3 tablespoons Worchestershire
2  pounds shrimp
1 lemon, sliced thin

  1. Saute sausage in small amount of olive oil, in a dutch oven, until most of the slices are browned. Expect a frond to develop on bottom of pan. Remove sausage. Brown tasso and remove. Tasso substitue: pork shoulder.
  2. Add vegetables except okra. Saute 5 minutes. Add okra and cook for 5 minutes.
  3. Add stock, spices and reserved meats. Bring to boil. Reduce to simmer.
  4. Add shrimp and lemon. Simmer 10-15 min.
  5. If needed, mix 1.5 tablespoons cornstarch with water, add to gumbo to thicken. Remove lemons. Adjust.
Serve over rice. Toasted sourdough bread sounds appealing, as does a garlic bread - but this gumbo is so filling that bread is overkill and should be omitted.
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