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Herbs and Spices

It's no secret that herbs and spices are a huge part of good cooking. Which probably had a lot to do with why my mother's cooking sucked. She only stocked six spices (cinnamon, oregano, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, and crushed red pepper flakes) plus salt and pepper. It's possible to make some good food with those, of course. Back before I learned to cook properly, a friend came by and managed a very tasty bbq baked chicken out of just those. I was greatly frustrated that he could not tell me how he did it.

Naturally, I have reacted in the opposite direction from mom, and now have upwards of forty available at any given time. I may go overboard with them occasionally, especially in free-form improvisations like soup, but there's no question of the flavors lacking complexity.

For the weight-conscious, they add lots of flavor with no calories. For those on restricted diets, they can even be creatively used to suggest meat where there isn't any. I particularly like fennel in spaghetti sauce to suggest sausage.

Leaving aside the ubiquitous McCormick's, here are some excellent vendors worth consideration.

Penzeys is a sleeper gem, with fresh, high-quality spices and herbs, most every kind you can possibly think of, plus their own proprietary premixed blends, of which my favorite is easily the salt-free Mural of Flavor. Their mail-order catalogue includes lots of interviews with people of many backgrounds, including the home cooks' own favorite recipes with mouthwatering pictures. They have a few dozen stores, if you're lucky enough to live near one, but mail order is fast, easy, and ships free with orders over $30 every day. They also regularly give specified items away with certain minimum purchases.

Simply Organic (USDA certified organic) and The Spice Hunter make items I've cooked with regularly and like a lot.

J.R. Watkins in Minnesota has been in the biz for 1868, so they must be doing something right. Lots of items, including dried orange peel and lemon peel for baking.

Morton & Bassett, based in San Francisco, has an appealingly packaged and diverse line of all natural, non-irradiated, preservative-free items.

Star Kay White makes amazing liquid extracts, some highly unusual, including garlic, oregano, basil, parsley, rosemary, cilantro, cardamom, nutmeg, dill, and bay leaf. I've tasted some astonishing chocolate truffles made from these. Available on amazon, Sur la Table, Whole Foods, and many other retailers.

If you're in or near NYC's East Village, Dual Specialty Store can rarely be stumped on any flavoring you want--they even have a dozen different flavors of bitters for your drinks--and are open till 1 in the morning. If you've just got to get your cardamom on at 11 at night, this is the place. They also do mail order with free shipping over $50 and flat rate shipping of $3.95 below that. Otherwise, the more famous Kalustyan's has everything else.

And if you happen to be in Costco, pick up a big jar of their coarse ground Malabar black pepper. Way easier than fresh ground, for a chronic pepperholic, but still with plenty of bite. You'll thank me.