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Best spices to always have on hand
Easy to use spices for the not-so-talented chefs
I am not the world's best chef. I don't like to spend all day in the kitchen and I don't like anything to be too complicated. But, the dishes I prepare don't have to be gourmet in order to be tasty! That being said, I definitely depend on a few seasonings to regularly spice up meals.
Now I shouldn't say that I add salt to absolutely everything. It might be true...but I shouldn't admit it! There is no other single spice that blends so well with all other ingredients, however, it is a little too obvious even for this simple chef. And please no lectures, I know that too much salt is not a good thing. But might I remind you, I have to get my iodine in some form!
Moving away from basic salt and black pepper (I use almost as much black pepper as I do salt), I do have some suggestions for adding zest to your simple meals. Not all of these qualify as actual "spices", but I can still refer to them as "seasonings". And aren't seasonings the spice of life? Or something like that...
Garlic Powder (or Garlic Salt, if so desired)
If you like to watch the Food channel and watch the great chefs "do their thing", you'll see that they often use garlic. Usually they use fresh garlic cloves, something that you probably will NOT have in your refrigerator if you are like me. Garlic Powder or Garlic Salt (garlic powder with salt added) is made from dehydrated garlic cloves which are ground to powder. Same taste, just not the same texture. And the best part is that you can have it sitting in your spice cupboard just waiting for any time that you might get the hankering to use it. You don't have to worry about it spoiling.
If I make my famous spaghetti (yes, its usually a jar of Ragu) then I like to add my own "zest", and nothing goes better than garlic. And you feel even more like a real chef when you make your own garlic bread (even if it is just bread, butter and garlic salt toasted in the oven). But really, garlic goes great with almost anything and I use it liberally with my chicken and beef dishes as well.
Oregano is best buds with garlic. No Italian dish (including spaghetti and garlic bread) seems complete without oregano. Again, you can buy or grow fresh oregano...but it so much handier to have the dehydrated and chopped oregano-- in the spice cupboard next to your garlic powder.
Oregano is also great on fish and grilled vegetables. It addes a nice "kick" of flavor with sauteed mushrooms and onions or you can add it to your salad dressing or olive oil, if you want to get a little fancy.
Chili powder is another very useful seasoning to have on hand. Some people make their own (dried and ground chili peppers, plus a few other seasonings--like salt, pepper, garlic and oregano!). Again, I usually find it easier to just have the pre-made seasoning sitting in my spice cupboard.
Of course, if you are making homemade chili (chili beans from a can and fried hamburger), you MUST have chili powder! But, you can also use it with anything that you want to be a little more spicey. I add it to my taco meat, fajita's and as an ingredient in my marinades.
There are a lot of different "strengths" of chili powder out there. I prefer the medium to hot ones, which are often created from red or cayenne peppers. It's all a matter of preference, but it definitely can be added to a lot more than just chili.
Not to sound like a broken record, but again, you can use fresh parsley if you have it on hand...Otherwise, the dried and chopped parsley that you store in your spice cupboard next to your garlic powder and oregano, will do just fine. Dried parsley does not work very well as a garnish on your dinner plate, but as a seasoning you can't go wrong!
I like to sprinkle it on things I'm grilling, like chicken, steak and vegetables. It also goes great with rice and potato dishes. My absolute favorite use for parsley is with my mom's easy potato and parsley recipe. You can even make the dish in the microwave...and all you need is 4 ingredients, sliced potatoes, butter, lemon juice and parsley. Try it and you'll understand why you should always have parsley in you cupboard.
Cinnamon is a favorite spice of mine, especially mixed with sugar. Cinnamon sticks are lovely with hot apple cider, but for my cooking and baking I stick with the powder. Both forms are derived from the Cinnamon tree, or more specifically from the bark of the Cinnamon tree. Too bad the bark from the birch trees in my back yard don't taste quite as good. For a minute I thought I had a goldmine there....Anyway, I digress.
Cinnamon is a wonderful addition to your baked goods and desserts of all kinds. And the smell is so deliciously warm and inviting. This nostalgic spice instantly reminds me of my childhood and baking cookies with my mom. Plus there are lots of health benefits associated with cinnamon--but I won't pretend that is the reason for my fondness of this spice. It just taste good!
More seasonings to consider
Of course, if you walk down the aisle of your local grocery store you will see that there are literally thousands of spices and seasonings to consider. And we all have our personal favorites, whether it be all-spice, curry, onion powder or cumin. It is fun to experiment. I remember being given a spice rack for my wedding...but I also remember never using more than half of the little bottles and throwing them away after 15 years (there is a shelf-life, even for dried spices). Perhaps this was just my mother-in-law's way of telling me I should learn to cook! Well, there's always hope...