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Originally published Friday, October 12, 2012 at 12:01 PM

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Nancy Leson: A messy spice girl gets her act together

While her spice collection will likely remain somewhat of a mess — extending from countertop to cabinets, hidy-holes to hanging baskets — she recently got more organized.

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In addition to identifying each spice, I also date it to make sure I know when to... MORE
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About a year and a half ago I did this with my messy collection of spices and herbs. h... MORE

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I COLLECT herbs and spices the way other women collect shoes, and pride myself on having almost every ingredient needed to give a swift kick — or a subtle kiss — to any recipe.

I hoard bright red Chimayo chili powder from Northern New Mexico and Iranian saffron hand-carried by friends from Tehran. The Dead Sea has nothing on my salt collection, whose latest entry, jalapeño salt, was purchased for pennies at the "salt bar" at my local Thriftway (try it on baked potatoes).

I usually buy spices in small quantities from bulk containers rather than overpaying for commercially packaged brands, and live by the motto "When in doubt, throw it out," tossing and replacing anything that's lost its taste, scent or color.

That said, I'm not above bowing to a bargain-hunter's bonanza: oversize tins of classics like Old Bay bought — cheap! — at Costco. I augment those finds with international intrigue courtesy of (my favorites) World Spice Merchants near the Pike Place Market Hillclimb, Uwajimaya (in Seattle and Bellevue) and Big John's PFI in Sodo.

Do likewise and you, too, have upped your culinary currency.

In my stash is everything needed (including a heavy-duty KitchenAid coffee grinder) to blend homemade Chinese five-spice: Sichuan peppercorns, star anise, fennel seed, cinnamon sticks and whole cloves. Trouble is, first I have to find that stuff.

And therein lies the rub. (Yeah, I've got that, too.)

It's easy to identify my "Rub with Love" salmon seasoning with the trademarked Tom Douglas label. And, clearly, those are pink peppercorns (try using them, gently crushed, to garnish vanilla ice cream) in the glass tube formerly filled with sea monkeys.

But what, my husband frequently asks, is in those umpteen plastic pouches scrunched into the big Ziploc bag? (Beats me.) And where the heck is our store of black peppercorns?

While my spice collection will likely remain somewhat of a mess — extending as it does from countertop to cabinets, hidy-holes to hanging baskets — I recently got more organized, having engaged in a spice intervention: an hours-long effort that had me revisiting a multitude of mini-jars and magnetized tins, McCormick markdowns and Spice Island closeouts. Afterward I felt even better than I do culling through my closets.

Help came in the form of a fledgling line of SpiceCare products created by Seattle entrepreneur Carol Peterman, including the container set I purchased in an effort to find a method for my madness.

Stackable and interlocking, with a trio of sizes and interchangeable labels, the 20-jar system she envisioned — after suffering from my own affliction — allows me to keep oft-used spices at hand, in groupings that reflect the way I cook: say, basil, oregano and bay leaves for tomato sauce, or cumin, turmeric and coriander for a curry. I've since learned that Peterman has put her SpiceCare products on the back burner as she continues to seek a new manufacturer. I've stocked up on "extras" in the unfortunate event they're the last of the line.

Meanwhile, for other storage options you might make a trip to Storables in Lynnwood or University Village, the Container Store in Bellevue or the venerable City Kitchens in downtown Seattle. If you want to go the obsessive-compulsive route and alphabetize your spices, there's always Ikea for containers and the office-supply store for a label gun.

Nancy Leson is Pacific NW magazine's food writer. Reach her at nleson@seattletimes.com. Benjamin Benschneider is the magazine's staff photographer.

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