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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Review: The Spice House and our journey to fresh spices

As many people know, my wife and I are somewhat cooking amateurs. We love to play around with this dish and that dish, and do dinner parties. Recently, we've found that we'd like to take our fascination of the kitchen to a new level and actually started trying to learn the techniques that make up the recipes instead of just following a pre-defined set of instructions. This has led us recently to re-examine our uses of spices. Specifically, Alton Brown from the show "Good Eats" recommended that we start using whole spices whenever possible, as the flavor will be much better, and they will keep longer in the pantry. Much to our surprise, almost all pre-ground spices will expire after about 6 months, as opposed to whole spices which could last up to 2 years. Imagine our surprise when we realized that almost all of our spices in our cabinet were expired! Of course, this doesn't mean they go bad like most foods, rather they just lose potency or flavor, so it was kind of a waste of effort to spice our foods at all.

Enter "The Spice House". This fantastic destination is a specialty shop in, you guessed it, spices and their uses. I was continuuing my journey through the second season of "Good Eats" when Alton introduced us to Patty Erd, owner/operator/blogger of the The Spice House. I immediately looked it up, and realized that when we drove back from Michigan to Minnesota, we'd be passing right past it. So it made perfect sense to stop in and see what all the fuss was about.

When we first walked in, we were immediately greeted by the "heady" aroma and a very welcoming greeting from one of the workers. We immediately began working our way around the spacious shop trying to figure out what the hell we were doing. We decided that since they are a bulk spice shop, we would just start out by buying most of our well used spices in small quantities so we can try and see if these "fresh spices" make any real difference. Almost every spice we looked at, we were encouraged to open the jar and sniff, or pour some out of the taster jar to inspect it. My wife thought it was very nice also that any spice/blend/mixture was clearly marked as "Salt Free" as this is a very important health fact for many people. It was a very nice experience overall.

However, we were actually a little dismayed at the overwhelming amount of "spice concoctions" that were trying to be offered to us. We did not expect to have to wade our way through all the mixes to find just the bare spices. Perhaps we are a strange exception, however we really weren't there to try out the "Taco Seasoning" or a "Salt Mixture".

The second thing that was rather dissapointing, was that it seems to us afterwards that a simple selection of basic spices, packaged in the sampler 1oz bags would have helped us out immensely. None of their gift boxes or sampler packs were the 1oz containers to be found. Most were large 4oz glass jars of 5-6 spices, some of which were the aforementioned "blends" that they really didn't do us much good. Here's my suggestion for a true "Noobie Sampler Pack" of which we plan to put together for a few gifts in the future:

1/2 oz Bay Leaves
Ground Cayenne Pepper
Crushed Red Peppers
Chili Powder
Whole Cumin
Hungarian Half-Sharp Paprika
Whole Rosemary
Rubbed Sage
True Ground Cinnamon
Coriander Seeds
5 Whole Nutmegs
Italian Herb Blend
Whole Cloves

I think that this encompasses the vast majority of standard home cooking. Yes, there will be things some people won't use, and there are things that people really ought to try, yet it would make the pack too expensive. (Ever try real Vanilla Extract from the bean? Hoo-boy....) If you were to buy all of these items at the smallest qty available (generally 1oz) you would end up paying $23.26 + tax according to the catalog we picked up in January of 2010...there was no date printed so I have no idea how up-to-date it is. I figure you could offer this for $19.99 and make the first experience slightly easier for many people.

As this blog matures I will probably throw together some other packs that I'd like to see made up as we find out more on our journey of spices. I will also probably highlight our search for good spices in the Minneapolis area and how it hasn't been very fruitful, and maybe I'll also highlight one of my favorite finds while at the spice house...the roasted cacao nibs. A slight cacao flavor with the texture of nuts, but without the pesky aniphilactic shock some people experience with nuts. But..."That's another post entirely."

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