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.
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.
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.