Thrifty 2011: spices & condiments with a long shelf life

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…

9 thoughts on “Thrifty 2011: spices & condiments with a long shelf life

  1. My second freezer has pretty much turned into an herb and spice keeper, from ajwain seeds to Sichuan peppercorns. I hate to not have a called-for item, too, and this makes it possible. Gotta say, I’ve had some stuff in there 4-5 years and it’s still good. My test is a burlap sack of herbes de Provence I bought at Fauchon in Paris in 1998. I still use it. I use vacuum bags (Foodsaver) for longer term storage and glass jars for oft-used things, and I keep the freezer 0 or colder.

    • Beware the expiration date at International Market–the place has LOTS of merchandise that doesn’t turn over, so check the dates on packaged items carefully.

  2. I love this post! Hong Kong Market is another great place to get cheap spices, though finding what you’re looking for can sometimes take forever.

  3. My main seasonings are ones we grow during the summer such as thyme, basil, oregano, and a few others. In the winter I rely on my dried herbs from the summer.

    I try to avoid the specialty ingredients unless I can get them in small portions.

    • What counts as “specialty” in your kitchen? An interesting topic, as some things I’d consider special are probably ordinary to others. One thing I never stock: dry mustard powder.

  4. I’m catching up on your blog posts, HC. Some good ones to plow through.

    I also order from Penzey’s. Its home base is in Wisconsin, where I’m from, so we’ve been shopping there for years and years. In addition to their double-strength vanilla, excellent cinnamons, chili powder, and many other things, I always have a bag of their hot chocolate mix in the cupboard–mostly to stir into coffee. It’s the best affordable hot chocolate mix I know. Not too sweet, a little vanilla.

    A few months ago I received an email from Penzey’s management say that they’re scouting locations in New Orleans (!), and specifically a location on Magazine Street near Jackson…what did I think? I wrote back that, while I’m dying for a Penzey’s in my town, I didn’t think that was the best place for a specialty foods store. Wouldn’t it be great if they could find a space closer to the Whole Foods – Vom Foss – Rare triangle?

    • I am THRILLED to hear that Penzey’s is considering a local store. Magazine near Jackson presents the same problem as Magazine near Arabella: congestion. A Penzey’s store will draw customers from throughout the region, so I’d think it would need some parking….maybe in the Riverbend shopping center, in the old drugstore location? It would be accessible to tourists via streetcar, near a cluster of shops & restaurants, and still have off-street parking to accommodate drive-in customers. I have no idea what metrics their business model requires (car volume, demographics, etc), but surely some part of the NOLA metro area can support a Penzey’s! Now if we could just get a Sur La Table, I’d be a happy camper.

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