I have never, ever been able to resist the spice aisle at the grocery store. I began cooking standing beside my mother when I was very young; from her I learned the basics—to wit, you generally can’t go wrong with salt, pepper, and garlic.
I’ve been cooking for a lot of years now, and while I’m still pretty fond of salt, pepper, and garlic, I’ve always been drawn to spice blends. Like, say, “Greek seasoning,” which has, one discovers, as many iterations as there are Greeks, it seems. Or steak seasoning. Italian seasoning.
One thing I have learned, though, is you just can’t beat fresh. Sure, I’ve been pinching fresh herbs for salads and seasonings off my plants in the backyard for years. But I’ve quit listening to the siren call of the spice aisle at my favorite grocery. You can buy fresher seasonings online.
My awakening came as a result of a wedding gift. A friend gave us a gift pack of six salts and seasoning blends from the Savory Spice Shop, and when I ran out of Black Dust Coffee Spice Rub (fabulous on steak) I ordered more. And … oh my goodness. I fell down the rabbit hole of spice blends. Over successive months, I tried more and more combinations. The main location for the Savory Spices Shop is in Denver (they also have franchse stores all over the country), but their service is fast and efficient, and they always send a little sample of something different when they pack your order. And I love being able to buy in bulk (cheaper) if I really like something.
Here are some of the things I buy from SSS:
- Vanilla (beans and extract): I haven’t bought “flavoring” (as opposed to extract) in decades but with the advent of essential oils, people are starting to realize that the closer you get to the actual thing, the better off you are. And yes, I’ve splurged on different vanillas. (Tip: When I use a vanilla bean for baking, I save the pod, clip it up into 1-inch pieces, and drop them into my sugar bowl. It seasons the sugar! We don’t put sugar in our tea or coffee but guests often do, and vanilla sugar is a treat.
- Pepper: Mostly the Four Corners blend in bulk, because my Irish husband has a thing for pepper sauce on steak. I tried the Szechwan peppercorns once and they weren’t for me (I’m not a pepper user, much, and it wasn’t right for pepper sauce) but in Asian recipes it would be yummy.
- Salt: Fumee de sel was in my original gift, and is quite nice (not as smoky as my other smoked salts, and a little coarser). I enjoy the little differences between sea salt, kosher salt, flaked, fine, coarse, and on and on. I love the crunch, for example, of Maldon sea salt flakes, and was exposed years ago to fleur de sel, which I also keep on hand. (Neither of which I buy from SSS, actually.)
- Spice blends: The temptation here, of course, is to go crazy, but I would advise you to ease into stocking your spice cabinet. This Santa Maria blend is a wonderful mix that we love on salads and steamed veggies. Pike’s Peak Butcher’s Rub is my all-purpose go-to when I’m not sure where to start. Remember that some blends are salt free (California Citrus Dry Rub has a nice bite to it), so check the ingredient list. When I mentioned SSS on Facebook, a friend recommended I try Park Hill, which I’ve used on pork, and that led me to Barnegat Bay, which I’ve used on pork and chicken. Check the ingredients—you might be surprised. I get a lot of ideas of things to try from the “People also bought …” at the bottom of the page. I always find something interesting that piques my curiosity. And I haven’t even begun to sample the ethnic blends yet.
- Single spices: This spring I was going to make a simple kale salad that called for a little cayenne—and I didn’t have any. So I decided to start trying single spices, since I loved the freshness of the blends. When my little baggie of finely ground cayenne arrived, I nearly swooned. You can really smell the difference.
So I’m sold. The SSS website does a great job of helping you get just the right thing, if you’re not sure.
I hasten to add that Savory Spice Shop is not the only online purveyor of fresh spices. A friend of mine recently bought some assorted blends and spices from Penzey’s, which he highly recommends. And I also patronize the Salt Sisters, which I discovered when a friend gifted us with a steakhouse seasoning blend and another called Tuscan Farmhouse—both of which we use and enjoy regularly.
Salt Sisters has a smaller inventory than SSS, but their customer service is also excellent. Here are some other things I buy from them:
- Applewood smoked sea salt
- Applewood smoked cracked peppercorns
- Herbes de Provence with sea salt
- Dragon’s Breath rub (my brisket is never without it)
- Herbal teas (particularly “Perfectly Peach” and “Prestigious Peach”)
Those of you who know me know I really prefer “real” tea to herbal, so that should tell you something about the tea from Salt Sisters.
Since we’re talking about tea, I’ll just throw in two other tea shops at which I enjoy shopping:
- Gong Fu in Des Moines, Iowa; highly recommended by one of my authors.
- Lupicia in Hayward (the San Francisco Bay area). A friend of my son’s went to college in the area, and she exposed me to Lupicia. The teas are packaged in beautiful tins that make lovely gifts.
Finally, no blog post about the things we use to make eating pleasurable in this house would be complete without a discussion of our local olive oil shop. Here we buy infused and pressed olive oils (they’ll sample anything) and balsamic vinegars. We trade recipe ideas (dark chocolate balsamic on vanilla ice cream? oh yeah) with the owners, succumb to their sales, and just can’t imagine a salad without oil and vinegar.