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. . . And Everything Nice

Sorry, mama, but tonight Iím cleaning out my (spice) closet

By B.A. Nilsson

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 business.

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 need.

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 stock.

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 shelves.

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 prepared.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Sasoís 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 food@banilsson.com).


We want your feedback

Have you eaten at any recently reviewed restaurants? Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...

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What you're saying...

I 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.

Mary Kurtz
Castleton

First, 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 the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I 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!

Peggy Van Deloo
Schenectady

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore
Albany

Wonderful!

Elaine Snowdon
Albany

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale
Albany

Your 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..

Barry Uznitsky
Guilderland



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