5 Spices I Can’t Live Without– Oops, That’s 6

Smoked Maldon Sea Salt My Top 5 Spices

I have several kinds of salt on hand. One is finely ground sea salt which I use just like you’d use table/iodized salt. It tastes better with none of the bitter metallic aftertaste that accompanies the salt you grew up with. I also love Pink Himalayan Salt as it is minimally processed and retains a lovely mineral flavor plus, it’s pink and it looks so pretty. The queen of all salts may not be the prettiest, but it does have the prettiest name, fleur de sel or flower of salt. It’s slightly wet, dove grey in color, and tastes of a grey day at the seashore. It is expensive, cherished both for it’s flavor and the way it crunches when bitten into. More variations on the salt theme that are not imperative but are very nice to have are truffle salt and smoked sea salts such as the smoked Maldon sea salt pictured above.


I also keep several kinds of pepper on hand. One of my favorites is whole smoked black peppercorns. The brand I’m currently using is very lightly smoked and adds a woodsy floral heat to dishes. Another pepper I favor is the long pepper which is slightly hotter than the black peppercorn yet adds a nutty sweetness at the same time. Its smells is funky and sweet at once. The third type of pepper that I use with great regularity is the Szechuan pepper which is a small round seed pod the color of a pomegranate and the size of a lemon seed. It imparts a lemony flavor to foods and goes very well with garlic, ginger, and anise.

Chili Powders:
The chili powder I reach for most often is smoked paprika. It is richly colored, both sweet and smoky, and adds a haunting depth of flavor without the heat of the more popular chipotle, which is actually a smoked jalapeño. For heat, there are two chilies that own this fiery heart of mine. The notorious habeñero is just as spicy when dried and ground to a powder as it is when fresh. Often misidentified as the hottest pepper in the world, this orange beauty registers about 200,000-300,000 scoville units. While it is extremely hot, it lends a bright fruity flavor to foods and pairs particularly well with citrus, carrots, Latin, Asian, and Caribbean dishes. It is phenomenally hot and you’ll want to wash your hands very well with hot soapy water and lemon or white vinegar after adding it to your dish. Also, don’t put your face over a hot pot to smell the goodness just after you’ve added your habeñero powder unless you’re into being pepper sprayed. The last of the three is certainly not my least favorite, it’s called aji amarillo or aji escabeche. Hailing from Peru, it recalls the color and the warmth of the sun at mid-afternoon in summer. This chili is quite a bit milder than the habeñero though it is similar in color especially when dried and the color intensifies a bit. Fruity, yet less citrusy than the more common habeñero, it is a staple in Peruvian cuisine, but is versatile and goes well with egg dishes, chicken, beans, and pumpkin and squash dishes too.

Dried Mustard:
I keep both the seeds and the powder in my spice rack, but by far, the powder is what I use most. I use it for vinaigrettes, dry rubs, marinade, mayonnaise, stir fries, sauces, and anywhere I need a little pungent kick without the acid of vinegar or lemon juice or in addition to vinegar or lemon juice. This is one of my most beloved spices.

My mother hated tarragon, but loved anisette and black licorice, and I’ll never be sure why. I remember her saying, “Ugh, ma soeur’s salade had too much tarragon, non?” My response, inevitably, “Non, c’etait parfait” As you may or may not know, tarragon has a subtle anise-like flavor which comes from a compound called estragole. It is sweet, and earthy as well. Fresh tarragon is always best, but I would never be without some nice dried stuff. You can dry your own and keep it in your freezer or you can buy nice quality French Tarragon in small quantities that you feel you can use within a couple of months. Tarragon pairs beautifully with chicken, mustard, fish, eggs, and cream. It can dress up braised leeks and pairs beautiful with a number of white wines from crisp to buttery. Oh, and please don’t forget the shallots when using tarragon. They are a match made in heaven. I use it when I make a classic French vinaigrette and one of my favorite salads is creamy avocado, juicy pink grapefruit, crisp and bitter frisée and escarole lettuces topped with a tarragon-laced vinaigrette. If you add homemade garlic croutons to this, you have an outstanding meal.

This is one herb that truly dries well. While not as pungent in it’s dried form, and certainly not as pretty, I could not imagine going without dried thyme as a backup. I like to make an infused olive oil with thyme, garlic, and chilies and use it on everything from quick pasta dishes (recipe for the oil and pasta here) to grilled cheese sandwiches, to bruschetta, to grilled veggies and meats. Thyme is fragrant, earthy, and reminds me of walking through the redwood forest on a crisp fall afternoon- the scent of brush being crushed underfoot that is what thyme tastes like to me. When you use thyme properly, it makes its presence known, but it’s never pushy. Like the perfect party guest, it is at home in nearly any conversation. Hello coq au vin, my old friend! Why, yes, plum tart, I’ll be happy to join you. Honey ice cream, let’s sit down and chat awhile, I think I can even entertain you for awhile.


    • says

      Joan, I love star anise. I just went to a literary pot luck, and a writer described the star anise so eloquently. I wish I could remember what she said- I do know she began with something like – was there ever a more perfectly shaped spice than star anise?

  1. Lefty says

    Totally on board with all of these – and the mustard is perhaps most critical because of the key role it plays in my barbecue sauce. And since barbecue comprises about 90 percent of my diet in the summer … yeah.

  2. says

    Salt is an underrated spice that is magical at bringing out everything that food can offer. I think that you're brilliant to list it first.

    I just got back from the SF Public Library and heard you talk there. You're so funny and your blog sounded great so I had to check it out ASAP while Hegui is making dinner.

    • says

      Hi Stevie,
      Thanks so much for coming. I just peeked at your blog and I now I recognize you from the audience. (I’m kind of clever that way) I adore salt and I swear I can taste the difference between salts. I don’t know that I can solidly identify each kind in a blind taste test, but it would be fun to try- as long as I have a diuretic handy the next morning.
      But, you are so right, many a bland dish has been brought to life by good salt of course, the converse is also amply true.
      I look forward to checking out your blog later this evening.

      • says

        Thanks for looking at our blog. I've heard that there's a salt course at The French Laundry though I've never been so lucky to dine there. We use a lot of Kosher salt at home. I like French sea salt quite a lot, sprinkled over buttered bread.

        As to your concern over diuretics, you can simply drink more and it will all work iteslf out ;)

  3. says

    It was great to meet you and hear you speak on the panel tonight at the SF library. The beef hearts at Limon were amazing! Thanks for the recommendation. We'll be following your blog and hope to see you around the city eating and having fun.
    Jason & Steve

    • says

      It was so nice to meet you as well. I also had a blast at the panel. We ended up going to Bar Jules last night where I ate a delicious pumkin soup with farro and pancetta and a warm squid salad. (highly recommended) It was my first time there- very sweet little place. Limon’s beef hearts (or Bee Farts as my hubby likes to say) are the best thing ever! Cheers, and your blog is on my list for this evening. Can’t wait to spend some time with it.

  4. says

    I know garlic isn't a spice, but it flavors more of my food than anything else. Other than that, cinnamon, basil, oregano, chervil and savory are some of my favorites. Allspice, too.

  5. Diethood -noun- The state of being on a diet... always! says

    I have yet to experiment with various salts – I've been using sea salt for quite some time and I don't know if I'll ever go back to iodized salt. My other go to spice is also thyme – love that stuff!

    • says

      I can’t stand iodized salt either. Even if a dish is totally bland at a restaurant, I won’t use it. It sits badly on my tongue. I say play with some salts, you’ll enjoy them.

  6. says

    1. Black pepper, 2. Hot sauce :D (I know it's not a spice, but close enough!), 3. Salt, 4. Curry powder (which is a bunch of spice, there I go cheating again!), 5. Cinnamon

    • says

      Those are all well-used in my house too- although I must admit I only use the curry powder when I’m doing a quick dry rub these days. Too many Indian friends have converted me to mixing my own curry blends.

  7. foodblogandthedog says

    I don't think I could narrow it down to 5 either! It so depends on my mood. Speaking of moods, the place I buy Himalayan salt from has run out and not re- stocking AHHHH!!

  8. says

    Man, I don't think I could pick just 5 err, 6. I'd have to cheat and state salt & pepper as a given!
    Im so excited I've found your lovely blog, Horrray!
    Thanks for visiting Simply Healthy Family! I hope you get to make the Old Fashioned Fig Bars and love them as much as we do!

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