They say variety is the spice of life, but I think it’s really garlic salt. Or basil. Or za’atar. Or any number of other dried herbs and seasonings currently crowding out my kitchen cupboards.
Spices are crucially important, and not just because the search for them inspired Columbus to sail westward some 500 years ago, reshaping the future of the Americas forever. They also taste really, really good.
From cumin and dillweed to paprika and cloves, spices have the potential to transform an otherwise unmemorable dish into something you’ll make time and time (thyme and thyme?) again. Heck, there’s a reason Simon and Garfunkel harmonized about parsley and sage instead of bland, boiled chicken breast.
I’m a true spice believer, but it hasn’t always been that way. Much like every other former-22-year-old I know, I moved to New York City nine (nine!) years ago with little more than a suitcase, a laptop and a plastic bin of sad kitchen supplies salvaged from my senior year apartment. I had a wooden spoon, a plastic cereal bowl, salt shakers and some dried onion powder. I did a lot of embarrassing things my first year in Manhattan, but I’d say my “cooking” took the cake.
But as I grew more interested in healthy eating, I started to expand my spice rotation. As I cooked more recipes, I learned that the secret to tasty meals wasn’t necessarily more oil or salt or sugar or bacon (though, let’s be honest, those things often help), but a better use of seasonings. I started with accessible things, like pumpkin pie spice for my oatmeal, but quickly expanded as my palate broadened, adding first rosemary and bay leaves, and then more complex flavors like garam masala and Thai red curry paste to the mix.
I now have more than 50 spice jars at home (mostly made by McCormick, because you can’t take the Baltimore out of the girl), plus hot sauce and a tub of Indian Achaar pickles on my desk at work. And my food is more delicious than ever before. With just a little creative seasoning, I can transform three pounds of veggies into a ratatouille I’ll want to eat all week long or a raw chicken into a garlicky-roasted masterpiece.
And that’s key to healthy eating: actually wanting to consume the nutritious lunch you packed for work instead of leaving it to wilt in the staff fridge and hitting up the sandwich cart downstairs. Cooking for yourself lets you better control your portions, manage what’s going into your body and ultimately saves you money. No wonder the three wise men carried frankincense and myrrh. They knew spices = the original health food.
With that in mind, I’ve decided to start a little experiment: growing my own indoor herb garden. Dried spices have a lot of benefits, namely storability and shelf life, but there’s something extra wonderful about snipping a sprig of parsley in real time to pump up the flavors. There’s also something soul-nourishing about cultivating new life at a time when so much in the world just feels hopeless and dark and sad.
So I ordered a little garden planter on Amazon, bought some potting soil, and stopped by the farmers’ market to pick my plants. I went with parsley, basil and sage, three staples in my everyday cooking. I would have bought oregano, since 1. It’s so flavorful fresh and 2. It’s hilarious to hear a Brit say it, but the farmer only had it in big pots that wouldn’t fit into my diminutive blue-toned planter.
And look at them! They’re so darn cute!
Who knows if they’ll grow — there isn’t much room for roots to expand and lord knows whether the sun’s right — but I’m looking forward to trying. Even if I only get one batch of pesto out of them, my
babies seedlings have already done much to lift my spirits.
Or maybe it was the dog hugs.
What flavors spice up your cooking? And what the heck is marjoram? Still haven’t figured that one out.