Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Gathering your spices of life


Kitchen-wise, we're sinking into an ever more serious, sorry state—things are going to pot. As we become more inept we try not to stay any longer than it takes to do the morning coffee. It's a slide that has come upon us gradually, likely beginning with my generation, the first to have a chance at pursuits far more beckoning than mere excellence at the stove. My mother, a wonderful cook proud of her skill, often tried to introduce me to the joy of cooking. As I remember, I'd cry out truths such as, "Gosh, Mom, my serve floats like a balloon and I can't hit a 3-iron any farther than a 7 ... I gotta lotta work to do my basics ... I got no time for kitchen stuff."

Now, fast-forward to Betty as bride: I cross our starter house threshold and our starter kitchen threshold with the era's two bibles under arm—"The Joy of Cooking" and the still indispensable one by Better Homes and Gardens—two books that may have nourished any trace of homemaker potential if such a trace had been there. Unlike today's cookbooks that specialize in but a piece of a meal—the salad ... the soup ... the entrée ... the dessert—these books took a starter all the way through a meal, though even they didn't begin at the beginning when a starter stepped into a starter kitchen and saw alongside the stove a puzzling niche with elfin shelves not even big enough to store her first pot, a two-cupper. Perhaps you're thinking, "What a dingbat—it's the spice shelf." But for those as clueless as I, I offer useful information you won't find in your cookbooks.

That spice space? My advice is don't be in a rush to fill it. In the beginning, you can make do with salt, pepper and bay leaves, bay leaves being called for in entrées as diverse as skillet spaghetti and bouillabaisse. If you feel a need to buy more, don't choose them alphabetically. That's what I did and I still have the Schilling's alum that I've yet find listed in a recipe. Pickling is mentioned on the back, but that's an esoteric pursuit indeed.

If you've already bought alum it's not a total waste. Alum is as good as it gets for canker sores—a little dab'll do ya, and unless you see a commercial touting a prescription that guarantees to disappear canker sores before happy hour with only a possibility of side effects such as palpitations, double vision and vertigo that may prove fatal should you flop at the top of the stairs, just ask your doctor if alum is right for you.

Buying nearly useless alum left me feeling despondent enough to look for a jolly spice even it was nothing more than vanity fare. Chives caught my eye, and my, they're way better than mere vanity fare. I stir them into almost every pot and I liberally sprinkle them on baked potatoes ... hash browns ... scrambled eggs ... cottage cheese—you name it—about everything but peanut butter.

If you feel a need for vanity fare, you don't have to choose chives. Paprika may catch your eye, and it, too, is a nearly universal spice that looks especially fetching on colorless foods such as potato salad.

When you're set with your spices, try a meal. It was ever so long before I ventured beyond Campbell soup can recipes—ask my kids what it was like growing up Bell and I believe they're too loyal to put it into words, but if you zoom in on their faces I don't doubt you'll see clear evidence of tics when they recall the weekly Spam casseroles. They were into adolescence before I felt cocky enough to try a free-range recipe—meaning one not calling for the unnamed pressed pig parts as in the Spam casserole.

If you venture beyond soup can meals, you'll have to deal with recipes calling for a quarter teaspoon of this—and a quarter teaspoon of that—spices maybe neither in your vocabulary or collection. Do not try to rationalize away these spices and try to convince yourself that such teeny amounts don't matter. They matter. Buy them. But don't impulsively buy expensive fresh herbs, which is what they're upped to when they come in little plastic bags. You'll only use a snip or two before the rest turn slimy and you hold your nose and toss them.

Free-range cooking, dear fellow pilgrims, calls for serious commitment. Be very sure it's a discretionary pursuit in which you hanker to excel.

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