Reader Pistolette wrote in, saying she’s tired of recipes requiring expensive, specialty ingredients…which got me thinking about condiments and seasonings with a long shelf life. I freely admit I’m a spice junkie, with two overflowing shelves, a brimming drawer, and a giant crock of various powders, potions, seeds, and sachets. I like to have “a little bit of everything” on hand, so I don’t have to go hunting for ingredients when I’m struck by inspiration or by a new recipe.
Back to Pistolette’s concern: one-off spices. Rather than focus on limited use flavors, why not stock your kitchen with items that keep for months and months? Such long-life condiments are a better investment if you’re only an occasional user. And while home cooking is the essence of thrift, no one wants to eat the same flavors week after week. Spend your hard-earned cash on versatile, distinctive flavors that won’t go south before you find the time to try them again or to find out new recipes using the same flavors.
Here are a few of my favorite, long-keeping items:
- Miso: a tub of miso will stay fresh for almost an entire year. As a fermented product, miso isn’t prone to spoiling if kept under refrigeration. Why would you want it? Well, miso soup is one of the easiest things you could possibly make, using instant dashi granules, a bit of tofu, and whatever vegetables you have one hand. Can’t find miso or instant dashi? A trip to Asian Gourmet Market (3239 Williams Blvd, Kenner, LA; 504.466.0077) and less than $10 will provide enough raw ingredients for dozens and dozens of bowls of miso soup. (When you’re tired of soup, Googling will reveal a plethora of additional miso uses, from fish marinade to salad dressing to steak.)
- Tamarind concentrate: at around $5 for a 4-ounce jar, it may seem pricey, until you realize how easy it is to make pad thai (see recipe) at home. You’ll pay for the jar with the savings from one single skipped thai takeout run. It’s an essential flavor in many Indian, Thai, and Vietnamese dishes, as well as one of the flavors in worcestershire sauce and many Western barbecue sauces.
- Spanish smoked paprika, aka pimenton: forget what you know about tasteless, red powder. Spanish paprika is made from peppers smoke-dried over oak, so it has a rich, full aroma. A few sprinkles can perk up boring potato salad, plain grilled or baked fish or meats, or even steamed or sauteed vegetables. It’s a must for paella, too. Stored in an airtight container in the freezer, it will retain its pungent aroma for months. A small tin costs about $5.
- Herbes de provence: a French (duh!) mixture of dried savory, fennel, marjoram, rosemary, basil, thyme, and lavender. It’s an ideal rub for whole roasted chickens. Small, decorative yet overpriced crocks of herbes de provence are a less thrifty choice than buying it loose, in bulk. Try a pinch in beef stew, chicken soup, or sprinkled on scrambled eggs or chicken salad.
I’m a fan of buying locally, but the metro New Orleans area lacks a good, comprehensive spice store. (Hmm, business niche, anyone interested?) Supermarket spices (even at better stores) tend to be old, tired, and overpriced, so I like to order from Penzey’s, the Spice House, or Kaluystan’s. Most online spice merchants sell spices with and without jars, so you can skip the packaging and get more spice for your money.
If the expensive ingredients we’re talking about are fresh herbs, then it’s time to stop buying them: you should grow your own. Basil, rosemary, parsley, thyme, oregano, mint, bay, cilantro: all grow well in Louisiana, and packets of seed are quite cheap. More on herb gardening later as the weather warms up…