Food for Thought: Spices

Feature photo by tambako

When I want to learn about a subject, I don’t go halfway. My overachieving nerdiness demands an immediate, all-encompassing background knowledge of the topic, from which point I can go into more specific detail on a particular segment. For instance, the book I am currently reading is The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip Hop, because I feel the need to know the history of hip-hop before I’d be fully able to appreciate something like Jay Z’s recent memoir, or even a classic Run DMC record.

So when I wanted to learn about spices, because my cabinet is cluttered with them and I don’t know how to use them outside of specific recipes, I figured I could find the one volume that would help me understand what each is used for and when to use it, in what combinations, which spices not to use together, etc. What I instead found is that there is no one great panacea to my spice problem.

While it is easy enough to find a recommendation to use cumin with meat, especially when trying to achieve Mexican or Indian flavors, no one has been able to tell me what else to combine it with unless I go to a specific recipe. And that, explained Lorraine Grazian of Penzey’s Spices in Oak Park, is exactly what one needs to do to learn about spices.

“I would probably start with a particular culture,” Grazian suggested. “Either start with your favorite [cuisine] or what you’re most interested in and just get a cookbook on that. I know someone that worked here and that’s one of the things that she would do: Once a year she’d decide this year, I’m going to learn everything I need to know about Mexican cooking and get a cookbook or two and go through that book and make the recipes. So aside from taking a class, that’s probably the best way to learn.”

As far as books go, though, Grazian pointed me in the direction of the Food Lover’s Companion, which she and her coworkers use as a resource for questions to which they may not have the answers. An excellent resource that I have encountered in other food-related jobs, Companion is a good starting point but not the end-all, be-all spice resource I was hoping to find. My personal pick, as far as cookbooks are concerned, is Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. Though he—surprisingly—does not go into tremendous detail about spices, he does provide a wonderful how-to on many basics of cooking, including spices and herbs.

The other thing Grazian recommended, which may be a better short-term solution to my problem, is to start by using the blends in my cabinet, to get a general familiarity with herbs and spices and in order to learn what I like and don’t like and to learn what works together.  I’ll call this The Year of Moving Beyond the Italian Blend.