Life’s Too Short To Eat Boring Food

by Heather Bell, MPH, RD, LDN

I love intensely-flavored dishes. Not hot, per se — recipes with too much heat actually get in the way of me tasting the food itself. I love dishes with big flavors, whether they’re as layered as the ingredients of Madhur Jaffrey’s Butter Chicken, or as simple as the cinnamon in my favorite breakfast bun.

As a result of my quest for big flavors, I’ve made some changes in the way I cook and shop for ingredients. In a pinch, I’ll still go to the spice aisle of my local grocery store to get my fix, but when I can, I go to the place where spices, herbs, and other flavorings are taken seriously:

I go to Penzeys.

Based in Wisconsin, Penzeys also has a store at 1293 Massachusetts Avenue in Arlington. The minute I walk in the store, I’m surrounded by spices and herbs. I usually make a bee-line for their cinnamon section because their Vietnamese cinnamon is the sweetest and most intensely-fragrant cinnamon I have ever experienced. Oatmeal, cinnamon toast, cinnamon buns, topping for hot chocolate — if I run out of traditional uses, I make up some new way to incorporate this cinnamon, I love it that much. And if I ever tire of Vietnamese cinnamon, Penzeys also carries Ceylon, Chinese, and Korintje varieties, each with its own particular flavor profile. It’s cinnamon heaven.

After that, I generally bounce all over the store to find what I need to stock my kitchen shelves. Penzeys buys directly from spice merchants around the world, and they grind their own spices to meet the demand of their online orders and stores. (That means that even their ground spices are much fresher than what’s available in the supermarket, and the fresher the spice or herb, the better the flavor.) For an even bigger oomph in my cooking, I buy whole spices, toast them until they’re fragrant in a pan, and then grind them with a mortar and pestle (or a cheap coffee grinder). Spices such as star anise, coriander, and cumin seeds

explode with flavor. The same goes for the dried chili section–ancho, chipotle, guajillo, arbol, and cascabel. Until I put down my supermarket chili powder and started using chicken stock to rehydrate chilies for marinades, soups, and stews, I had no idea the difference they could make! Chilies can be bright and fruity in a dish, or deep and smoky, and I love blending them with other spices and herbs to make sauces for braised meats. And lest you think that Penzeys caters only to Do It Yourself cooks, let me say that they’ve got lots of pre-mixed spice and herb rubs, too — everything from Garam Masala curry mix to a Taco blend. One of my colleagues gave me a Penzeys blend for a holiday gift, and for months afterwards my pizza eating had extra zip. I’ve been a fan of that pizza blend ever since.

But what if you don’t feel like driving into Arlington for all your seasoning needs?

Not a problem! You can also order online from places like Penzeys, The Spice House, and even Amazon. You don’t have to completely re-stock your kitchen pantry, either. Start small with a spice that you know you use often, or with a multi-purpose rub. I’m betting that you’ll be amazed at how something so small can have such a dramatic effect on your favorite dishes.

As for me, I’ll see you in the cinnamon section!