Changing Allegiances? (Part 2)

Yesterday I posted a review of SpicesInc, largely by way of comparison to Penzeys Spices. This young company came out very favorably on every count, but I put off reviewing the specific spices I ordered because I wanted my stuffy nose to be back to full strength first. Since I haven’t had a chance to cook with most of the spices yet, these are just initial impressions; some I’ve never even purchased before, and have nothing to compare them to! As I use the spices, I’ll add updates to my reviews here.

Saigon cinnamon (organic): Of the items I purchased because I had run out, cinnamon was by far the most important. I bake with cinnamon constantly, particularly in the autumn and upcoming holiday season, and over the course of this past year, I have also come to terms with cinnamon as a savory spice, mostly thanks to a burgeoning interest in Moroccan flavors. We have always purchased the Korintje cinnamon from Penzeys, a sweet Indonesian cassia that tastes like your childhood memories, only stronger. But I decided to branch out with my SpicesInc order and selected Saigon cinnamon instead, which they listed as their most popular option with a 5% cinnamon oil content. This cinnamon has a deeper brown color than the korintje, which is slightly more orange, and an incredibly powerful fragrance, less sweet and more spicy, if that makes sense. It was so strong that by the time I refilled my empty jar, I couldn’t smell anything but cinnamon! I had to take a break and wash my hands to be able to smell the other packets as I opened them. I suspect a little of this will go a long way, and I think it will be an ideal addition to both baked goods and savory dishes.

French thyme (organic): Not too much to say about the thyme—it’s fragrant, organic and inexpensive. I’m nurturing a cutting at the moment that will hopefully keep me in fresh thyme next year, but in the meantime, this 1-oz bag should see us through the winter.

Cumin seed: I bought the cumin seed in a jar in order to compare the jars to those of Penzeys; they appear to be identical, but where the Penzeys jars are sealed with a paper sticker, the SpicesInc jars are sealed with plastic shrinkwrap around the lid, which makes them seem more airtight. I have not yet opened this jar, but next time I need ground cumin, I will note my impressions.

Allspice berries: I think allspice is my very favorite spice. I had purchased a small jar of whole berries from Penzeys last January and used most of them up for baking, grinding them a little at a time. These berries seem bigger and darker than those, but I have no idea if that makes any difference.

Grains of paradise: I’ve never been able to find these anywhere before! I had a hard time distinguishing a scent past the cinnamon, so I am very curious to see how they do once ground up. This spice was popular in the Middle Ages and is little known now, but I remember Alton Brown using some in apple pie, so I’m sure I’ll find some good uses for it.

Crystallized ginger: This is potent stuff. Clearly made from whole slices of fresh ginger, it is worlds different from the ginger-colored rocks at the grocery store. I don’t usually buy candied ginger—this was something of an impulse purchase with the holidays in mind. Makes me want to try my hand at candying ginger myself, but not until I’ve finished off this bag!

Pink peppercorns: I’ve never used pink peppercorns before, but they are so pretty, and I keep seeing beautiful photos of them being sprinkled on everything from steak to sorbet. From what I understand, they are not actually peppercorns at all, and are not as spicy as black peppercorns—with my wussy palate, that sounded like a good thing to me! Due to being shipped in a bag, my peppercorns seemed a little bit crushed up; I guess I should have ordered a jar instead! Also, as I dipped my fingers in to touch them, I couldn’t help but think of dead ladybugs (eek!) for some reason; not SpiceInc’s fault, by any means, but I’m hoping I won’t start thinking of that again when I actually go to cook with them.

Arrowroot powder: Another impulse purchase that I couldn’t resist. I’ve been curious about arrowroot as an alternative thickener for ages, and I can’t wait to see how it performs!

Saffron: SpicesInc currently only carries one size and one grade of Spanish saffron: a 1-gram packet that seems to be of fine quality. I’d still like to find a good source for slightly larger amounts of saffron for a price I can afford to shell out, since these tiny amounts make me extra-stingy about using it, and we hardly ever get the whole color and taste effect that saffron is capable of.

Tandoori spice: I got this one for fun. Jeremy loves Indian food, so every once in a while I try to make something that he will enjoy and I can actually choke down. Any way I can facilitate that process sounds good to me, and this blend actually has saffron in it already. It smells, like most Indian spice blends, rather unappealing to me, probably because I have never really cared for the smell of cumin (says the woman who just bought a big jar of cumin seed), but I’m nevertheless excited to see how it does with chicken.

Ras el hanout: To be honest, I barely know anything about ras al hanout, other than that I keep hearing it mentioned on shows like Top Chef. It is a sort of Moroccan version of curry powder, and this blend contains both turmeric and saffron, plus some mostly sweet spices. It smelled much better than the tandoori spice to my nose; now I just have to figure out how to use it!

I was also given two free 1-ounce samples along with my order, which is always going to earn some good will (one of the reasons I forgave Penzeys for their shipping fees in the past was their inclusion of a free sample jar, like an extra prize in a box of Cracker Jacks). I received a bag of organic, fair-trade cacao nibs, excellent considering that I was starting to run low on them, and a bag of Maharajah style curry powder, which smelled like a more interesting version of Madras curry powder—with saffron!

The Maharajah curry powder sample was actually the first spice from the box that I had the opportunity to use. I had been planning to make a sweet potato soup for my lunch to use up some roasted sweet potatoes (cooked as I was coming down with that cold, and stored in the fridge for a few days to await the return of my taste buds). Now, anyone who knows me will be shocked that I not only willingly made myself a meal based on sweet potatoes, but that I also willingly seasoned it with a predominant curry flavor, but what can I say? Palate expansion is a very good thing! This soup was basically a puree thinned with chicken stock, milk and cream; seasoned with fresh garlic, ginger, and a teaspoon of the Maharajah powder; and garnished with some quinoa for texture and protein. It was silky, cheerful, filling, and fragrant—and nearly too spicy for my wimpy taste buds. The website describes this seasoning as “not considered hot,” and the only potential offenders in the list are black and cayenne peppers, but it was pushing my personal heat boundaries nonetheless. This isn’t a fault, by any means, and I suspect my husband would have loved this soup, but just a small warning for those of you who, like me, can’t take the heat without about a quart of ice water handy—use small amounts and taste more than a pinky-tip at a time. 😉

I’m so pleased to have found this company for my spice habit, and I hope they keep up the good work! Check them out next time you just can’t bear to use that dusty jar of brown grocery store paprika one more time.

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