Forever war, pantry edition - what spices and sauces to buy?
November 9, 2020 9:55 AM   Subscribe

After cooking a lot over the past eight months, I've run through most of my basic spices, etc, and have realized that I'd like to restock slightly differently. What do you recommend?

I'm a much better "boring regular meals" cook than I was before the pandemic, there's always that. Since we're staying inside as long as our jobs and money hold out, I need to keep going, but I feel like I'm in a rut, seasoning-wise.

I have curry paste, for instance, but I feel like I could use other stuff - lemongrass paste? As I've gotten better at the kind of cooking where you don't really work from a recipe, I feel like I have about three flavor profiles - Thai Curry Paste, Lots of Thyme and Garlic Red Pepper Flakes. All perfectly good in their way, but seriously, I'm making fourteen meals a week here.

Recommend me some spices and condensed sauces that have broad application - and maybe list what you use them with? If there are particular brands you'd recommend, that's fine too. I'm watching the pennies but might make an exception if something had a lot of applications.
posted by Frowner to Food & Drink (38 answers total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried gochujang? It's a Korean chili paste that is sweet and spicy and basically magical. Apply to vegetables and noodles. Here are some recipes, including ssamjang, a delicious sauce for anywhere you like, such as roast pork, tofu, and rice bowls with egg/veggies./etc
posted by esoterrica at 10:24 AM on November 9, 2020 [9 favorites]

The things I buy from my priciest supplier (Penzey's) are peppers - white pepper, Penzey's Pepper, Florida Pepper, Aleppo Pepper.

I'm in California so can get very good chile powders cheap: Ancho, Chipotle, mild California, Cayenne. Just plan to buy cumin often so it's fresh, whether that's ground or whole you can grind yourself. I also have access to markets with a wide range of Southeast Asian spices and blends, and I am pretty satisfied with the garam masalas I can get there. I also have nearby pan-Asian and Korean-specific groceries, and if you do also I recommend doing a spice aisle run there before you start ordering anything to see what they offer since they often have very good prices on common dried spices, and then you can also get various dried peppers and pepper flakes of high quality for very good prices. These are also the best places to get standards like dark soy sauce, fish sauce, shaoxing wine, and black vinegar for way less than mail order or grocery chains.

For lemongrass, I do grow it but it doesn't love fall/winter here so I also buy the tubes of mashed from the produce section, which does what I need. I buy bunches of cilantro and put only about 1/3 of the bunch each time in the fridge and microwave-dry the rest (95% of the time you won't know the difference), but the tube cilantro is also fine. Ginger is cheap and keeps in the freezer.

Ditto a generic hot pepper that you can use in any cuisine - I keep serranos in the freezer for everything, and they slice beautifully when frozen, and are easy to halve and scrape if you don't want most of the seeds. You can also freeze the mini sweet peppers to use the same way, I like the minis because they don't take up as much space, but you can also buy bells on sale and spend 10 minutes dicing or julienne-ing them all and freeze that flat in a ziploc.

One of my fridge staples is chicken Better Than Bouillon. If you can find it in the larger jar, it lasts a good long time and is a better deal than the smaller ones, and then you can make a habit of using it all the time pretty much anywhere that you might just use water because it's a pain to open a box or can.

Tamarind paste, when you can find it (it's easy to order though), is great to keep on hand. I make my own tamarind chutney/sauce with it, and you'll find it in a lot of Thai recipes.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:34 AM on November 9, 2020 [7 favorites]

Not sure what you’re cooking with but I make a lot of cheap, legume based vegetarian dishes at home. One of my fave spices to add a punch is smoked paprika — this lentil soup and this chickpea dish are on my regular rotation. I’d also get some garam masala and turmeric to branch out to Indian-ish flavoured curries.
posted by vanitas at 10:38 AM on November 9, 2020 [10 favorites]

Paprika is an awesome "everyday" spice. Smoked Spanish paprika especially (it comes in a couple of different hotness levels). Great on potatoes, chicken, chickpeas, french fries and their analogs, pretty much anything roasted. You can make paprika-based sauces like bravas sauce, which is great on anything roasty or crunchy.

Seconding the magic of gochujang, which is having a bit of A Moment with white Americans, I think.

I love having a tube of ginger paste handy, too, or the little frozen Dorot ginger cubes. I'm usually able to keep fresh garlic on hand but they have frozen garlic cubes as well. With chopped ginger (from fresh, tube, or cube), chopped garlic, and some soy sauce/tamari handy it's really easy to make a quick & delicious vegetable braise.
posted by mskyle at 10:39 AM on November 9, 2020 [7 favorites]

I am of the opinion that paprika is an under appreciated spice. Use sweet (Hungarian) paprika for dishes where you want that "hmmm this tastes better but I can't put my finger on why" (and of course paprikash). Gives sort of a warmth/depth to flavors without being super noticeable except in large amounts.

Smoked paprika is a godsend, I use it all the time in almost everything. The smoky flavor is way more forward than the sweet kind, so use it where a smoked/grilled flavor is idea. Tacos, grilling, oven roasting, it's just a great base for a spice rub.
posted by misskaz at 10:40 AM on November 9, 2020 [8 favorites]

If you're near an Indian or Pakistani grocery store, they should have a lot of spice mixes (from companies like Shan and MDH) that are delicious. The price seems to vary by location - in some cities they're around a dollar each, but in other places I've seen them go for $2-3. (I linked to amazon for illustration, but they're often expensive there for some reason.) Regardless, a little goes a long way so they can last a good while, and if you're not a purist you can use them in lots of different types of recipes besides the recommended ones. Some are better than others, but without knowing what flavor profiles you like it's hard to recommend specific ones.

Other than that - cumin and coriander are good for west-to-southeast asian dishes. (Both ground and whole, but if you have to choose then I'd go for whole - you can adjust the flavor by toasting the seeds, and you can always grind them up to get powder.) Mustard seed is a good addition for Indian food. Whole peppercorns and whole rosemary are useful in lots of contexts. Five spice powder is nice, not only for Chinese food.

If you have room to grow them I'd get a few plants for cheap - basil, oregano, mint, etc. A few leaves here and there can give a lot of flavor.
posted by trig at 10:40 AM on November 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

Speaking of Thai curry paste, there are several classic blends with pretty different flavors and heat levels. I like Maesri brand, which comes in little cans and offers about 8? types, often identified by color (e.g., red curry paste, green curry paste, etc). You can adjust how much to use based on your heat preferences; I find that half a can is right for us. At about $2 a can, you can flavor 2 batches of curry for a buck apiece. (The leftover paste will last, covered, in the fridge for a few weeks, or you can freeze it.)

To go with the curry paste you need nam pla (fish sauce), which smells awful but blends into the background after cooking. It provides the same sort of salty umami flavor that soy sauce does for Chinese dishes. There are many brands and they're all pretty similar in my opinion, so get whatever you can find. It's also used in Thai stir-fries, and seems to be the flavor that says "this is Thai, not Chinese".

Canned chipotles in adobo are nice to have for Mexican and Tex-Mex flavors. A pot of beans with smoked sausage (if you eat meat) and a can of chipotles is a rib-sticking economical favorite in cold weather. Serve over rice to dilute the spiciness. Both brands I see around here are pretty similar, so get what you find.
posted by Quietgal at 10:42 AM on November 9, 2020 [3 favorites]

posted by aniola at 10:53 AM on November 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

I have an important question first - are you focusing on dried spices/herbs only, or are you thinking of incorporating fresh?

I'm going to assume for the moment that you're working with "dried". And if so, I'm going to start by recommending some other flavor profiles.

* Herbes de Provence. This is a French flavor blend for dishes from the Mediterranean south of France - you've got the thyme, all you would need to add are things like basil, rosemary, tarragon, savory, marjoram, oregano, lavender and bay leaf. You don't even need all of them - you could probably get away with just adding the rosemary, oregano, basil and tarragon.

* Italian - this is almost exactly like Herbes de Provence above, except swap out the lavender and tarragon for a little bit of chili flakes, and up the oregano a little. You could probably even just make a basic "Mediterranean" blend that would work interchangeably with some Provencal recipes and some Italian ones.

* Mexican! Add some chili powder, oregano and cumin to your garlic and red pepper flakes.

* Cajun! Just like the Mexican above, only swap out the chili powder, cumin and red pepper flakes for cayenne and a little paprika.

* Indian! ....Well, a quick-and-dirty Masala, anyway - if you've got curry powder already, and some cumin for the Mexican blend above, then you just need cinnamon, coriander, and maybe some cloves.

Finally, there's a fresh herb preservation technique I picked up from a cookbook I have concerning Acadian cooking - the Acadian settlers in Canada made a condiment called "herbes salees", in which chopped fresh herbs were packed into crocks with lots of salt. There was no official roster for which herbes, however - it was more of a "what we've got lying around" kind of thing. Some families even added a little grated carrot or chopped scallion to their formulas. And then the resulting condiment would be used in everything. I actually made up a batch this summer, using "whatever I need to trim back on my windowbox herbs" as the recipe; whatever I had, I chopped it up, mixed it all together in a bowl, added a couple chopped scallions from the CSA box l and packed it into a jar with salt. It may be fun to experiment with "whatever is fresh at my local farmers' market" or "whatever I have leftover after splurging on fresh herbs for a fancy recipe".

As for how to use things - One thing that's jumping out at me is lentils, which could pair nicely with either French flavors or Indian, depending on what flavor blend you use. I use herbes de provence in any vaguely French thing, and Italian in any vaguely Italian thing. And when I'm making lots of clean-out-the-fridge vegetable soups this winter, the herbes salees will be going into that.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:58 AM on November 9, 2020 [3 favorites]

One more - if keeping fresh lemons around is a problem, you can keep bottled lemon juice in the fridge for a long time. A few drops of lemon juice can make as big a difference as salt sometimes and it's used in lots of different cuisines.

Also, regarding broad application - even though there are a lot of different spices used in Asian and African food, there also seem to be a ton of recipes that use only a few of the most common spices but still wind up with pretty different flavor profiles due to using different combinations of other ingredients or different cooking techniques. So sometimes you can search for recipes from a specific country or region that use, say, cumin, to get pretty different kinds of flavors than what you've been making with the same spice previously. Like, Turkish, Indian, Ethiopian, and Moroccan recipes might all use cumin but with a lot of variety in the results.
posted by trig at 11:00 AM on November 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

I'd be inclined to get base components that you can combine in different ways and whizz into small-batch blends. I tend to think about it in terms of continuities where one or two elements change: you can get from Spain (saffron, pimentón, cayenne, bay; oregano, rosemary) to berbere and baharat and ras-el-hanout and so on, and from there you head into advieh and garam masala.

So on the spice side: good peppercorns, a good-sized jar of smoked pimentón/paprika, bay leaves, cinnamon, coriander seed, cumin, cloves, nutmeg, allspice, turmeric, cardamom, ground ginger, cayenne or Aleppo pepper. Fennel seed. A little saffron. Add some fenugreek and mustard seed for central and south Asian notes, star anise for east Asian. This sounds like a lot but there's a small joy turning a teaspoon of this and half a teaspoon of that and a pinch of the other into a blend, especially if you're cooking from instinct. The spices can tell you what will work best with them.

(The Shan/MDH blends are great, though. I like the chaat mixes.)

In terms of inspiration about flavour profiles, I always suggest looking at Persian recipes, because there's so much going on with the seasoning.
posted by holgate at 11:02 AM on November 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

The canned chipotles in adobo from the Mexican aisle, whizzed in a blender, is my favorite hot sauce. I keep it around all the time, it's great on everything and brings so much more flavor than just heat.

Also yes to smoked paprika.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:03 AM on November 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

Sauces and cooking liquids: soy sauces (Chinese style light and dark as explained by Woks of Life), Shaoxing rice wine, mirin, Thai fish sauce, rice vinegar, Chinese black vinegar, balsamic vinegar, white wine vinegar, Marsala wine, crushed red chili paste, black bean sauce, doubanjiang. Some "good but not OMG amazing" red and white wine for deglazing and making pan sauces.

Spices: Penzey's 4S seasoning salt and sweet curry powder. A little of the curry powder is a great enhancer for a wide ranges of dishes (e.g., roasted root veg, sauteed summer squash, cornbread... come to think of it I never use it for an actual curry). Chinese five spice powder. Cinnamon sticks and ground cinnamon. Ground cumin, coriander, turmeric. Whole black, green, and white peppercorns, whole cardamom.

Misc: salted anchovies in oil, great to mince up and boost umami flavors. Herbes de Provence blend.
posted by 4rtemis at 11:04 AM on November 9, 2020 [3 favorites]

miso, ponzu (preferably made with yuzu or sudachi), fish sauce, sweet chili sauce, black bean paste, oyster sauce, everything bagel seasoning, chipotle powder, dark/toasted sesame oil, Cholula, Marie Sharp's smoked habanero sauce

I like having some of Penzey's freeze-dried stuff on hand: shallots, garlic, toasted onions

you can make zhoug yourself--great with eggs, meat, in soup, on sandwiches

seconding smoked paprika, gochujang, and Better than Bouillon (they even have a ham one), and seconding exploring cumin (it's found in various delicious Chinese dishes, too)
posted by wintersweet at 11:04 AM on November 9, 2020 [3 favorites]

And if you're looking for a versatile flavoring blend, I cannot recommend the following enough: Coastal Cali Fennel Pollen Rub from Savory Spice. Sugar and salt plus orange peel, coriander, paprika, fennel, onion, garlic, fennel pollen, and aji chiles.

I spent like an hour in a shop trying every blend they had, and of all of them, this one blew me completely away. I use it on potatoes, eggs, fish, chicken, roast vegetables... basically anything.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:07 AM on November 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

Oh, one more thing: Finishing dishes off with a flavored oil (or butter) often really boosts how exciting a dish tastes for me, and you don't need a lot. Truffle oil, chili oil, chili crisp, garlic butter, and so on (sesame oil and nut oils without added flavors are great, too). You can buy or make your own when it comes to chili crisp, garlic butter, etc. Truffle oil and flavored olive oils in general vary wildly in price. Trader Joe's often has nice truffle oils, other flavored olive oils, and nut oils in November-December.
posted by wintersweet at 11:10 AM on November 9, 2020

I always have marmite, anchovies/anchovy paste, capers, olives, worcestershire sauce, a few vinegars, and a few mustards. I don't drink wine so I just keep freezer bags of red and white wine in my freezer so I can scoop out a bit at a time as needed. I usually have some kind of small-funk cheese like goat or pecorino. I've recently added nutritional yeast to my collection of never-withouts.

Just about any boring food can be saved by adding one of those things.
posted by phunniemee at 11:13 AM on November 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

Jamaican Pickapeppa Sauce, several varieties, is analogous to vegan Worcestershire and is my household’s go-to when leftovers are just blander than we want.

A local shop used to have a Herbs de la Garrigue mix, which also smells like chaparral California. I like it with lentils and not-sweet veg. It didn’t sell fast enough to keep fresh so they published the recipe. And that website is their recipe blog, which is all spiced or herbed.

I have a tiny saucepan permanently next to the stove just to make the finishing-spices-toasted-in-oil step easier.
posted by clew at 11:14 AM on November 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

Oh, a small cookbook I have makes a very good case for always making sure you have olives, capers, and anchovies on hand. Any of those three can be used in recipes from cultures all through the Mediterranean - Spanish, French, Italian, Moroccan, Tunisian....

They're also such enormous umami flavor bombs that you could sort of invent something yourself with them.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:15 AM on November 9, 2020 [3 favorites]

I like garam masala and 5 spice powder for a different flavor profile even when I'm not cooking dishes that are completely Indian or Chinese.

I use Garam Masala on roasted chicken pieces and some roasted vegetable (it's good on cauliflower). This sheet pan chicken is an example of a dinner I have made and can be riffed on.

I use 5 spice powder where I might otherwise use cinnamon or sweet spices. I've used it in baking sweet dishes (I like it in apple pies for example), I used it last night on roasted squash and apples, with a mustard-glazed pork tenderloin. I also make this a few times a year.
posted by vunder at 11:22 AM on November 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

The Teeny Tiny Spice Company has lots of cool spice mixes. My favorite is the Ethiopian berbere, which I use in this red lentil stew.
posted by FencingGal at 11:34 AM on November 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

Lately I’ve been roasting cauliflower with curry or garam masala seasoning with great results. Chinese Five Spice is great with squash, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin and apple pies.

I also use a pomegranate syrup with late fall veggies for a tart kick. It’s middle eastern, and has been a nice twist when a sprinkle of pomegranate seeds is unavailable.
posted by childofTethys at 11:35 AM on November 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

I also enjoy Lots of Thyme and Garlic Red Pepper Flakes among my go-tos.

I make a strong recommendation for the following quick hits as well:
1) Urfa Biber (a dark, almost purple, fruity/mild chile) + thyme + sumac + dried spearmint + garlic as an excellent mix for roasting veggies.
2) Zaatar. For roasted veggies, on salads, whatever.
3) smoked paprika + cumin + oregano + maybe a little hint of cinnamon
4) aleppo pepper + cinnamon + white pepper + cumin
5) put a quick-pickled red onion on it
posted by amelioration at 11:48 AM on November 9, 2020 [3 favorites]

I got some smoked garlic powder from Penzey's, and it tastes like you cooked all day.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:53 AM on November 9, 2020 [4 favorites]

Also, you've had a lot of mention of cumin, but whole cumin seed is also very nice when it's bloomed in oil for sauteed dishes. I learned this in part from this very simple Madhur Jaffrey chard dish.
posted by vunder at 11:57 AM on November 9, 2020

I go through a 3-cup bag of Penzey's Greek seasoning a year, and sometimes need another one before the year is out. I use it on everything that's not sweet. I did try it on watermelon, because people do put salt and pepper on watermelon, but it didn't work for me. I'm open to trying again and using less. They have a recipe for salad dressing and yogurt dip that uses it.

Penzey's Sandwich Sprinkle is great for roast chicken. I never put it on sandwiches, just sheet-pan dinner stuff.

Their Tsardust is really good, especially on pork chops.
posted by jgirl at 12:01 PM on November 9, 2020

Finally, there's a fresh herb preservation technique I picked up from a cookbook I have concerning Acadian cooking - the Acadian settlers in Canada made a condiment called "herbes salees"

Also in Quebecois cooking. Caution: saltiness level can vary greatly. I was used to my great aunt's salted herbs, which are excellent mixed with ricotta cheese to make a stuffing for stuff shells(*)

(* Preheat oven to somewhere in the 350-375F range. Boil large shell style pasta to al dente level. Stuff with cheese mixture - add garlic or garlic powder as well as salted herbs (or just regular herbs, which would also allow you to play around with different flavors); cheese mix should primarily be ricotta but can also include cottage cheese or shredded mozarella. Place stuffed shells in glass baking dish. Pour tomato sauce (or flavored pasta sauce, if the cheese mixture is not particularly flavorful and the flavors won't clash or be too much in combination) to mostly cover. Bake until done.
posted by eviemath at 12:03 PM on November 9, 2020

Some "good but not OMG amazing" red and white wine for deglazing and making pan sauces.

I actually sometimes use vermouth for this since it’s already in the fridge and I don’t go through wine fast enough. Noilly Prat isn’t too spendy. Balsamic reductions are good too.

Seconding Aleppo pepper.

Miso is one of those miracle umami vegan ingredients. Pairs well with tahini. Seaweed is also great for getting a little extra ocean flavor in vegetarian dishes.
posted by en forme de poire at 12:10 PM on November 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

Along with smoked paprika, I saw someone mention smoked garlic powder, and that's a great secret ingredient for me. So is smoked salt. (They have smoked garlic powder in the bulk spice rack in Cub's produce section and it's really cheap for how much you get.)

Someone was telling me that a recipe called for ground dried Chinese mushrooms and I tried some crumbs from my bag of dried mushrooms and it did a great job of secret umami.

The one neglected spice that I think everyone should learn to cook with is... sugar.
posted by advicepig at 12:31 PM on November 9, 2020

I have had a hard time finding smoked garlic powder so I buy it on Etsy from this shop. He also has smoked jalapeno powder.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:37 PM on November 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

My 1st real Indian food was in London many years ago, and I needed more after I got home. At that time, fenugreek was the dominant flavor in US curry powder mixes and I don't love it. Did research, bought spices, and made my own curry powder. Get ground coriander, cumin, turmeric, ginger, dry mustard, cardamom, cayenne pepper or chilies, maybe clove, cinammon, fennel, and add them to your own taste. You can make simple dal or a simple chicken curry with onions, chicken, spices. I use cooking oil, not ghee. Because you have the spices, you can make curries that are different and emphasize different ingredients. Or just use your personalized curry powder.

An easy recipe is squash soup - Peel (5 minutes in the microwave makes butternut squash easy to peel) butternut squash, cook in some broth or water. Saute a chopped onion in oil. Heat oil in a pan, ad curry spices, add more. Add flour to make a roux. Add the cooking liquid from the squash, whisk a lot, add squash, blend with immersion blender. Top with plain yogurt or sour cream, or cilantro, or fried onions, etc. Easy, healthy, seems fancy.
posted by theora55 at 1:25 PM on November 9, 2020

I'm really trying to get into cooking Asian cuisine (some not necessarily authentic). Here are some of my suggestions.

- Get ginger paste - grating ginger is too annoying. Use in Indian dishes and to make a super awesome sauce that tastes like what they put on Western style ginger beef (all it is is soy sauce, brown sugar, garlic and ginger).

- Get minced garlic in a jar. Dealing with garlic is too annoying

- If you can get Gochujang (soooo good), you can make bibimbap. Check out those folks' youtube channel - I intend to learn a lot from them. They are cool.

- Buy the frozen chopped lemongrass from the Asian supermarket. Much better than a paste.

- To make awesome lemongrass sauce for marinating or just pouring over veggies and rice, all you need is lemongrass, lemon juice, soy sauce, brown sugar, garlic, and fish sauce

- To make that lovely sauce (Nước Chấm) you pour over Vietnamese noodle bowls, you just need
fish sauce, lemon or lime and sugar.

-I find it necessary to have Madras curry powder. It's the distinctive flavor in the Singapore Noodles you get from Chinese restaurants and while I haven't tried it yet, I love to make scrambled tofu with it (vegan interpretation of scrambled eggs).
posted by kitcat at 1:25 PM on November 9, 2020 [3 favorites]

Oh, ginger. My ginger secret is keep it in the freezer unpeeled and grate what you need when you need it. I use a microplane to get it super fine most of the time, but any grater works fine.
posted by advicepig at 1:34 PM on November 9, 2020 [3 favorites]

My secret ingredient is tomato powder. Adds a solid thump of umami.

For chicken skewers, soy sauce, pesto from a jar, sundried tomato pesto from a jar, onion granules, tomato powder. Skewer and grill.

For steaks, soy sauce, tomato powder, onion powder. If the tomato powder has maltodextrin as an incipient (prevents caking), that helps brown the steak/ gives a bit more char as a bonus.

Likewise, (concentrated) tomato paste can be had in tubes (instead of a can) and is good in the fridge for a few months opened.

Anchovy paste can also be had in tube form so you can add a dollop or a teaspoon. Or get fillets in a glass jar with oil - smush up a fillet or two. I've had an open tube in the fridge for about a year and it's fine.
posted by porpoise at 2:13 PM on November 9, 2020

The other day, because my daughter was craving Indian food, I made a chicken in tomato sauce from Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cookery and a saag paneer from memory + the Saveur website (I also made some other stuff). But it really hit me how the chicken stew and the saag paneer used almost the same herbs and spices, but were still really different in flavor because of the different balances between the ingredients and the different processes. Indian cooking is not my forte, but my daughter travelled there with her dad for months and knows what she wants, and she approved.
Even though I am near 60 and have cooked professionally and after that generally a lot, I still learn a lot from cookbooks and websites, down into the details, and I've specially learnt a lot during lockdown about how I could use the ingredients I already had in new ways. I do have a wide assortment of spices and herbs, but I'm not certain that is where the magic is. It's more how you use them. So I guess what I am saying is: try some new recipes and learn from them how to use flavor. I go to Serious Eats a lot, another free site is The Guardian. For books, look for Yotam Ottolenghi, Samin Nosrat and Fuschia Dunlop.
Some products I think are really useful: harissa in a tube, for spicing up bland stews with tons of vegs, and for delicious shakshouka. A selection of soy sauces, because different recipes need different soys. A selection of vinegars, same as with soys. Always have all the lemons, everything can be improved with a bit of lemon juice. Fish sauce and/or anchovies, everything can be improved with fish sauce or anchovies. Capers are good to have, too. Absolutely tomato paste in a tube. Crunchy peanut butter for sauces can replace tahin, but you can have both. You already have chili and thyme, add in oregano and tarragon. You need to always have ginger in your fridge. Garam Masala as a paste or a powder. I use huge amounts of cumin. I also use cardamon, cloves, cinnamon and allspice but these are both common in Indian and Danish cooking, and if you aren't eating a lot of any of those cuisines, you can skip them, just use the curry powder and garam masala. Spices you don't ever use go stale.
My daughter now works at a Vietnamese restaurant, and has become accustomed to using a lot of fresh herbs and chili. It's delicious. Some we buy at the store, some we keep in the window sill. Even if you can't find more dainty herbs during winter, just using a lot more parsley and mint can be a huge change. Look at Middle Eastern recipes for using fresh winter herbs, they are so good at it.
posted by mumimor at 2:52 PM on November 9, 2020

Miso + mayo + smoked chilli powder is really delicious with all sorts of roasted veggies.
posted by mmascolino at 6:51 PM on November 9, 2020

I don’t always have the smoked version of things, but a bottle of liquid smoke lasts a long long time.
posted by clew at 7:18 PM on November 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

Sesame oil! Soy sauce + garlic + sesame oil --> Korean flavor profile. Gochujang I sometimes use in cooking, but honestly it's the sesame oil that shifts everything into Korean mode for me. Stir-fry anything, blanch any vegetable and toss it with soy sauce, garlic and sesame oil. Fried rice with sesame oil (and gochujang if you want).

I also echo people who are recommending ground cumin. Fry up some onions and peppers, add cumin and garlic, add in a hash brown patty (I get the giant packs and just microwave one before putting it in the pan), add eggs, put in a tortilla for breakfast burrito!
posted by spamandkimchi at 10:16 PM on November 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

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