This page will outline what I need in my kitchen. I am interested in what you need in yours too, so feel free to send me feedback and new ideas. I'm all about growing ideas in the garden of my mind
Basil- fresh basil is one of the great gifts of the earth to our plates. Torn over a plate of pasta, basil adds a fragrance that transforms the flavor of your already incredible pasta and sauce. Additionally, it is one of the trio of ingredients for any decent caprese salad (sweet, ripe tomatoes, great slices of mozzarella, and fresh basil leaves, layered and drizzed with olive oil and a little sea salt).
Mint- both spearmint and peppermint are charming herbs to bring a brightness to whatever you're cooking. If you can't use it all up in a couscous, it isn't hard to find a use for it. I especially love them in Mint Juleps--the quintessential drink of Louisville, the Derby City--for which you can make a fresh mint simple syrup and the top sprigs as garnish. Mint tea helps settle the stomach for an after dinner drink, and also added to iced tea, it makes an even cooler sensation. Mint also works well on citrus salads to bring out the flavors and make them even fresher. The same holds true for berries--frozen blackberries over vanilla ice cream and a mint syrup---please, you cannot get any closer to heaven.
Oregano- not just for your average pizza sauce. Oregano is often used in Mexican dishes (oh my goodness how I love Mexican food) to add a bright, earthy taste to the chili and often bean combinations. Speaking of which, it is always an ingredient in my chili. If you are making up an appetizer, sprinkling some oregano on top, especially if it includes cheese of any kind, it makes a nice presenation and another layer of flavor.
Bay leaf- one or two of these sweeties usually does the trick for any rice, soup, chili, stew, etc. It has all the characteristcs of sweet, earthy, kind of cinnamon-y/ oregano-y, and it permeates the entire dish. You can remove them after you are finished simmering it in whatever delectible concoction for the 3 hour minimum that is usually required. Just make sure your bay leaf (also known as laurel) is not old, it must have its fragrance intact in order to impart its flavor.
Tarragon-I don't currently have this on my spice shelf, which might also explain why I haven't eaten green peas in a while. My mom always put tarragon on our peas and it made those little green explosions all the more enjoyable. It is also a dream over poached eggs, or an easy scramble if you're so inclined.
Parsley- probably the most versitile of the herbs that I use. It also
adds its own characteristic freshness. I go through parsley faster than
any other herb, as it is used as a garnish on nearly everything (flecks
of green are just so attractive on food). As with thyme, any lemon-based
sauce or seasoning will undoubtedly have parsley in it, in my kitchen, as well as meat and fish dishes. This herb comes in two varieties, curly and flat-leaf parsley (often deemed Italian parsley). The curly-leaf is edible, although most people leave it on the plate with it comes as a garnish, but it is a cool texture to play with. Flat leaf parsley is what I use most often for that fresh, green flavor.
can fry this up to make sage chips as a garnish. As for less-fancy use,
I think that using sage in tomato sauce gives it a depth that only
Italian grandmothers are capable of recreating...divulging secrets here.
if you're short on cash and meat isn't on the menu, try out rosemary.
It gives the illusion of meat flavoring, and is actually a wonderful
herb to use with herb butters that you can melt over a warm steak or
stir into some roasted garlic mashed potatoes...okay I have to stop. Rosemary is great.
Thyme- thyme works so well with everything, and is often a great accompanament to lemon based sauces and marinades. I love thyme with roasted potatoes, and also in risottos or other rice dishes I'm cooking up as a compliment to a main dish. Fresh thyme is also pretty adorable as fresh herbs goes, so reserving a sprig of it as a garnish is always a good idea.
Basically with herbs, you should know what they look like (hence the links to pictures), and you should be able to identify them by smell. My sense of smell is what I used to learn how to season food, and I recommend this technique to anyone who is afraid to leave a recipe for a flavor combination. Remember the movie Ratatouille? He had the flavors playing music, creating harmony in his little chef's imagination...do the same thing! I think that is a great illustration of how to begin great kitchen experimentation. Smell, taste, season, smell, taste, season...and on and on until you create something wonderful.
Chimayo Chili powder- this is my all-time favorite spice. I use it on nearly everything. This chili is a native of New Mexico, and brings a symphony of flavors to whatever you sprinkle it on. I always make my guests take a big whiff of this chili before we start cooking. I usually preface it with, "This is the best spice that has ever been or ever will be used" or something that hyperbolic effect. It has depth, a floral quality, and is spicy (however, for those faint of heart, I hear there is a mild version).
Cumin- I love cumin as well. It is spicy, reminds me of homemade chili, enchiladas, all kinds of Mexican food, red beans and rice, Indian snacks and cumin-scented Basmati rice. MmmmmMM! I should have opened this section with "Don't even get me started!". Cumin has a distinct smell, and you can tell the second you get a whiff, in which kind of dish it belongs. You have plenty of options.
Ginger-Fresh ginger is life-changing. Ground ginger is beautiful. Pickled ginger (sushi-grade) could probably poison me if it didn't come in such cute portions next to my wasabi--I have been in pickled ginger fights. Ginger is healthy, it makes you feel great, it helps settle your tummy, and it packs a magnificent punch. Fresh ginger is usually grated and added to Asian dishes (Far-East as well as Southern), and I don't believe any fried rice or sesame chicken marinade should be without a healthy touch of ginger. Ground ginger is featured in gingerbread and winter blend teas, and is often used from the baking approach--however, I have found that it works well in marinades when you're short on the fresh root. It has such a wonderful fragrance as well. I can be assured that something good will be on the table when I smell that spicy-sweetness.
Nutmeg- The word cozy comes to mind when I think of nutmeg. It is actually a derivative of mace, yes the active ingredient in pepper spray, and has many interesting properties aside from burning an attackers eyes out. When the Dutch found it, they discovered its hallucenogenic properties, many right before they overdosed. For its potency, we can make a general rule that a pinch to a teaspoon is the measure you'll need here. Nutmeg is a star in the baking world, but I love what the Northern Italians do with it in their cream sauces and gnocchi...trust me, it is brilliant.
Cinnamon-Oh dear cinnamon. I could write a song about you. I love to use cinnamon as simply as possible...in homeade applesauce, sprinkled on a fruit salad, on cut up bananas and honey, infused in a tea, or just boiling on the stove so my house has the illusion of baking cookies in the imaginary oven. Cinnamon is also a great ingredient in couscous alongside raisins, nuts, veggies, and all the goodies you want to throw in there. It is not only for sweet stuff, so you should try sprinkling it around a bit.
Black Pepper- this spice is as versitile as you can get. It actually sits on the table, waiting for you to use it yourself. The trick with black pepper is to make sure that it is your finishing spice. I generally add my seasonings at the end anyway, but fresh ground black pepper is definitely the last. I believe it was Julia Child who told me that it could spoil if you added it too soon and make everything taste bitter--who wants that?
Paprika and Smoked Paprika (Pimentón)- Paprika is a delightful little spice which adds a sweet chili flavor to food, as well as a nice dash of color. Generally the flavor isn't too pronounced, unless you get pimentón, which is a smoked paprika from Spain, really genius stuff. Pimentón tastes like you're about to have a barbecue with some piquillo peppers, and it smells just as good. I usually use paprika as a balance to cumin. It is great on french fries as well.
Curry- if you can find a good curry, you will find yourself sprinkling it on everything. Curry is not actually a pure spice, but a mixture of many spices. Thus, in theory, every curry should be different. There are red curries, yellow curries, green curries, everything. It is as much a spice as it is a dish. I love curry and chili powder on fried eggs, and making up a big curry at the beginning of the week can really save you some time when you're running around busy as a bee. They vary in spiciness as well, so try out some combos, or make your own if you are up to the challenge.
Chipotle- I have a little canister of chipotle morita flakes courtesy of my mom's Christmas care package, and they are awesome for adding real depth and spiciness that is characteristic of chipotle. A little goes a long way. You can also buy chipotles in adobo and blend that into sauces like mole, which will make you squeal with delight, especially if you are craving Tex-Mex as I often do.
Note: also get to know spices by their smell and appearance. Many spices may also change the color of your food (ie: pimentón, curry). Do not be afraid to experiment. I also like the idea of mixing up spices in a little cup or shot glass on the side and then pinching into your dish(es) from there. Eventually, when you feel comfortable enough, you can make your own "house seasoning", which is so exciting!!!
Sea salt- if you really want to make your food taste amazing all the
time, a simple change from iodized to sea salt will make a notable
difference. Fleur de sel is also an indispensible finishing salt, but
also comes as quite an expense. Fleur de sel is the fine flaking salt at
the top of the salt water as it evaporates. How beautiful it is on a
chocolate truffle or on a citrus salad with olive oil. Anyways, for
normal all-purpose salt, use sea salt! The function of salt is to bring out all of the flavors in a dish. Even if you load up on the herbs and spices, it will taste bland and messy without salt to define the seasonings you so thoughtfully planned. Remember: you can always add more salt, but once you've added too much, you have to throw everything out and start all over again, and that would be a shame.
Sesame Seeds- these little pockets of flavor are great in whatever form. I like to toast them myself and I buy them in black and white, toast the seperately and then combine them. The black and white makes a stunning presentation, whether you mix them in or sprinkle them on top. Sesame seeds give both flavor and texture and it is so much fun to eat a bowl of rice full of sesame seeds, the popping and the warm sesame aroma are irresistible.
Sesame Oil- If sesame seeds themselves are little pockets of flavor, squeeze those suckers of their super concentrated flavor and you get sesame oil. This transforms any stir-fry into a wonderland of deep flavors and connections between all the ingredients that you have thrown in there. Sesame oil is also a nice touch to salads. It takes a surprisingly small amount of this oil to make a difference. My favorite part is the smell. If I am stir-frying away, I splash a bit of sesame oil in the pan and I am whisked away to another land and I am assured that a good meal is ahead.
Olive Oil- My best advice? Buy good olive oil, for it will transform your cooking experience. Buy various oils and use them in different ways. One olive oil might serve better as a sauteing oil, where another olive oil is reserved for dipping and fine salad dressings. Do not limit yourself to whatever is on the supermarket shelves on sale--trust me. I would go with Spanish olive oil above any other, but we all know I'm biased...