What’s a favorite spice you've discovered since starting at The Spice House, and why?
We carry so many incredible spices from all over the globe but for me, an expertly cured vanilla bean from Madagascar is as good as it gets. So much time and attention is required throughout the process and excellent quality vanilla can only come from growers and producers with a high level skill and patience. From the morning those orchid flowers are hand-pollinated on the vines to the bundles of shiny black beans being ready for sale, it can take over a year! Excellent quality vanilla beans are as close to real magic as we can experience in this business.
[Madagascar vanilla] is far and away the most complex spice flavor on earth, which makes it almost impossible to describe. This is also exactly what makes a high-quality vanilla bean so special. Floral, sweet, earthy, undertones of dried dark fruits, oak and leather all at the same time!
Madagascar Vanilla Beans
Madagascar is famous for the abundance and flavor of its vanilla beans, but the plant on which Madagascar vanilla grows comes from Mexico. Spanish explorers named it 'vainilla,' or, 'little sheath.'
What’s your favorite Spice House blend, and why?
Currently in heavy rotation at my house are Brisket of Love, Shawarma, Louisiana Creole and Carne Asada. I’ve put a lot of miles on those blends this summer. Ask me again in a couple of months and I’m sure I’ll have a new list of favorites.
Brisket of Love Barbecue Rub
A Spice House manager created this sumptuous blend as a parting gift for guests at his barbecue-inspired wedding. It is sweet and tangy with a peppery bite, perfect for slow-smoked brisket.
Shawarma is the now internationally popular style of meat preparation favored by Arabic street vendors. Descended from the doner kebab, it's chicken, goat, or lamb marinated in this blend and roasted on a spit.
Louisiana Creole Blend
Louisiana Creole cuisine unites European, Caribbean, and African influences. Paprika, onion, and thyme give this blend a classic Creole flavor profile, livened up with a little pepper heat.
Carne Asada Steak Seasoning
Carne asada is a staple at Sunday lunches in Mexico. Rich in flavor and mild in heat, carne asada is made by marinating skirt steak in soy sauce, lime juice, vegetable oil, and this spice blend.
What’s your can't-live-without spice?
Freshly ground black pepper. Pepper has been the King of Spices for hundreds of years and it’s likely to keep its crown for a few hundred more. I keep peppermills loaded and ready with Tellicherry or Kampot black peppercorns on the kitchen counter, on the dinner table, and at my desk in the office.
Tellicherry Black Peppercorns
This black gold has been treasured since the time of the Ancient Egyptians, and are in found in almost any kitchen today. These extra large berries are left to ripen on the vine, maximizing their fruity and bold flavors.
Kampot Black Peppercorns
Kampot peppercorns from Cambodia carry a strict regional designation, much like Champagne. This black varietal starts out fruity and floral, which gives way to a spicy richness.
What’s your most cherished recipe?
I have a very hard time cooking inside the lines of a recipe, I guess that’s one of the reasons I love Jambalaya so much. Some good stock, some rice, some seasoning, and whatever fats, meats, or vegetables you can find in the fridge. It never fails to hit the spot and having only one pot to clean is pretty satisfying too.
Who’s your biggest culinary inspiration?
I think I’ve probably spent the most time with Rick Bayless' teaching. Cooking along with his books and television shows was a revelation, particularly as I discovered how to incorporate whole dried chiles into sauces, soups, salsas, and marinades. Creating depth of flavor by toasting, frying, rehydrating, and pureeing whole dried chiles is something that will excite me forever.
Alex’s Smoky & Spicy Chile Seasoning Paste
Take the time to make a jar of this sweet, spicy and smoky chile seasoning paste and you’ll have an easy flavor booster on hand for marinades, spreads, soups, beans - the possibilities are endless. Stored refrigerated in a sealed container for up to one month.
What’s your go-to culinary resource?
I’m a visual learner so I get a lot of ideas from Youtube. Watching videos is not a substitute for traveling but it’s amazing how much food culture you can soak up from your couch. How lucky are we to be able to get cooking lessons from grandmothers from around the world?
If you could cook with anyone, who would it be?
My nieces and nephews for sure. I want them to develop curious taste buds and grow up with a better understanding of the world through food.
What’s your favorite hobby?
Paddling a canoe.
What’s the best thing that has happened to you so far this week?
I was paddling in the Chicago River after dark and stopped under a large tree to listen to a barred owl calling above.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Just show up.