Christine Burns Rudalevige’s very full spice rack. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

When a big deadline looms and the need to procrastinate arises, I typically turn to my spice rack because it can always do with a little reorganization. It’s a four-shelf-high rack that slides in and out of the side of the kitchen island. Each shelf holds a good 20 spice jars.

As I neared the deadline for this column, I got up from my writing desk and walked into the kitchen to make sure the jar of allspice berries (which I add to my pepper grinder as seafood chef Barton Seaver taught me) sat at the front of the top rack and the za’atar (a Middle Eastern spice mix given to me by a Lebanese friend who’d made it according to her grandmother’s recipe) was the last jar on the bottom one. As I pulled the rack out of the island, my green-eating self became disgusted with my adventurous-cooking self because the rack was obviously wastefully overflowing.

Pre-pandemic, I routinely dipped into the bulk spice bins at my local health food store to buy small amounts of the spices I needed, so they would be as fresh as possible and I could avoid waste if I only needed a small amount. Should I need a spice not available there, I could tap one of Maine’s two spice merchants, Gryffon Ridge or Skordo, based in Dresden and Brunswick, respectively. As the bulk bins have been removed as a COVID cautionary measure, I’ve been tapping these two vendors almost exclusively, at farmers markets, in retail locations and online. Both have had a more readily available supply of the spices I need than the grocery store has.

But what spices do I actually need? And which ones are unsustainable overkill that will lie in wait until I have the will to chuck them out?

To help settle this dispute between the green-eating and adventurous-cooking parts of my psyche, I reached out to a dozen chefs and spice merchants asking each to give me their list of desert island spices. I attempted to cap them at 12. All thought it was an interesting exercise, few could narrow the list to a simple dozen, most argued that spice blends were a whole different category but reluctantly offered up one or two of their favorites, and all excluded herbs because, more often than not, they kept them fresh in clay pots or kitchen gardens, even if they did have a few dried ones – like rosemary and mint – on the spice rack.

Adventurous cook Christine feels some solidarity with the respondents’ inability to narrow their field of culinary play. Green Christine thinks she may not be the only one with a spice acquisition problem. On-deadline Christine compared the lists closely to find patterns that would help her maintain an interesting, yet efficient and sustainable, spice cache.

1. Black pepper was universally at the top of the list. All survey participants called for whole peppercorns (as well as any seeded spices – cumin, coriander, mustard, etc.) to be ground as needed for best results. Fore Street’s Sam Hayward and Skordo’s Anne Karonis Weiss specified that the jar be filled with Tellicherry black peppercorns as these berries are left to ripen on the vine longer than other varieties, thereby maximizing their fruity flavor.

2. Cinnamon – most often ground as opposed to sticks, as it’s not easy to grind – was universal as well. Hayward and Weiss specified Vietnamese (also called Saigon) cinnamon because its typically high aromatic oil content makes it stronger and sweeter than Cassia cinnamon. You can use less of it to get the same kick in sweet and savory dishes.

3. All listed one or two crushed chile pepper options – but most specified Middle Eastern, semi-dry varieties like Aleppo, Maras or Urfa. These peppers, mostly from Turkey and Syria, are not ground into a dry, fine powder, but into semi-dry bits, so in addition to the smoky heat they add to a dish, they also add some texture. Additionally, the heat hits at the front end of your bite and doesn’t tend to linger very long, a characteristic that satisfies the fire eaters but doesn’t scare off the spice wimps.

4. If these professional cooks want a little smoke but no fire at all in their dish, they keep Spanish smoked paprika on hand to do the job.

5. Whole cumin seed was the last spice to hit every list, likely because cuisines worldwide – from Indian and Latin American to Middle Eastern and Northern African – tap into its earthy, umami flavor.

6. Mustard seeds also made most lists, but I had to dig in to find out why, as it’s not a go-to spice for me. But that just might be me, as it’s the second most used spice in the U.S., second to only black pepper. The mustard plant itself is a sustainable prospect because every part of the mustard plant is edible – leaves, flowers and seeds. There are black, brown and yellow mustard seeds and they decrease in potency in that order. Ground, they can emulsify a salad dressing and make a burger sing; pickled, they add texture and pungency to the mix; and fried, their taste mellows.

7. Sumac – ground-up and dried sumac berries, which grow on sumac shrubs and trees, including Maine native staghorn sumac – also surprised me as something a chef would want on a desert island. But then I was reminded of its lemony taste and advised that a sprinkle could make up for the fact that a lemon itself wasn’t available.

8. It was a tossup between nutmeg and its botanical wrapper, mace, as what these chefs considered to be a second warm spice (the first being cinnamon) to keep on hand. Nutmeg is easy to grate into a cake or a white sauce, but it’s bold. Mace – the lacy reddish covering of a nutmeg seed that comes in either blades or ground – is lighter and brighter than the nut. Choose and use wisely.

9-12. The spice blends any cook keeps on hand to round out her sustainable spice rack must align with the cuisines that make cooking at home a long-term prospect. So choose chili powder for Mexican, 5-spice for Chinese, Garam Masala for Indian, Herbes de Provence for French, Italian Herb mix for Italian, Ras al Hanout for North African and Za’atar for Middle Eastern.

Choose your spices wisely, use them with abandon, organize them regularly.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, recipe developer, tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at: [email protected]

Christine pours maple yogurt sauce on top of the squash after baking. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Roasted Winter Squash with Aleppo Pepper and Maple Yogurt Sauce

As eating locally in Maine requires enjoying a variety of winter squash early and often, I switch up the varieties I use for this dish.  I peel the ones with tough skins but slice all into similarly thick pieces, so they cook evenly. I tend to make a big batch of these, pureeing half with sauteed onions and chicken broth for a smooth soup.

Serves 6-8

3-4 pounds winter squash, seeded and sliced into 1-inch thick pieces
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ to 1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
½ cup yogurt
2 tablespoons milk
2 tablespoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons chopped parsley, cilantro, chives or green onions

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Place squash pieces on a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle oil over squash and toss to coat the squash. Arrange squash in a single layer on the baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt and Aleppo pepper. Roast squash for 15 minutes. Flip pieces over and roast until they are fork-tender, about 10 minutes more.

As the squash roasts, combine the yogurt, milk and maple syrup. When the squash is cooked, transfer it to a serving platter, drizzle with the yogurt sauce and sprinkle with the chopped herbs. Serve warm.


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