Mike’s Indispensible Spices & Secret Ingredients List

Balti Spice
A signature blend of curry spice from Northwestern India, having a distinctly different flavor than that of garam masala. I use about a tablespoon in many of my Indian recipes. A really great spice with multiple uses.

A wicked-hot long red pepper popularly grown in Louisiana and other southern states. This pepper dries nicely in ristras, and is much smaller and hotter than the chimayo so I can dry a lot in a small space. I have fun growing these every year as they are easy to maintain, are relatively disease-free and produce a ton of peppers from a single plant. I’ll use the dried pods by grinding them to a fine powder in my coffee grinder. The powder keeps for well over a year when stored in a cool dry place in small spice jars. 35-40,000 SHU.

Chimayo Chili Powder
This chili is a staple for many southwest recipes. You can buy a bushel of roasted chimayos on a Denver street corner for about five bucks, when they come in season in mid October. Sold ground or in whole dried pods, it can be quite hot. I use mild chimayo for my chili when I want to add a base of rich flavor without going overboard on the heat. For controlled heat I use cayenne or chipotle powder. This method has been used by many chefs and chili cooks with great results. 1-3,000 SHU.

Chinese 5-Spice
A blend of seasonings used in many Asian dishes. If used in small quantities it imparts a really great, subtle flavor. Found in most Asian grocery stores.

Chinkiang Black Vinegar (Gold Plum Brand)
I am hopelessly addicted to this product. It is the Asian version of a high-quality balsamic vinegar, which is used as a dipping sauce and complement to wok stir-fry dishes. Add four tablespoons with chopped ginger and garlic or ground chili paste and serve with pork, shrimp or vegetable pot stickers. It may also be used as a dressing and marinade. Gold Plum brand is the best — don’t waste your time on anything else. This is a hard-to-come-by item so ask if your Asian market can special order it. You’ll pay a lot less than ordering it online.

The holy-grail of all chili spices. Chipotle is the dried form of a jalapeño pepper that is slowly smoked over a pecan-wood fire for about twenty-four hours. The result is something that resembles bat guano, and the flavor is unlike anything else. Chipotle in recent years has become a very expensive spice, due largely to exploding market demand. Ground and packaged, it sells for roughly $17-24 per pound. This is almost double the price of gourmet bean coffee. I buy my chipotle in small bags as whole pods from a local mexican market and then grind it myself in batches when I need it. A small bag will run you about three bucks and lasts a long time. I prefer the hot, authentic Mexican Meco variety.

Jalapeños were historically smoked for preservation purposes by the Aztecs, who used them liberally on many dishes. Chipotle’s complex, smoky-hot flavor is perfect on grilled fish, steaks, chops, as a marinade or used as a kick-ass base for BBQ-rub. It is a must-have on fajitas. Try using 1 tsp in salsa. Or just apply it liberally to your skin as a soothing balm. 6-10,000 SHU.

Also known as Chiltecpin or simply Tepin, from the Nahuatl Mexican word meaning “flea.” A very small chili pepper, the size of a peppercorn. However, don’t let this fool you. It packs an intense punch. Originally found growing wild in the arid southwestern U.S. and Mexico and used by native American Indians. Horticulturists believe this was the ancestor of all common red peppers we see today worldwide. Evidence of its cultivation dates back 7500 years. Purchased dried in small bags. Use with caution. Two or three crushed tiny pods will heat up a bowl of chili quite nicely. 70-80,000 SHU.

Cilantro and Coriander
Cilantro (also known as Chinese Parsley) is widely used in a number of regional dishes. It is a must in salsa and Thai cuisine. The minced stems are used as a main ingredient in deep-fried Thai egg rolls.  Choose cilantro in a fresh bunch. It should not appear limp or discolored. Store what you don’t use in the fridge with the leaves covered in an open plastic food bag. Place the stems in a glass of water and stand the whole apparatus up in the back corner next to that seven-month-old jar of mayo. Do not close the bag up tight or the cilantro will rot. Best used within ten days. Cilantro is also easy to grow in your home garden. The very fine leaves and flowers may also be eaten. If left to go to seed it will produce coriander. Dry coriander seed may be ground and used as a spice in place of cilantro – the flavor is more mellow with a hint of lemon.

Coriander is the dried seed of the cilantro plant which can be purchased either ground or whole. It is very popular in Indian dishes like garam masala and curry. I use coriander for a number of dishes because of its wonderful pungent nutty citrus flavor. The flavor is quite different from the cilantro leaves. If buying whole in bulk, grind the seeds in a mortar or spice grinder as you use it. Like with most other dry spices, it’s best used within six months.

Cumin (Comino)
An ancient spice. According to the Bible, cumin seeds had so much medicinal value that they could be used as currency in the payment of debts. Their medical and economic role is attested to in documents from Egyptian physicians and Greek palace scribes dating back further than 1000 BC. Later, cumin was one of the staple plants grown in medieval monastery gardens.

Its flavor is so strong that the Romans would sometimes substitute it for pepper. Originally shipped from Spain during the European conquest of Mexico. Since then, it has been widely adopted in Mexican cuisine. Purchased either as whole seed or ground. I prefer to toast the seed using medium heat in a small heavy skillet and then grind it by hand using a mortar and pestle. This extra step adds a more complex, well-rounded flavor and is worth the effort.

Filé Powder
A must-have spice used in the preparation of authentic Southern gumbo. It is made from ground sassafras leaves and imparts a mellow, slightly earthy flavor. Use only during the last few minutes of cooking as a thickener, or it will get stringy.

Fish Sauce – Vietnam, Thailand
Critical component for a variety of South-Asian recipes. The best brand I have found is Red Boat from Vietnam. Expensive, but well worth the price. Used in many Thai/Vietnamese recipes and as an umami base adding flavor to  your favorite recipes including meatloaf, beef stew, pot roast and more.

Fresh, raw garlic is an indispensable, versatile spice and will easily keep for a month on your kitchen counter. The large elephant garlic is usually milder than the smaller form which can go by many names and varieties. Garlic is also available dried, either as a powder or granule. Do not confuse this with garlic salt.

The health benefits of raw garlic have been documented for thousands of years. The use of garlic was intimately documented by the ancient Egyptians in every day life and funerary rites, chewed by Greek Olympian athletes and thought to be essential for keeping vampires at bay in the middle ages. The medicinal use of garlic has been applied to many ailments, from rheumatoid arthritis, to hypertension and high blood pressure.

Today, the positive effects of garlic on the heart are well known. It has been proven to lower blood cholesterol and combat hypertension. It obliterates the common cold virus when placed in a petri-dish up to ten centimeters away! Try chewing a piece the next time you feel a sore throat coming on. Chew vigorously, while keeping the garlic at the back of your throat for a few minutes and then swallow. Do this twice a day and you will kick your cold in record time. Garlic’s sulphur compounds are potent antioxidants which protect cell membranes and DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) from damage.

Garlic may be roasted in a pan for a variety of cooking needs. This mellows the flavor while still retaining the pungency.

Ginger Root
Raw ginger is an ancient spice originating in China. It’s use has been documented for over four thousand years.
It is known to combat inflammation from arthritis and aid in digestion. It also is a remedy for nausea. Over four hundred active compounds make ginger a veritable super-spice. Studies even show its ability to block pathogens including viruses and parasites. It’s hard to argue with the wisdom of the ancient Chinese – I make an effort to incorporate it in many recipes.

A fruit said to have been grown by Satan himself. The mighty habañero is one of the hottest peppers in the world at 280-300,000 SHU. Originating in the Yucatan province of Mexico, the habañero grows on a bush sometimes reaching 6-8 feet in height. Mayan scribes record the pepper being used as an effective weapon — the pods being burned in smoldering clay pots and then hurled at the enemy.

The habañero boasts a prolific yield for home-growers, with plants sometimes producing 40-60 peppers each. The height of plants grown at home in a Wisconsin climate are about 2 feet, with a width of three feet. The leaves are paler green in color than most chilis. The habañero is also one of the slowest growing peppers, with a harvest time of over 90 days. So take note… in Wisconsin, climate will affect your harvest; at times most of your crop will sadly not arrive after the first hard freeze. Plant at the earliest opportunity. Habañeros are also prone to insect infestation, so keep that can of Sevin® handy.

One of the most popular chilis, used worldwide for a variety of cooking purposes. The jalapeño’s heat can range from very mild to medium-hot, but at a wimpy 6000, is relatively low when compared on the SHU scale. Several hybrid varieties have been developed, offering a wider range of controlled heat, disease resistance and yield consistency. I grow these every year, chopping and freezing what I don’t use. As a seasoned homegrower can tell you, jalapeños from your garden will more often than not have some form of blight, which is the blackening of the skin near the stem resembling a blotchy pattern. This is harmless and does not affect the taste or quality of the pepper. Varieties sold in supermarkets are vigorously sprayed to eliminate this problem. However, when at all possible, I’m anti-pesticide. Some varieties are more susceptible than others. The blight can be aggravated by inconsistent watering, fluctuations in climate or less than perfect soil conditions. As a home-grower, you need not be concerned about it.

Jalapeños can be used in a variety of recipes, as a base for basic salsa, or chili relleños (poppers.) Generally, if cooked, the heat will be reduced.

Lao Gan Ma® Chili Oil with Black Bean
This is a must-have ingredient for authentic Schezuan stir fry dishes. It imparts a rich, deep umami flavor to vegetable dishes and may also be used as a dipping sauce. This sauce has a well balanced flavor with a bit of ground Asian chili that isn’t over-the-top hot. Simply excellent. Try looking for it at an Asian market so you don’t get hosed on shipping costs. For those curious, “Lao Gan Ma” means “the Godmother” and she means business. Multiple uses.

Liquid Smoke
The cook’s secret weapon. I keep a bottle handy for marinades used with Fajitas, other grilled recipes and even salsa. A little goes a long way. Use with control or it will quickly overpower your food. The secret ingredient for my killer Bloody Mary recipe.

Mexican Oregano
Stronger and less sweet than its Greek counterpart, Mexican Oregano is a must-have ingredient in many chili recipes. By contrast, Greek Oregano is used in Italian cooking and is the kind most widely available as common storebought oregano. The Mexican version may be harder to find. You can try ordering by bulk or look for it in your local Mexican market instead.

Olive Oil
No cooking ingredient is more misunderstood or argued over by culinary snobs. Quality varies greatly by price and product label. Hey, like with most other consumer products, you get what you pay for. In my opinion, however, you do not need to spend the money on a $12-20 bottle of Italian first cold press olive oil if you are just cooking pan-fried chicken with it. As a general rule of thumb, unless you are using it straight from the bottle for dipping on bread or drizzled over a salad where the immediate taste impression is critical, you’ll never miss the difference. Save the money and use the good stuff for the proper occasion. Keep a cheaper bottle for all other cooking needs.

Goya® brand was rated #1 for price and taste in a recent Consumer Reports® review. However, it’s impossible to find around here. I use Bertolli XV, which is similar in price.

Olive oil has been proven to help lower blood cholesterol when used in place of butter. Yes, olive oil is fatty. But it is monounsaturated, which can by broken down by your body. If used in place of butter for frying, you’re changing your body’s fat intake in a good way, as butter is polyunsaturated… the kind of fat which cannot be broken down. Olive oil also contains antioxidants which are proven cancer fighters.

Use for pan-fried fish, a base for my classic marinara sauce, or a marinade for chicken, fish, steaks.
Also used as a base in many salad dressing recipes.

Rogan Josh Seasoning
An in-depth link featured here will allow you to recreate this amazing spice. I stumbled upon it a few years ago and tried it as a marinade for grilled skewered kabobs. It is now one of my signature recipes. Really great Middle-Eastern flavor.

Shaoxing Cooking Wine
A fragrant wine used for many authentic Chinese stir-fry dishes. Use as a marinade for beef, pork or chicken, or add a tablespoon when stir-frying vegetables. It has a subtle, fermented soy flavor. This product is not meant to be used as a drinking wine. It is not refined. A 750ml bottle will run you about five and a half bucks at your local Asian market.

Smoked Paprika
Spanish smoked paprika is expensive but worth the price. I’ve used it in hash, soups and omelettes. The depth of flavor is superior to Hungarian paprika.

Szechuan Whole Peppercorns
An exotic spice comparable to black peppercorns in heat, while also having an added side effect that makes your mouth tingle and go a bit numb. It is not a true peppercorn, but rather comes from the outer seed husk of a prickly ash shrub native to China’s highlands (genus Zanthoxylum.)  To prepare, lightly toast only what you need in a small, heavy cast-iron skillet and then coarsely grind by hand in a mortar. Discard any remaining small, gritty black seed pods. Store the remaining whole peppercorns in an airtight container away from direct sunlight, so the flavors don’t fade.

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