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The Sweet Sixteen of the Holy Spice Rack

by Chef Scotty Wagoner
Monday Apr 30, 2012

Everyone likes a great rack, even that cluttered cabinet we're talking about next to the fridge. Cooking implies the process or median of heat used to transform food into something of a meal. That doesn't mean we just throw a crown pork roast in the oven and expect it to marvel our mouths-no- we dress that little piggy up with spices and herbs from said great rack.

The difference between those two being, that herbs are the fresh or dried aromatic plant leaves while pungent spices are from the flowering offspring, the berries or seeds. It is the essential oils within each elemental spice and herb that deliver flavor, so I implore that you regularly purge your rack of outdated spice relics (don't get over zealous, this does not include the bf!) The exception being Dill, Tarragon, Mint, Basil and Cilantro, which should ONLY be fresh-so go ahead and chuck those containers as well.

The following 16 spices and spice blends are my culinary weapons of choice, but please take notice the other notable spices and dried herbs worthy of any chef's pantry that I have highlighted in bold.

1. Kosher salt
It's inexpensive and readily available in every market. Salt draws maximum flavor out of every other spice. It makes mild tastes pop in your mouth and as one of my plump master chefs would say "often the difference between good and greatness is in a pinch of salt!"

2. Black pepper
I buy tellicherry pepper for my grinder and every- day usage in soups, meats and salads pink pepper- corn for flare and white peppercorn for my light colored sauces. Typical cooking proportions are 1?2 pepper to 1 salt . . . but who's looking? Dash and dance to your own beat!

3. Cayenne Pepper
Now Chef Scotty loves him some smoky Hungarian paprika-but cayenne delivers the clean heat that I truly adore! A dash into everything from a cup of Joe to a bowl of ice cream, this chile is the easiest way to enhance flavors while burning off a few extra pounds, as the enzyme capsaicin actually elevates your metabolism.

Coriander is not interchangeable with cilantro, al- though they are from the same plant. This lemony, slightly sagey seed is traditional in pastries and dishes with South American, Indian and Mediterranean origins. Its stronger estranged brother cardamom is more eucalyptine yet less universal.

5. Cumin Seed
Fundamental to many ethnic cuisines and a best friend to the barbecue, I can't imagine cooking without it. Very similar in color, size and flavor to the caraway seed, this little sucker packs a smoky pungent punch. Think "fusion friendly" like in a grilled peach and hearts of palm salsa!

6. Cinnamon
Not just for sweets, where it is an indispensable companion to baking, but also for savory dishes like meatloaf, tagines and stews. Your typical Saigon variety being the savory dust of choice though it's sweeter sister, canela, is explicitly the best cinnamon for all of your pastry works!

7. Fennel Seed
Mostly unknown to our American cuisine, fennel delivers more of that tarragon-like, liquorice aroma. A natural with pork and poultry, this spice loves to get jiggy wit' sherry and garlic. If this sounds too foreign to your palette then stick with the Betty Crocker classic-bay leaf.

8. Allspice
Truly the "all" of exotic spice, this pea-sized berry replaces the intoxifying nutmeg and clove with a bit more complexity. The backbone for such blends as Jamaican jerk rub and Garam Masala, implicate its potential with savory applications in everything from soups to sauces.

9. Saffron
Unique to its own, this is the pistil of a poppy (don't get too excited!) and is the priciest of all spices. Be warned that safflower looks similar but won't carry any of the floral effect or the price tag. Quality saffron and vanilla beans are available through:

10. Arrowroot
Surprised? I thought so. A thickener that doesn't turn your sauces cloudy, arrowroot substitutes cornstarch in my kitchen. Neither herb nor spice, but a small jar sits on my spice rack at all times, ready to add a bit of oomph to stir-fries and stews without the lumpy hassle.

11. Blackening Mix/Cajun Blend
Old Bay Seasoning is a softer stand-by, while Paul Prudhomme and Emeril claim title to all that is New Orleans Cajun flavors, I prefer the Zatarains brand for the proper heat and charcoaling effect. Be sure to use a seasoned iron skillet and one of these blends the next time a catfish lands in your grocery cart!

12. Madras Curry Powder
A blend - okay, it's a convenience food that comes in sweet or hot varieties. Because curry powder can contain more than a dozen spices, the pre-mixed powder available at most grocery stores will save lots of space on your rack. About the only good use of turmeric in my kitchen!

13. Italian Herb Seasoning
A classic orgy of dried spices that typically include the likes of thyme, rosemary, marjoram, oregano and yes... basil (even though it's rather worthless in dried form). The only comparable fines herbs blend is the ever-practical poultry seasoning.

14. Chili Powder
Same as curry powder, this is a convenient blend that replaces many individual jars on the spice rack. Don't confuse this with ground chile peppers. Chili powder usually contains chile peppers plus cumin, coriander, oregano, and many other spices. A Tex-Mex cowboy staple for shizzles!

15. Chinese 5-Spice
This 5-spices formulae is based on the Chinese philosophy of balancing the yin and yang in food. Star anise is your ever so charming and sexy Adam Levin standout amongst the group and with the proper touch this spice blend/rub delivers a harmonious symphony of a modernized Orient.

16. Garam Masala
Last but definitely not least, this is Chef Scotty's favorite blend of all! This sweet, spicy, sexy blend of deliciousness works on everything from goldfish to the fluffy descendants of Bugs Bunny. Available in specialty Indian markets or be brave, get off your tush and create your own exotic mix!

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