Mar 28, 2018

An Age Old Question ~ 3 Key Tips on Storing Spices


How long should I keep my spices?

We get asked this a lot in the shop and always have a couple ready answers. But the longer answer is something I've thought about a lot, and especially now, as spring knocks at the door, and my body and mind beg for freshness.

As some of you readers may know, I'm expecting a baby. This little one is exactly one week late now. I thought it'd be fun to have a baby on the "official" first day of spring, which is also Persian New Year (we did birth a new spice called Mazeh for Nowruz). But no baby. Now it's nearly Passover and Easter, and there are just so many holidays celebrating re-birth, liberation, spring and the like that it seems a darn well good time to celebrate a baby, too. If only he or she would budge from my womb.


Here's the short answer for how long you should keep your spices:

- Ground spices: 6 months is best. After 1 year, replace.
- Whole spices: 1-2 years.
- Dried herbs: 6 months.

If there isn't an obvious "best by" date on the package, mark your spices as soon as you buy them with the date. It will be easier to rotate them!

I collect antique spice packaging, but not antique spices.
But what's the longer answer?

Spices can and often do get forgotten. They are dried things from far away that are tucked away in a cabinet or drawer and brought out on occasion for a recipe for mapo tofu or gingerbread cake. There are a few favorites that stay out on the countertop for constant use, but my impression is that most homes contain a whole cast of spices that are ghosts of their former selves, lurking in a sort of shadowed, passive state.

I like this section from a Jorie Graham poem "To Mark Rothko" where she's writing about an intense color of red (here expressed through a description of a cardinal). I like it both because Rothko is a painter whose work speaks to me with its intense, emotional color (I went through a phase once of trying to express scent through color) but also because spices are often literally pigments themselves and are used in painting. Graham's poem captures the feeling of an intensity of color that I believe can be translated to spice:

He could fly now
into a moment of sunlight
that fell from the sun's edge
ten thousand years ago,
mixed in with sunlight
absolutely new.

The tradition of using spices in our food is ancient—traditions stemming from ritual and medicine dating back more than ten thousand years. But the flavors should be absolutely new; they should be the best dry-form expression that the plant has to offer, mixed in with sunlight. How intense are your spices? Are they Rothko intense? Sunlight is pretty intense, and it is something we eat, in a way, in that plants translate sunlight into sugars through photosynthesis. 



Here are 3 key ways to eat sunlight (and keep your spice cupboard fresh):

1) Relocate: Figure out which are your absolute desert-island favorite spices, and move those to a convenient spot in your kitchen - such as where you keep your salt and pepper or olive oil. It may be that you have just two (besides salt and pepper) or maybe ten. Figure it out. Your food will taste better because you'll use these more often.

2) Refresh: Spring cleaning isn't just for rugs and floors: go into your spice cupboard at least once a year and pull out the stale spices. How do you know they're stale?
- Open the jar and smell it. Does it spark inspiration? (a la Marie Kondo's 'spark joy') I know it's vague, but the smell of your spices should excite you. If not, they're not going to add anything to your food.
- Feel it. Is it very dry, almost sandy? Or rock hard? The aromatic oils are gone, and there is no life left in this spice. Say so long.
- Does the packaging look pretty outdated? Yes, you know you have a few of these. There are also expiration dates to check.
- Has the color vanished? Especially for herbs and dried chilies - if it's gone more brown or gray, there isn't much left of this spice. Compost away.

Dried Maras chile pepper: 2+ years old (on left) versus fresh.

Ground cardamom (vaguely fragrant, looks like floor sweepings) vs. vibrant whole pods. 

3) Replace: Notice if most of your spices are ground. If yes, consider replacing all of the pure ground spices with whole versions. Exceptions are ginger and cinnamon, although grating your own cinnamon is definitely worth it! (See below for a note on turmeric). Also good to keep fresh ginger root around.

Here are whole spices that you should always keep on hand in lieu of ground:

- Nutmeg. Pre-ground nutmeg is only good for 1-2 months due to very volatile oil content. Just get used to grating it - you'll love it!
- Cardamom. Pods or seeds.
- Fennel seeds.
- Coriander seeds.
- Cumin seeds (unless you happen to buy our freshly toasted & ground!)
- Cloves.
- Star Anise.
- Peppercorns (all types).

Grate your own nutmeg. 
Grind your whole spices quickly and easily in a mortar and pestle or in an electric coffee grinder. The flavor will be astoundingly different.


What about turmeric?

While turmeric can be found fresh in the grocery store these days, it's not entirely practical to buy it this way. If you are excited about discovering turmeric and its health-promoting properties, it's worth it to seek out a freshly ground turmeric. We have one from Sri Lanka that we grind in house that's phenomenal. We also just started offering local ground turmeric from a farm in Amherst, MA. How cool is that?!

What about blends?

Since I am a spice blender, of course I must advocate for the use of blends, which may seem contrary to my whole argument about fresh spices. But if you are using freshly-made blends (from small purveyors!) you are doing great. Blends from big-chain grocery stores, or that come in giant bottles ("but it was SO CHEAP!") or that are basically commodity spices, aren't worth using. I can assure you that they've been sitting in their 'ground state' for at least one year if not three, so you are already buying expired, stale spices.

Good blends (made by small purveyors, freshly ground) offer the chance to elevate a dish more easily than you might be able to with just pure spices. They are to be used liberally and often, not just for the pie you make once a year. Blends are rooted in cultural traditions, a sense of place, a culinary concept - they are there to make your job easier in the kitchen, to stretch your imagination and to make you feel like a pro.


Concerns over money and spices:

One thing that I think demotivates us from getting rid of spices is that they cost us money, and the possibility that they *might* still be good so "maybe I'll save money by keeping them around." But think of your spices like a bunch of fresh roses - you spent $12 on that bunch of roses, and enjoyed their scent and beauty in a vase on your table. Then they began to droop, lose some petals, turn brown, dry out. Does this bouquet still bring you joy? Not the way the fresh ones did. You throw them out, but you don't think about the fact that you wasted $12. They served their purpose and you are glad for that.

Of course fresh flowers are shorter-lived than spices, but I think it's a good analogy. And besides, a jar of spice is usually half the price of a bunch of flowers.

Spices that are a bit more expensive - like saffron and vanilla - are still not that expensive relative to other foods or household items. A jar of saffron might cost you $10 but shouldn't then cause you anxiety about using too much. Again, think of a bunch of flowers that costs at least that much. Spices are valuable but not precious - enjoy the value they bring to your meals by adding incredible scent, color and flavor.
Bay leaves. Six months old on left. Fresh on right.


Happy spring spicing! May you fly now / into a moment of sunlight —

Aug 31, 2017

Judy's Lesson


Earlier this week I was honored to give a talk at an event called "Women Who Inspire" for a group of women in the fields of food, education and farming. I decided to center my talk around my aunt Judy, a talented artist, who taught me some lessons that helped shape the way I see the world, and the way I approached launching Curio. Below is a slight adaptation of the talk.

Starting a business is hard. Beyond that, starting a mission-driven business is even harder.
When I started my business a few years ago, I didn’t realize how challenging it would be to balance the everyday business duties with my long-term vision of making positive impacts on spice communities around the world. Curio is still young and doesn’t have big purchasing power, nor big budgets for charitable donations. But what I do have is an incredible community – such as the one right here in this room – one that pushes me and inspires me and keeps me moving forward. Tonight I hope to share with you some stories of how I got started, including one from a women who inspired me. 

Jul 25, 2017

Purity of the Sea / A Visit to Eggemoggin Reach


"I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day." - E.B. White

Mark knows that whenever we plan to go anywhere that inevitably it'll be spice related. Fortunately (or unfortunately for him) there aren't many places on the planet that don't grow or celebrate a spice, and if there isn't a spice then there's a salt. Thankfully, our world is rich with aromatic plants and intriguing place-based salts so even if soylent shakes are the future, you can be sure they'll be well spiced. But it's also why E.B. White's statement about torn desires is very true to my heart. I'm not just hunting treasure when I travel but looking for ways through which spices can teach me about improving the world.


Jun 26, 2017

To Japan, for Sansho


I'm here in the shop on a Sunday afternoon, listening to Al Green and watching a bout of rain brush the sidewalks with moisture. It's distinctly summer now, and I am reflecting on how I started this season in Japan, just as the lilacs finished blooming here in Boston. Mark and I travelled there together for a little over a week earlier this June, and it still glows in my memory with a kind of shimmering green light and a distinctly fresh and different flavor.



Towards the end of our trip we made our way from Kyoto to Koya San, a temple town high in the mountains of the Wakayame Prefecture in the South East of the country where we wanted to stop along the way. Wakayame is known for its agriculture, and indeed on our way to the famous temples of Koya San we drove through a valley overflowing with persimmon groves, but our main destination in the province was neither persimmons nor Buddhist temples but a tiny sansho pepper farm.

I can't recall where or when I first learned about sansho, but it's been on my mind for the last five years.

How do I describe the feeling of finally stepping foot on the farm and seeing a sansho pepper tree? My heart fluttered like I'd just met a favorite celebrity. In general, seeing a spice in its native habitat (especially rare ones, like sansho) is so thrilling I can only imagine it's something like a biologist traveling by boat to a specific section of ocean, donning the appropriate gear and then diving in to spy a favorite species of fish.

But instead of diving underwater we ventured down a narrow winding road that traced a river and dove through long tunnels carved through mountains. Already we'd gotten lost and had to call the interpreter we'd hired, Yoshi, who was meeting us at the farm. We finally found Yoshi on the side of the road, waiting for us in his black Nissan and he nobly led us the rest of the way to the farm. Upon arriving, we were both so relieved that we'd made it (and not too late!) that I barely noticed the small crowd that had assembled along the side of the farmhouse. After we made introductions Yoshi turned to us to ask if it'd be alright if our visit was filmed for a local TV show, oh and also there is a newspaper reporter who'd like to conduct an interview.

Needless to say it was quite the event, and made me feel so honored that our visit from America was considered so special, since every trip to origin I make is incredibly important and often I'm not sure how the other party feels. (Do they care? Am I wasting their time?) In this case, the good feelings were mutual and I hope to post some clips from the news show in a few weeks.





We visited the farm on the early side of the harvest, when the fruit was just beginning to ripen. After the initial formalities were out of the way the first thing we did was climb a small hill next to the family rice paddy and pluck a few sansho berries to taste, fresh from the tree. Immediately I tasted the rush of lemon notes, a zingy, pungent brightness (almost like raw rhubarb) followed by the familiar buzz or what Harold McGee describes as "the effect of a mild electrical current." (see p. 429 On Food and Cooking) We then walked up to the main field, the farmer in his white muck boots with me and Yoshi by his side, followed by my husband Mark, busy snapping photos, followed by the camera crew, a local friend named John who was half Japanese half American (another interpreter, yay!) and the farmer's wife. The field was flat because it used to be a rice paddy, and it was filled with the small shrubby sansho trees that had been maturing for ten years before starting to bear fruit. Ten years to start producing! That's just one reason this spice is so expensive.


We were surrounded by gorgeous green mountains, and the sun beat down on us as we chatted (slowly, since it was through interpreters) and there was much picture-taking. Eventually we made our way back to the farm house, which doubled as a small café and shop where they sold value-added products like sansho jelly and their own version of Shichimi Togarashi (7 spice) that is the most common blend that uses sansho. The farmer's wife made us tall glasses of ice water into which she'd mixed a spoonful of sansho jelly in place of a piece of lemon. She then served us slices of Camembert cheese (perhaps the only cheese we ate on the trip) dusted with bright green ground sansho.


Sansho pepper, with its lemony flavor, is most often paired with rich, oily foods, such as unagi (eel) or in this case with rich dairy products. I learned that some European chefs who have begun importing the spice are using it in desserts, because of the bright, perfumy aromatics and the entertaining effect on the tongue. The TV producer asked me what I expected Americans to use it on, and I said fish, maybe noodles. I still wonder if he wanted me to say something surprising, like "on burgers!" But I had trouble expressing the fact that many Americans, including myself, simply crave the distinct flavors of Japan.

The visit concluded with my purchase of the sansho pepper, during which time I also mentioned what a hard time I was having finding good yuzu peel to use as a spice. Yuzu is a popular citrus fruit in Japan - it looks like a lemon but is related to a pomelo - and it is famous for its gorgeous floral aroma, not so unlike Meyer lemon but with more intensity.  It turned out they grew that, too, and not only that but they were one of the few producers in the country who made a highly aromatic version with no pith (the bitter, white part that is between the peel and the fruit).



Why sansho was growing here in the Wakayama prefecture no one was sure, but the farmer said rumors were that it had been brought here by a monk in the year 900, and was prized for its medicinal, digestive properties. Even though Mark and I had visited several temples, including staying overnight in one where we woke at 5AM to attend the traditional morning prayer service, I felt most at peace and most connected to the planet while on the farm. Maybe it was the smiles of the farmer and his wife, maybe it was the rumple of green hills or the sun slanting across the rice paddies, but this religious experience was definitely spice-induced.


About Sansho pepper:

Sansho pepper is a relative of sichuan pepper, so not a true member of the black pepper family (Piper sp.) but rather a berry that belongs to a branch of the citrus family, called Zanthoxylum. These trees are often called 'prickly ash' and some members of the family (there are 250 or so) are used for bonsai. The spice bearing members of the family produce a fruit whose seed pod is valued for the buzzing, numbing, tingly effervescent taste that it creates. It's the husk of the seed pod, not the seed itself that's valued; the seed creates a sandy texture when used in cooking. The reason it's called sansho is that the molecule responsible for that numbing effect is called "sanshool" and is actually related to the hot sensation you get from black pepper (piperine) as well as chile peppers (capsaicin).

Sansho (Zanthoxylum piperitum) is different from sichuan (Zanthoxylum simulans) primarily for its distinct lemon flavor, like fresh lemon rind. Its main harvest is in the summer, when the seed pods are ripe but still a bright green, and it's dried very slowly in dehydrators. Sichuan on the other hand is usually harvested later in the season and dried in the sun so it turns brown (or reddish-brown) and has a more roasted flavor.

Usage:

The most common appearance of sansho is in the popular spice blend 'shichimi togarashi' or Japanese 7 spice, used as a table seasoning throughout Japan for anything from ramen to sushi. It's used on its own to season grilled eel (which is quite oily and rich) but it can also be used on rice salads, green summer salads, soba or rice noodles, grilled salmon, grilled mushrooms and more!

Recipes coming soon.