Monday, August 23, 2010

Spices- The Frugal Cook's Stealth Bomber

I've decided to officially launch the start of my "Frugal Cook's Arsenal", a series I've wanted to do for so long. In it, I'll let you in on all my secrets for making my grocery budget so low, serve my family varied, delicious foods, and keeping the healthy foods in and the unhealthy man-made nasties out.

The first and foremost weapon in the Frugalista's kitchen- the spice rack.

Spices Enrich Our Life

Imagine a world in which everything tasted like sawdust. A world in which everything tasted the same. There would be no appeal to eat anything, no enjoyment when our hunger overtook us and gave us the push to eat.

Fortunately, we live in a world that is swarming with a multitude of flavors, each better and more delicious than the next. Every food has its own distinct taste that sets it apart from all the others.
Spice- they are the secret weapon of any great chef, especially the frugal one. Spices are like stealth bombers that sneak by, generally unseen, until wham- with those tiny spices, you've released a bomb of flavor, capable of altering the course of the entire meal.

You may wonder what prompted my soliloquy extolling the virtues of spices and what this may possibly have to do with saving money, but trust me, it does.

Why Spices

I live in a teeny tiny home with a pretty small kitchen, consider myself to be an aspiring minimalist. I've also got just about the most extensive spice cabinet of anyone I know. With space at a premium and decluttering left and right, why do I insist on taking up so much space with my 50+ different spices?

Because spices, my friend, make life worth living and food worth eating. Because spices very frequently have both nutritive and medicinal value. But most importantly of all, because with the right mix of spices, you can turn even the most simple, frugal meal into one so scrumptious you could use it to serve royalty, without needing to resort to chemical laden flavor enhancers like MSG.

I promote eating many vegan meals as a way to save a significant amount on your food bills. Beans, lentils, seitan and rice are definitely frugal meal options, but without proper spicing, many tend to find them so unpalatable that they completely write off the possibility of ever having vegan meals, especially not on a regular basis.

My definition of "spices" is very broad, veering from the dictionary definition, being as I let it cover more than just the traditional pepper, garlic, paprika and cinnamon. You many not consider some of what I write to be spices, but I will continue to describe them as such because they're things I regularly use to make even my most frugal meals taste delicious.

My Spices

Here is a list of some of the spices I have in my home. Next to each one, I will mark whether I think these are must haves, nice to haves, or just optional.

"Fake" Spices
Soy Sauce. Must have. While not what one would typically consider a spice as it is a liquid, in my opinion, soy sauce is one of the most essential flavor aids for the frugal kitchen. Even if you're not a lover of Chinese foods, so many different types of frugal recipes rely on soy sauce, from seitan to Jamaican sauces to French onion soup to Thai recipes. In my humble opinion, a kitchen without soy sauce is only half a kitchen.

Vinegar/Lemon Juice. Must have. The ability to make things sour is absolutely necessary if you want to be able to make food taste good. I personally have stocked at all times lemon juice, vinegar (often more than one type), and citric acid. If you don't like them all, then don't stock all, but always keep on hand some type of thing that you can add to food to acidify it.

Tomato Paste. Must have. Beans and other frugal dishes are made a million times better by the addition of tomato paste or sauce. Without tomato paste on hand, your vegan dishes may be much less tasty and unappealing. Tomato paste is not just for Italian food, it's also the basis of many Middle Eastern dishes, African dishes, Mexican recipes, and many more. Never go without tomato paste.

Mustard. Must have. Even if you're not a mustard lover, a little bit goes a long way to make so many types of frugal meals taste better. I use a scant amount of mustard, minimal enough that even mustard haters won't realize its there, to improve the taste of so many dishes, from vegan cheese sauce to homemade French onion soup to mock meat recipes. I make sure never to run out of mustard in my house.

Worcestershire Sauce. Nice to have. Many frugal recipes call for a dash of this fish based sauce. While it is not essential in the kitchen, as soy sauce works as an adequate replacement, Worcestershire sauce is a good addition to any kitchen.

Chicken Fat. Nice to have. When sauteing vegetables and onions as a basis for most soups and dishes, using chicken fat instead of oil will add such a terrific and strong flavor to the food without needing to use consume soup mix. I render my chicken fat from scraps I get free from a local butcher, so this tasty addition to my arsenal costs me nothing.

Regular Spices
Pepper. Must have. Unless you're someone who abhors any and all hints of spice, pepper is something you should keep in your home. I always have in stock black pepper, white pepper, hot paprika, red pepper flakes and whole peppercorns, though use the black pepper for the most part.

Paprika. Must have. This is my go-to spice nearly every time I am making a food and inventing a recipe, as it tastes good with nearly every food. Paprika also goes a long way to helping mock meat dishes taste more authentic.

Sage. Nice to have. I use the ground version in all my mock meat recipes, as sage gives food an authentic meaty taste. This spice also tastes delicious in many other types of recipes.

Ginger. Nice to have. This is an essential ingredient in Asian foods as well as many varieties of sweet dishes.

Cinnamon. Cloves. Allspice. Nutmeg. Nice to haves. These spices are not only for sweet recipes- they also have uses in tomato based dishes, curries, etc.

Cumin. Turmeric. Curry Powder. Nice to haves. Definitely a great addition to almost any kitchen. Their uses are limitless.

Parsley. Dill. Thyme. Oregano. Basil. Must Haves.
Marjoram. Mint. Coriander. Rosemary. Bay Leaves.  Nice to haves.

Everything Else
There are specialty spices, spice mixes, and optional spices. Among these, I have:
Lemon pepper, cardamom, caraway, fennel seeds, Yemenite spice mix, Chili powder, pickling spice, hyssop, lavender, coriander seeds, mustard seeds, fenugreek, and much, much else.

Spices and Frugality

In order to keep the costs of my spices low, I buy my spices from stores that sell things by weight in bins. This way, if I only need a little bit of a certain spice or am not sure if I'll like something, I can buy a very small amount instead of buying a whole package.
I store my spices either in the freezer or in bug proof bottles or jars in my cabinet or in my spice drawer.

I have a ton of spices. Seriously. 50 different types minimum, but I probably missed a few while I was counting.

I do think that having this many spices and knowing how to use them makes such a huge difference in allowing my grocery bills to be so low.

How many different types of spices do you have? What would you say are your spice "must haves"? Do you agree with me on which spices are necessary and which are just optional? Have you heard of or used most of the spices I've listed?
Do you agree with me that spices can help you save money? Why or why not?

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