We’re in the homestretch! You have a weekish to make all of your new years resolutions and procure gifts for Great Aunt Susie and That Coworker Who’s Name You Can’t Remember. Have you got it all figured out? Or are you trying to figure out how many
shopping days sick days you can get away with before HR gets mad at you? If you’re heading to the mall but still can’t tell if they’d prefer the ugly holiday sweater with snowflakes or the ugly holiday sweater with tinsel, head to the grocer for a more palatable option.
Fruitcakes are the perennial butt of every Yuletide joke, those Christmas comedians aren’t completely off base. Snowflake Jake, the cheery holiday mascot for Snowflake Day, my favourite non-denominational winter holiday, knows the true meaning of the holiday spirit. And yes, part of that spirit is gifting good girls and boys with spices upon spices. Given that they were hard to come by before people realized that the world was round or that Amazon Prime existed, those little flavour bombs have been held up in high esteem. Sure, you can’t squirrel them away for your dowry anymore, but they’re still plenty useful.
Even though we think of spices as Things Plants Wanted to Do to Make Us Love Them, plants aren’t that generous. Nope, they’re just as selfish as you and me and just wanted to go about their plant lives doing plant things to pay their plant mortgage and have some plant babies along the way. It just so happens that some of those plant things involve trying to protect themselves against predators that want to eat them. But whereas we have cultural taboos and stern letters to keep us off the menu, herbs and spices have chemical warfare. So pepper plants secrete capsaicin in their berries to burn their predators, while mustard plants evolved to have pungent Allyl isothiocyanate-laced seeds to ward off theirs and a bunch of lazy plants did absolutely nothing and that’s why they’re extinct. Thanks to millenia of Plants Trying to Avoid Getting Eaten, you and I finally have something to put in grandma’s stocking!
Even if you’re just buying for yourself, make sure you’re getting the real deal before you shell out twenty bucks for a bump of powder. Forget the price point or the adorable bakers’ twine hangtag. Your first thought should always be, Does this smell good? Given that most of the flavour will come from volatile oils that will only dissipate with time, they should smell and they should smell strong. Cayenne should kick you in the face until you sneeze, curry blends should conjure memories of your favourite thali and nutmeg should give you traumatic flashback of the last eggnog latte of the season. If your cinnamon smells like little more than sawdust, you can damn well bet that it won’t taste any better.
Buy whole. Without their essential oils, a spice is nothing more than a chunk of dead plant. Maybe you like that, but your dull chili won’t. Every time you crack open a seed or berry or branch or piece of bark a little bit of that fragrance wafts away. And if it’s wafting, it’s highly unlikely it’ll find a way back from the atmosphere to your plate in time for dinner. So rather than wonder how much flavour is left, buy whole and you’ll already have your answer.
Buy a little. To save yourself some heartache and pantry real estate, just try a little bit first! It probably seems like a steal to get a pound of fenugreek for a dollar, but if you don’t like fenugreek, never discover how to use it or realize you got a stale batch, that dollar was just wasted anyways. No matter how great that ginger tasted in 1989, it’s little more than off-white dust now.
Buy bulk. If you’re lucky enough to have a heavily frequented bulk spice section in your grocer, be sure to shop there. Since those bins aren’t air tight, they better abide by the first rule and stink up to the high heavens.
If you just buy a little bit, you can try even more spices! Instead of buying a kilo of peppercorns, you can sample a whole range of flavours that are bound to work together. Where should you start? Just look at the breakdown of some common blends.
- Kitchen Classics: black peppercorns, Bay leaves and red chili flakes. Start it simple and they’ll be able to enhance any soups or stocks they attempt this winter.
- Pumpkin Spice (aka Christmas aka Gingerbread aka Eggnog): cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice and cloves. It seems like all baking spices end up with this designation. If you gift them the whole spices, include a shitty bottle of wine and you’ve got a mulled wine kit!
- Curry: coriander, cumin, garam masala and turmeric. If they’re already a fan of a basic curry blend, break it down into its constituent parts.
- Something Hot: cayenne, paprika, seasoning salt and chili powder. Sometimes flavour matching is challenging, but adding more heat is always easy.
You can’t smell something you can’t get inside, so if your giftee’s already laden with spice upon spice, you could try to give them accessories to crack open the goods.
A superfine grater is all you need to add that last little bit of nutmeg to your soup or nog. Which is good, because pre-ground nutmeg tastes like crap! You can also grab the rasp next time you need some citrus zest, grated chocolate or minced garlic!
Do you remember which piece is which? Neither do I! All you need to know is that it’s a great way to pulverize small amount of freshly toasted spices. Look for a dense, heavy one to do the work for you. If you get a non-porous set, you’re halfway to perfect pestos and moist marinades.
If you or your giftee is going to be going through a lot of spices and are feeling to lazy to manually grind, just reach for a grinder instead. I repurposed a retired coffee grinder for Spice Duty, but you could always just keep one around. Just be sure to clean it between uses (just grind up some dry rice or old bread) lest you pour yourself a Curry Spice latte Christmas morning! Or maybe you and your loved ones are into that.
With Ode to My Pantry, learn to navigate a grocery store without having a meltdown in aisle three. Give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach a queer to cook and stave off malnutrition for another semester.