Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Keys To Having A Bad-Assed Pantry: Part 1 - Spices

Are you one of those people who complain about how expensive it is to cook for themselves?  Or perhaps you have a friend who says that all the time.  I say to you (or your sad, hungry friend), that's nonsense!  The problem is this beginner cook.  You don't have a stocked pantry.  If you have the basic supplies the times you got the itch to cook it wouldn't cost very much (unless of course you decided you needed to make New York strip steaks with lobster tails and truffle butter sauce.  For you my friend yes, prepare to empty your bank account).  Once you have a stocked pantry you will be ready to cook up a storm.  You'll no longer look like you're on a drunken scavenger hunt for cumin seeds and panko bread crumbs.  Now simple recipes will seem easier as pie (actually pie can be somewhat difficult when made from scratch so I hate that dumb saying).  Here's what you need to do.  Build an impressive pantry.  Spend a chunk of change on your pantry now (consider it your tools for creating art) and then when you want to cook it'll be soooo much easier and less expensive.  Want a peek inside my pantry (keep your dirty thought to yourself you pervert!).  Okay, sassiness aside, lot's of these things I can't live without and when I run out I get more.  It's simple, just like that.  Today let's talk spices.

Spices you should have:  Stay away from that ten year old saw dust sold in the pre-packged jars at your local super mega-mart.  If you're really serious about cooking first thing you gotta do is buy a little spice grinder (I use this little coffee grinder for grinding whole spices but once it's designated it for spices don't use it for coffee.  No one wants to drink a black pepper, garlic latte. Ick.).  Buy your spices at a spice store or bulk bins at some of the nicer grocery stores. They will be fresher.  Buy them whole and grind them yourself if you can for better flavor.  I also use a pepper mill for fresh cracked black pepper but the grinder will work fine if you don't want more gadgets.  Here's what's always in my pantry:

* Kosher Salt (I like Diamond Crystal.  Don't use that iodized table salt shit.)
* Sea Salt (Just a little brinier than kosher.  Not necessary but yummy for certain things like seafood.)
* Finishing Salts (Pink Hawaiian, Alderwood Smoked Salt, Fleur De Sel.  For a little extra flavor after
   cooking.  Also, not necessary but fun and tasty.)
Black Peppercorns (For fresh cracked black pepper.)
* White Peppercorns (A bit more potent that black pepper and leaves no appearance of pepper flecks)
* Cumin Seed (You can't cook Latino without it.)
* Cinnamon Sticks (The whole sticks have way more flavor than the powder.)
* Cloves (The spice, not the gothy cigarettes)
* Chili Powder (There are a lot of choices here.  I like New Mexican for heat and ancho for smokiness.  
   You can buy dried chilies and grind them yourself if you have time.)
* Star Anise (They look like cute little star fish and have a licoricey flavor)
* Cayenne Pepper (Bring on the heat.)
* Coriander Seeds (Yummy earthiness used a lot in Indian and in curries.)
* Paprika (I like hot Hungarian and simply cannot live without Piménton - hot smoked Spanish
* Turmeric (Make things yellow and musky in a good way.)
* Red Crushed Pepper (Italian heat.)
* Allspice (Caribbean earthiness)
* Cardamom Pods (Strong and aromatic, used in curries and in Middle Eastern dishes.)
* Mustard Seeds (Great for kick and pickling.)
* Nutmeg (Get the pods and grind them with a fine grater or rasp.  Apple pie anyone?)

Here are a few spice mixes, dried herbs, and pre-ground things that recipes sometimes call for that I tend to keep around. Always use fresh herbs when possible otherwise dried will do in a pinch.

* Garlic Powder (Garlic in powder form.)
* Onion Powder (Onion in powder form.)
* Dried Oregano (I actually use this one a lot.  Not as good as fresh but still works.)
* Dried Thyme (Not nearly as good as fresh but it'll do.)
* Dried Basil (Nothing near as good as the fresh version but sometimes you need it now.)
* Dried Sage (See the two above)
* Dried Bay Leaves (The one dried herb I actually prefer over the fresh.)
* Celery Salt (bloody Marys!)
* Curry Powder (If you can take the time to make your own but sometimes in a pinch pre-made curry
   powders will certainly do.)
* Chinese Five Spice (It has five Chinese spices in it.  Cloves and Cinnamon being the strongest.)
* Old Bay (Great spice mix for seafood)
* Creole Seasoning (For some Bayou cookin')
* Filé Powder (Sassafras root to thicken and flavor Cajun cooking.)
* Sazón (Excellent Caribbean spice packets.  I use these all the time for my family's recipes.)
* Adobo (It's a Cuban spice mixture that is also prominent in my family's Cuban recipes.)
* Poultry Seasoning (Don't ask.  Just once in a while I reach for it.)
* Chicken Beef Ham Bouillon (Make your own stocks when ever possible for the best flavor otherwise
   these little processed salt cubes will have to suffice.)

Now for the really interesting ones in my pantry.  These spices are very specialized and exotic.

* Asafoetida (Super intense Indian spice.  Smells like feet but tastes like chickeny.)
Bacon Salt (Also perfect in bloody Marys.)
* Annatto Seeds (Cubans call it poor man's saffron.)
* Bijol (Cubans call it poor man's annatto seed.)
* Za'atar (Ground sesame seeds with dried sumac and other herbs.  Middle Eastern citrusiness.)
* Grains of Paradise (Pungent and peppery African flavors. Was a popular spice in the Middle Ages.)
* Black Limes (Smokey sour Middle Eastern sun dried limes.)
* Shichimi Togarashi (Japanese spice mixture of peppers, citrus peels, sesame seeds and nori.)

Okay, I have lots more in my spice cabinet but those are the important one I think.  I have lots of different kinds of curry blends, and dried herb blends and ton of different kinds of salts and chili powders.  If you live in Seattle or don't have access to fresh spices check out my favorite spice shop World Spice Merchants.  They are super helpfully and inexpensive and will ship to your home wherever yo live so there is no excuse to have dingy old sawdust in your spice rack.

Stay tuned for The Keys To Having A Bad-Assed Pantry: Part 2 - Oils, Vinegars, and Condiments.  Oh, and let me know if you feel I've left something out.  I'm not a robot, ya know.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Rockfish and Roll.

It's no secret that Seattle is a Caribbean black hole.  No Cuban, no Jamaican, no Haitian, and just a tiny bit of Puerto Rican food.  Being a Miami girl I get serious craving for island food but it just ain't happening up here in the land of sasquatch.  What do you do when you can't find something?  You make it.  When I lived in North Miami Beach I used to swing by this little Jamaican hole in the wall off 163rd street for the best rockfish in creole sauce ever.  That with a few Jamaican patties and I was an  extremely happy girl.  I would skip school just to get my spicy tropical fix.  The cafe was the size of a closet and had a television on the counter blasting soap operas.  The friendly in her own way owner would be relaxing in her lazy-boy right in front of the counter making you wait until she found out who cheated on who and whether or not Jimmy survived falling down the hospitals elevator shaft.  Without even a glance she would point to one of the three tiny cafe tables crammed in the place.  Once the commercials came on she'd get up and briskly ask you what you want.  I always got the same, rockfish with creole sauce and two Jamaican patties.  She'd yell back to her cook and get back to watching her shows.  You just can't find that kind of atmosphere in the NW and I really miss it.  To make up for it I recently made Rockfish Creole with spicy ginger green beans.  I even ignored myself and watched a little General Hospital to make it feel authentic.  Now, if only I had some Jamaican patties.  Yum.

Rockfish Creole

2 4-6oz fillets of rockfish
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, sliced thinly
1/2 fennel bulb, sliced
1/2 tsp scotch bonnet, minced (you can use less spicy peppers if you like)
juice of 1 lime
1 packet of sazón seasoning
salt and pepper tt
olive oil

Season the fish with salt, pepper, and the sazón seasoning.  Set aside.

For the creole sauce saute the onions, fennel, garlic, and scotch bonnet in a little olive oil until soft with a little color.  Add the lime juice.  Season with salt and pepper.

In a saute pan on med. high heat cook the fish in a little olive oil for about 2min. each side just until cooked through.  Cover with the creole sauce and serve.

*for the green beans I just blanched them off.  Sauteed a little garlic, ginger, and scotch bonnet in butter until soft.  Tossed in the green beans and cooked another 2-3 minutes.  Salt and pepper.  Enjoy.