Casa Kelly has been getting loosey-goosey with the Thanksgiving menu in recent years — lobster, sirloin cap, even lasagna. Not this year — Patrick’s Nana is flying out to visit, and everything’s got to be traditional. To stave off boredom in the kitchen, I decided to go after the best spices I could find.
I called Steve at San Diego Coffee, Tea & Spice in Pacific Beach (858-581-1933; sandiegocoffee.com). “We buy our herbs locally — from California,” he began. “They’re as fresh as dried herbs can be — you can tell by the smell and by the look of them. A lot of times, the basil, oregano, or thyme you buy off the shelf in the grocery store are sort of gray. These are green. There are volatile oils in herbs, and as the herb gets older, those oils diminish and you lose flavor. You end up needing to use more of the spice to get the flavor you want.” But if I spent more, I could use less. I could live with that.
Next, I chatted with the shop’s chef/culinologist, Don Robinson, who made the case for cooking with dried herbs. “It has to do with consistency — an herb doesn’t hold its flavor the same way all year long. As seasons change, the volatile oils in the herbs change, and the color and quality of your herb can go up and down. But you can avoid sometimes getting a weaker flavor if you use a dried product. And the drying process, if done correctly, will allow the herb to keep its color and its volatile oils. It’s a very slow process, done at very low temperature in a very low-humidity oven. It takes a couple of days.”
Buying local was important, too. “We buy a nice California garlic. With Chinese garlic, a lot of the oil is removed when they process it — they sell it separately. Most domestic producers just blast the skins off with hot air, which helps retain the flavor. We sell it granulated, minced, or powdered. You can use the granulated garlic to make your own garlic salt. Use one-third garlic salt and two-thirds of a fine sea salt.”
Salty talk led to pepper. “I’ve got the best whole black peppercorn on the market — the tellicherry. It has such a pronounced pepper flavor, but it’s not too hot. And for soups and sauces, I have a pearl-white peppercorn. It’s hotter than the tellicherry. And we carry a mélange — black, white, pink, and green. They mix together nicely.”
So much for the basics — what about Thanksgiving? “Sage or sage rub is used in stuffing and gravy. Poultry seasoning is also important. Ours contains ground thyme, ground sage, a little ginger, and a little salt. Nutmeg is used in pies — we carry it whole or ground. We also have mace — there are two spices in our ground nutmeg: nutmeg and mace. Mace is very strong. Some people use it in place of nutmeg because it has a nice note. If you want the best freshness, use a whole nutmeg and grate it.”
Cloves come whole or ground. “I find them overpowering,” said Robinson, “so I use them sparingly. Ground in pumpkin pie, whole in pickling spice. Some people like to stick them all over a ham — if you take off the ball at the back of the clove, it won’t have such a bitter taste.”
Cinnamon? “We have three-inch sticks, made from the bark of the cinnamon plant. People use them for potpourris or for beverages — you can flavor your beverage or use it as a straw. Ground, it’s great for pies. We get ours from Korintje — it’s got 2.5 percent volatile oil. I’m looking at bringing in a cinnamon from Vietnam with 3 percent; it can be hot, but it’s got a great aroma.” Vanilla comes in from Tahiti. “I think it’s the best — you can use it in ice cream or cookies. Some people slice it open and scrape out the insides, but I dice the whole thing up very small. It gives an even more intense flavor. For vanilla extract, we’ve got an imitation and what’s called a fourfold — it’s been reduced and concentrated.”
San Diego Coffee, Tea & Spice offers herbs and spices in quantities ranging from a quarter-ounce to 50-gallon tubs. Robinson told me that retail customers could ask him to bring out larger quantities of spices from the back if they wanted to save money. “A 2.25-ounce bag of cinnamon costs $2.20, but a pound is only $6.95, and a gallon is $17.70. That’s a great deal, especially if you want to make a bunch of spice baskets as gifts.”
George at TASTE Artisan Cheese & Gourmet Shop in Hillcrest (619-683-2306; tastecheese.com) told me that he carried “a spice blend for poultry from Sugar Ranch. The recipe is by chef Bernard Guillas at the Marine Room. It contains fennel pollen, which has a light and aromatic flavor — not like licorice. It’s $12 for a ten-ounce tin, but a little goes a long way. Mix it with a little oil to thin it and then rub it on the bird.”
Williams-Sonoma in Fashion Valley (619-295-0510; williams-sonoma.com) sells Turkey Herbs ($7.50 for 1.4 ounces). Clerk Nancy told me, “You can either sprinkle them right on or mix them with butter or oil to make a paste.”