Ask Mr. Recipe: What Are the Six Spices a Person Needs?

Aaron Issacson, known to the world as Mr. Recipe, is New York City’s greatest spice importer, and a well-known expert on spices and seasonings. Since my own knowledge of spices basically begins and ends with salt, I thought I might provide a service to Rachael Ray readers by asking him a few simple questions on the subject. In the first installment of what is sure to become a very annoying series, I asked Mr. Recipe what spices a person should keep in his or her kitchen.

Look, Mr. Recipe. When you get your first apartment somebody always gives you a rack of two dozen little bottles, 20 of which you never open. I don’t even know what mace is! Do I really need all those spices? Tell me the truth.

No! They are usually just cheap, stale powders in any case. Mr. Recipe would never suggest someone use spices like that. No, it would be better to have a few very high-quality spices that you use well. You should have enough spices to make your own spice blend, say. A signature spice.

That’s all well and good, Mr. Recipe, but the average person has no more use for his own spice blend than he has for a suit of armor. Let me ask you this. If you had to pick six spices to have in your kitchen, what would they be?

Are we counting salt? Because I would have three kinds of sea salt that I think everyone needs: fleur de sel, Malden salt…..

No, no, Mr. Recipe. Half of them can’t be salt!. Only a weirdo keeps that much salt around anyway. Pick one.

I have a volcanic salt that is 500,000,000 years old. It has a splendid minerality to it. That’s a great one.

OK, so salt.  I am going to go out on a limb and guess that you have a strong opinion about pepper, too. Let’s get that out of the way.

You’re so impatient, Josh! I always tell people that they need to have not just one but all three kinds of pepper. You can’t imagine how important pepper is, Josh! My double-husk extra bold black telecherry pepper is the best black pepper in the world, but I wouldn’t only have that by itself. It’s very aggressive. I keep white pepper too, which has a kind of creamy, mild taste; it’s what I would use for chicken or fish. Or even a salad! People forget that salads need seasoning too. Finally, my green pepper has a kind of fruity taste; their taste isn’t as strong, so they are great for crusts, curries, and other times you want to use more pepper in terms of volume.

Ok, Mr. Recipe. I hear you. Salt and pepper then. Now let’s move on to our six spices.

Well…one would be aleppo pepper, from Syria. It’s very delicious; it’s chile, but not really hot; it adds adds such a depth of flavor. I carry 87 different kinds of chiles, and that one is my favorite, Josh. Another I can’t live without is cinnamon. I use it in a lot of savory things as well. Now there are two different kinds of cinnamon. There’s indonesian cinnamon, the familial sweet kind from the McCormick bottle; and then there is Vietnamese cinnamon, which is sweet and spicy. I find that more interesting and delicious. And then….nutmeg.

Really? Nutmeg?

You’d be amazed at what a difference a little bit of nutmeg can make, Josh! Especially when you make a pasta. Don’t buy it ground; get whole nutmeg and microplane or grate a little into your pasta, either as a condiment or into the sauce as it cooks. Just a few grates into that dish will make a huge difference. Always add nutmeg to tomato sauce! A little bit – you don’t know what it is, but it’s there; it changes the whole complexion of the dish.

What else?

It’s very, very important that people have oregano. Oregano is amazing! I use Sicilian oregano on the branch. And what a difference it can make on a plain chicken dish! It’s herbacious and lively but not too aggressive! Again, I use it both at the table and also when I’m cooking. That’s important, josh; that’s how you get depth of flavor. Chefs will tell you about “layering” flavor and different uses of the same spice are a good example.

So aleppo pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, oregano….you have two more.

I love french thyme. I think that’s one that you really can’t do without. It’s earthy, rich, herbaceous. You must know, Josh, that no chef would dream of cooking a steak without a sprig of good thyme and some garlic.

Is garlic the last spice, Mr. Recipe?

No! How could I leave out vanilla? That’s my favorite spice in all the world. Did you know that there are 256 different organic compounds in vanilla?

Really? I don’t know Mr. Recipe. Vanilla? It’s not like I’m planning on making ice cream or cookies or whatever. Are you sure about this?

Vanilla is amazing! I use it in salad dressing, in sauces. There are so many uses for vanilla that you haven’t thought of that I can’t begin to describe them all. When you add really good vanilla to any number of savory dishes, you don’t taste vanilla; you taste deliciousness. I put it in macaroni and cheese, in bechamels, in my lasagna, baked chicken. It is my secret weapon!

So those six?

Yes, but don’t forget about the pepper!

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Rachael Ray