Some Spicy Suggestions:
A No-Waste Method for Keeping Spices Handy and Fresh

You’re in the middle of preparing a favorite dish, and company is set to arrive in forty-five minutes. But then you realize—you’re missing that one must-have spice in the blend you need for your recipe, and all because you threw out your old spices! Suddenly, the wind goes out of your sails. Hopefully, some of you can identify.

Let’s just say you’re preparing a nice topping for your salmon steak for company, and there’s only forty-five minutes left to get it done. NOW WHAT? If you don’t want to spoil the look and flavor of your expensive salmon steak, you’ll need to go out and shop for the one spice you’re missing, right? Grr!

But it doesn’t end there. That one spice will probably cost at least five dollars (or even more if it’s organic), plus money for gas and wasted time. Ouch! You’re bound to come away a bit disillusioned. But what if there were a way to save money, have what you need when you need it, and avoid storing a ton of spices you many not use that often?

I don’t know about you, but I really dislike keeping a huge collection of aging spices in my cupboard. (I talk a little about old spices in my blog post The Mystical Side of Nutmeg.” It’s a fun read that you may like.)

The dilemma of the missing spice experience recently happened to me. By golly, I got so tired of this happening over and over again! So I decided to do a little think-through that would help me avoid this problem in the future. I finally came up with a permanent answer, and I thought to share it with you, my dear readers.

What’s my solution? I’m now making my own spice blends. You may be saying, Well, yippee! (Tongue in check) I’m already making my own spice blends! Yes, I realize that this is nothing new to many of you, but the way I’m now doing this is making a big difference. If you have the same problem, please keep reading.

Before I outline my spice blending method, I thought it would be nice to first talk about spices in general. I will also suggest a great place to find many different blends, including the exact spices that go into them, so you won’t need to figure out what spices go with what dish on your own. Easy-peasy!

The Origins of Spice Usage

The origins of spice usage takes us back to the most ancient times of our existence. Spices were so valuable—possibly because of their aroma, taste, or healing qualities—that they were used as a monetary exchange for goods. As chronicled in the book Spice

by Christine Mansfield, wars were started over spices.

The McCormick Science Institute has a boatload of interesting facts of spice origins. Read them all for a fascinating tour of spice history, but here are a few highlights from the article for all of my history buff readers:

Ancient Mesopotamia: “Sumerian clay tablets of medical literature dating from the 3rd millennium BC mention various odoriferous plants, including thyme.”

Indian Origins: “Spices indigenous to India (e.g. cardamom and turmeric) were cultivated as early as the 8th century BC in the gardens of Babylon.”

Greece and Rome: “Spices and herbs played an important role in ancient Greek medical science. Hippocrates (460–377 BC) wrote about spices and herbs, including saffron, cinnamon, thyme, coriander, mint, and marjoram.”

Arab and Muslim Cultures: “Mohammed (570–632), who established the principles of Islam in the Koran, also co-owned a shop that stocked myrrh, frankincense, and Asian spices.”

Middle Ages Europe (600–1200): “An important person in developing and growing local herbs was the King of France and Emperor of the West, Charlemagne (742–814). He was the first leader to have farmers plant an abundance of culinary herbs (e.g., anise, fennel, fenugreek, and sage, thyme, parsley, and coriander).”

Age of Spice Discovery (1300–1500): “Marco Polo mentioned spices frequently in his travel memoirs (about 1298). He described the flavor of the sesame oil of Afghanistan and the plants of ginger and cassia of Kain-du (the city of Peking), where people drank a flavorful wine of rice and spices.”

 American History (1600–1861): “Western medicine is rooted in plant-based medicine. The United States used plants as the primary source of medicine from the time of the Mayflower (1620) until after World War I (1930)…Modern medicines, such as aspirin from the willow bark, are rooted in plant-based medicine.”

The Biblical Spice Rack

The accounts of the Old Testament are of particular interest to me. The website BiblicalArchaeology.org has compiled “A Biblical Spice Rack” to reflect what herbs and spices were used in ancient times, and I believe these spices have a unique and Divine quality that makes them special to our well-being.

Though the following list of spices in the Bible was compiled by BiblicalArchaeology.org, for an easy reference I have provided links to Herbs2000 and other websites for more information about each spice:

Now On to My Spice Think-Through

Hopefully, the information above will be a great addition to your spice knowledge. Please share it with your family and friends. But perhaps of greater importance is my “no-waste” answer to jazz up your cooking.

The Analysis

As I thought about the problem of the missing spice dilemma, it naturally occurred to me that I simply wasn’t planning out, with any serious thought, which spice blends are essential to my favorite dishes. There are, after all, many dishes where a spice blend would be nice but not absolutely required, or where a substitute would work just as well. Right? Great, I’m glad you agree with me! (Smile)

Since I’m a family of one, storing a ton of full-sized spice bottles is simply not an option. The same is true for smaller families, those who don’t use spices on a regular basis, or those with limited storage space.

The salmon steak I mention at the beginning of this post is one of those dishes that really needs either a nice crunchy spice-blend topping or a sauce with a sprinkle of parsley. On their own, a baked salmon steak or any other fish steak looks naked to me.

Here are the three steps I’ve developed for making my special spice blends in smaller, more equitable, quantities. Do the following to completely avoid the “missing spice dilemma.”

Step One: Keep a Spice Blend Recipe Journal

Make a list of your favorite dishes where a spice blend is necessary. In addition to the blend, also write down each spice you need to make it. Or create a lifelong project by using a fun journal (like these on Etsy) where you can include the actual recipe, a photo of the dish, where you got it, and the spices that make up the spice blend for each dish. This is the kind of things that creates a legacy for your children and grandchildren while keeping you well organized and ready to cook your favorite dishes without any interruptions.

Step Two: The Secret “No-Waste” Answer to Jazz Up Your Cooking

This is where my thoughts stalled and I needed to cogitate for several days on how to make sure I never again have a zillion full-sized spice jars wasting away in my cabinet. But then I thought maybe the answer was in fact that I should have a zillion full-sized spice jars wasting away in my cabinet! Then my brain said “Ah, come on…that wouldn’t work either.” And soon I was back to thinking, “What’s a cook to do?”

After a bit of mental shopping with my guardian angel, I saw myself in front of a quaint little spice and herb shop. All the spices and herbs were organic, sold in glass jars, had a high turnover, and, most importantly, I could spoon out any amount I wanted. Eureka! No need to buy more than I needed.

Personal note: Forgive me if this is something you’ve already thought of. But I honestly didn’t figure it out until recently. (Shame on me.) This blog post is therefore meant for all of us who, unlike many expert cooks, need to learn about this simple secret to the missing spice dilemma: what to do when you really need it but have no time to go shopping for it.

Step Three: Sourcing

Finding that sweet little spice and herb shop was quite an adventure. Like many of us, I’m in the habit of grocery shopping in the same ole places week after week. My surprise came when I ventured out and found two great places here in my own area of Colorado Springs, Colorado. No doubt there are many unique shops that sell organic spices and herbs in your area. Personal note: Supporting those who take the risk to open a specialty shop that all of us can enjoy is a big plus. The two stores below are my new go-to places for small quantity spices and herbs.  

The first one is Mountain Mama Natural Foods. What a great treat! Julie, the owner, has been able to maintain what seems like a whole wall of highly organized bottles of every organic spice and herb that you could wish for. Additionally, there’s a small section for groceries, including fresh organic vegetables, organic meats, remedies, safe cosmetics, and even a sweet cafe with freshly made sandwiches, salads, raw cream pies and other goodies alongside a small cozy dining room. It’s truly a wonderful getaway.

The other shop I really love is Sage Consulting & Apothecary. The owner, herbalist Valerie Blankenship, AHG, has almost three decades of experience as a consultant. Her shop also carries what seems like an endless number of neatly organized, easy-to-access glass Mason jars containing just about anything you may need. Along with potent organic spices, herbs, mushroom powders, quality essential oils, plus many unique herbal formulations of her own making, this shop is another unique adventure you don’t want to miss. Blankenship is also a big asset if you need to discuss a health issue and talk about holistic options. If you’re ever out this way, this is a must-visit shop!

How to Know What Spice Blend Goes with What Dish

Well, as good luck would have it, I found the perfect place to buy spice blends, if that’s what you want. But it’s also a great resource to quickly learn what individual spices go into specific spice blends. Another eureka find! For many expert cooks and gardeners, spice blends are no brainer. However, for most of us it’s not so easy to know what goes with what dish! I advocate for experimentation, but I also suggest using the website I mention below as a reference.

Finding the Right Spice Blend Ingredients for Your Dish

The website I’m referring to is SpicesInc.com. You will find numerous categories of spice blends along with the individual spices that make up the blend. What a great service!

For example, under the Grilled Salmon blend, if you scroll down you will see “What’s In It?” That’s where they list all the spices they use in that particular blend: brown sugar, orange zest, black pepper, sea salt, coriander, anise, cumin and fennel. (Naturally, I would leave out the brown sugar.)

Armed with all of the individual spices you need to make your own salmon spice blend, you can now go to your favorite local shop (like those I’ve named above) and purchase the spices you need in small amounts—just enough to make exactly what you want to make, whether it’s several meals or just a one-time trial. (Note: I strongly suggest using organic coconut sugar instead of brown sugar, which is in many of their blends, or even using no sugar at all.)

Remember, the smart way to do this is to keep a journal of what dishes require a special spice blend. And, most importantly, to keep track of how often you might make the dish so you’re not accumulating a zillion bottles of spices you many only use occasionally.

If all of this sounds complicated, I guarantee you it’s not. When you’re organized, the result is joyful cooking every time. It simply becomes a calming and happy event. No more frazzled nerves when you sit down to the meal!

Afterthoughts from the Traditional Cook

“The world is a giant gerbil wheel right now,” Lipuma at the Culinary Institute of America says. “I think if we just became a little bit more organized, a little bit more mise-en-place, [understand] what we really need and only do what we really need, I think we’ll have more time”—time for what’s important, he says. “You’ll be able to sit down at the table with your kids and actually cook a meal. Get up a little bit earlier so you could breathe. You want to greet the day.”

I so agree with the sentiments in this article. I highly recommend taking the time to read it in full: “For a More Ordered Life, Organize Like a Chef,” The Salt, NPR.org

Note from Maria: I am a Certified Natural Health Professional, CNHP, not a medical doctor. I do not diagnose, prescribe for, treat, or claim to prevent, mitigate, or cure any human diseases. Please see your medical doctor prior to following any recommendations I make in my blogs or on my website.

Images from iStock/shcherbak volodymyr (main), monticelllo (spices on spoons), litota (grinding spices), Elena Weinhardt (salmon).

Maria Atwood, CNHP

Maria Atwood is a semi-retired Certified Natural Health Professional and Weston A. Price Chapter Leader in Colorado Springs, CO. Her website, Traditional Cook, offers the The Lee Household Flour Mill, originally invented by Royal Lee, inventor of Standard Process Supplements. She also carries the WonderMix mixer as well as the Wondermill grain mill. Also check out Maria’s “Cook Your Way to Wellness” DVD (also available on Vimeo). Be sure to join the Selene River Press newsletter to follow Maria’s Tips from The Traditional Cook blog.

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