. . And Everything Nice
mama, but tonight Iím cleaning out my (spice) closet
Spring cleaning, in my house, starts in the kitchen. Even
as Iím tossing out crusty old jars of Guldenís and those desiccated
piles of capers that collect in the corner of the fridge,
Iím considering the most formidable of my culinary battlegrounds:
the spice cabinet, which also serves as an extended pantry.
Itís a cabinet not far from the stove (bad idea number one:
storing the spices near heat), with three shelves of herbs
and spices, tea and powders in a mish-mash of old jam jars,
tiny Tupperware caskets and crumpled glassine bags. Theyíre
arranged in something that once was alphabetical order, a
habit Iíd might as well confess to, but that order deteriorates
with each fancy meal.
Consider, first, the herbs and spices. I grew up, as you probably
did, with a spice rack in the kitchen, a rack that boasted
a dozen and a half identical containers cheerfully labeled
and faded with ageóespecially the spices themselves. For years
I thought paprika was a tasteless powder of dull orange, and
didnít see its brilliant redness until I got into the restaurant
Avoid those all-in-one spice kits. Theyíre past their prime
to begin with, and none of your friends will take your cooking
seriously. Your local health food store will have what you
The basic rules for storing the stuff are simple, in theory,
but a nuisance to follow. Your enemies, besides heat, are
light and moisture. Airtight jars are my containers of choice,
and I use clear ones to help me quickly identify whatís within,
then store them in a dark cabinet.
In the best conditions, the shelf life of the dried and ground
stuff is only a year, after which the flavors fade. Which
is why this is a good task to include in spring cleaning,
although the expense of these babies is high enough to encourage
staggering their replacement throughout the year. And itís
better to replace, not replenish.
Whole spices, the stuff you grind yourself, should last you
three to five times longer. Keep a dedicated coffee grinder
on hand for this purpose, and try toasting your whole spices
in a dry skillet before grinding them for even better flavoróitís
a staple technique of Indian cookery.
If you have guests watching, haul out that old mortar and
pestle and persuade them how fanatical you are in pursuit
of gustatory excellence. I particularly enjoy grinding peppercorns
thusly, because itís both impressive and it clears the kitchen.
There are some spices I use so often that I buy them in greater
bulk and store them, against all good advice, out in the open
near the stove. Although I used to rely on those oversized
McCormick containers sold in places like BJís Wholesale Outlet,
the Badia brand is showing up in the Hispanic section of my
local supermarkets, considerably undercutting McCormickís
prices. Badia started as a mom-and-pop operation in Miami
and has grown to become a major spice supplier in Florida
and New York.
The lineup on my open shelf comprises black pepper, both ground
and whole; paprika, adding color body to my barbecue rubs;
chili powder, for when Iím too lazy to mix it myself; cumin,
for when Iím not; a container apiece of basil and oregano,
vital for Mediterranean dishes; and granulated garlic, also
for spice rubs, and a last-minute fix for inadvertent blandness.
And donít forget the fresh bay leaves.
One chef I worked for mixed a meat rub that he kept near the
grill: paprika, salt, pepper, minced garlic, rosemary, basil
and oregano were the core ingredients, and the chop would
be dredged in olive oil and then swiped through the mix just
before hitting the fire.
Youíll want the fines herbes comboóparsley, chervil,
tarragon and chivesófor classic French dishes, omelettes and
such. A slightly more pungent flavor is imparted by the herbes
de Provence, a mixture of rosemary, marjoram, basil, savory
and thyme. But beware of thymeóit takes over. Itís my wifeís
favorite herb, and you can tell from a mile away when sheís
cooking. Even pointing out to her that it was used as part
of the Egyptian embalming formula doesnít dismay her.
I used to work for a nutmeg chef, so called because it was
a spice he worked into many recipes. From him I learned always
to buy the whole nutmeg and shave off portions as needed.
Keep cinnamon on hand, ground and in sticks, and ditto cloves.
Stick a couple of whole cloves in an onion when youíre making
Youíll work up your own repertory as you experiment. The meat-rub
chef also insisted that I focus on the seasonings, one by
one, to get the flavoróalone and in combinationóinto my taste
memory. He deeply regretted the week I chose cloves and everything
came out smelling like a baked ham.
With so much else on hand, itís easy (and healthful) to overlook
salt, but I keep a big box of kosher salt on hand that I decant,
along with ground black pepper, into ramekins that live on
one of my prep tables.
You need cornstarch for thickening sauces and puddings. Arrowroot
is a kind of cousin, also a thickening agent, but, unlike
cornstarch, it doesnít cloud the mixture youíre thickening.
As a big fan of pancakes and waffles, I make sure to keep
baking soda and baking powder on hand (the latter is simply
the former with a little salt and a lot of acid, like cream
of tartar, added).
Oils and vinegars are other essentials that tend to live outside
the cabinet. Good oil, too, will deteriorate over time, so
keep it out of the sunlight. I use different olive oils for
cooking and for dressings, and I keep canola oil on hand for
a more neutral flavor.
Balsamic vinegar isnít really balsamic unless itís gone through
a fancy aging process that involves wood containers; the cheap
stuff is colored wine vinegar with a little sugar thrown in.
Buy accordingly. I run through wine vinegar the most quickly,
but rely on cider vinegar for barbecue sauce. The more-subtle
flavor of rice vinegar is often just what you need for a more
delicate dish. Many fancy infusions are now on the supermarket
Nothing beats fresh lemon juice to liven a sauce, but Iím
caught lemonless often enough to make a point of keeping a
jar of concentrate on hand. Avoid the expensive RealLemon
brand and head (again) for the Hispanic section for a cheaper
bottle of Goya.
And so my cleaning finishes for another year. I didnít replace
the turmeric, because Iím not convinced the stuff ever loses
its pungency; the star anise remains because Iíve never actually
used it. But many of the other jars are cleaned and newly
filled, and thereís a backup box of cornstarch in place. With
a summer ahead of fresh produce to cook, I may actually be
here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.
Japanese Noodle House
(218 Central Ave., Albany) will be offering sushi
classes at the restaurant. The next one takes
place on April 30 from 11:30 AM to 1:30 PM, giving
students the opportunity to make and eat a lunch
thatís as fresh as it gets. Call the restaurant
at 436-7789 for more information. . . . Remember
to pass your scraps to Metroland (e-mail email@example.com).
want your feedback
you eaten at any
recently reviewed restaurants?
Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...
address not required to submit your feedback, but required to
be placed in running for a Van Dyck Gift Certificate.
very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's
at Ogdens. You review described my dining
experience perfectly. This wasn't the case
with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or
Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree
that a restaurant can have an off night
so I'll give the second unit on Central
Avenue a try.
yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back.
Second, I haven't had a chance to visit
Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading
would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant
- it's not that far away. People traveled
from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam.
From his background, I'm sure the chef's
sauce is excellent and that is the most
important aspect of an Italian restaurant.
Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on
the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm
looking forward to trying this restaurant
- I look forward to Metroland every Thursday
especially for the restaurant review. And
by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam
location and is opening a new bistro on
Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running
in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake
Bistro. It should be great!
comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants
being as "standardized as McDonald's"
shows either that you have eaten at only
a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or
that you have some prejudices to work out.
That the physical appearances are not what
you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing
on the food. And after all, that is what
the main focus of the reviews should be.
Not the physical appearances, which is what
most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on
Central Avenue, may not look the greatest,
but the food is excellent there. And the
menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian,
chicken, and more..