My approach to food and spices is unadulterated.  Identifying flavors and pairing spices comes as second nature (well in this case I should say first).  I am certain I sailed in a schooner plying the spice trade in a previous life.

The innate understanding of flavor combinations showcases the inherent flair of an intelligent chef, devoted to the craft and one that cooks at a professional level.  A well-stocked pantry is as essential as filling your car with gas.  It’s understandable the foray into the spice cabinet can prove indomitable.

Delving into flavors and spices should shout at your inner chef.  Be impulsive and thought forward!  There’s shouldn’t be any agitation or dread where cooking vagaries are concerned.  If chefs and gourmands hadn’t dared to sail into uncharted waters we would all be eating boiled meat and potatoes.

It’s about taking the best ingredients and always pushing the boundaries.  Taking what you know and reimagining it and daring to go all in.  That is what cooking is about.

There’s really no rhyme or reason how to stock a pantry.  I am providing you with a list of the go-to spices and flavorings I gravitate to most in my cooking.

AGAVE NECTAR – Made solely from the agave plant and it is used as a sweetener.  It derives from Mexico and South Africa and it is much sweeter than honey and less viscous

ALEPPO PEPPER – Sometimes known as Turkish red pepper flakes.  It has a peppery, fruitlike and cumin undertone and it is definitely mild on the heat scale and very flavorful

ANCHOVIES AND ANCHOVY PASTE – Probably one of my favorite pantry items and one that is abhorred by many.  Anchovies are a subliminal addition to some Italian and French dishes; when cooked they add incredible nuttiness and tremendous depth of flavor unlike any other.  You can purchase small cans and some stores sell it in a tube (like tomato paste). Once cooked they lose their fishy taste

APPLE CIDER VINEGAR (ACV) – A staple that is as useful as it is necessary in any pantry.  It’s called for in many recipes and I use it by the bucketful.  In its organic, unfiltered form, it has milky appearance and should be well shaken.  Not only does it impart incredible flavor but it has been used as a folk remedy for centuries.  My go to is by Braggs Company and a close second is Trader Joe’s brand

BALSAMIC VINEGAR (DARK AND WHITE) – Indispensable in cooking and in salad dressings with a unique and singular flavor. It hails from Modena, Italy and it is aged in casks for 12-15 years.  Really good Balsamic can be extra veccio (extra aged for 20-25 years).  Some are costly, but definitely worthwhile keeping an expensive bottle for a small drizzle over salads.  It will make all the difference, believe me!

BALSAMIC GLAZES – As the word implies, it is a thick, sweet glaze, deriving from a reduction of balsamic vinegar and sugar.  A bit thinner in the consistency from molasses and now sold in many gourmet stores, with a large variety of flavors such as apple, fig, raspberry, even truffle.  Not only does it provide splendid finish drizzled over salads, tomatoes and burrata, on sandwiches and fruit salads.  It also adds incredible depth of flavor to cooked meats and BBQ sauces.  It is easy to make at home – bring a 16oz of good Balsamic vinegar, ½ cup of brown sugar and a pinch of salt to a boil, simmer and stir a few times so it doesn’t burn and reduce to about ¼ cup until it becomes thick and syrupy in consistency – about 20-30 minutes

CALABRIAN CHILI OIL – Chili that derives from the Calabrian region in Italy.  The peppers are steeped and pressed into an oil.  It is available in jars and it is mostly used in the oil form.  The peppers are intensely spicy and when used in moderation it balances, smoky and vinegary flavors

CAPERS – The unopened bud of the caper bush and are a lovely addition to many Mediterranean dishes as well as salads, vinaigrettes, fish and meats.  Have you tried frying them? Heaven!

CAPER BERRIES – The caper is the unopened bud of the caper bush and it is purchased in pickled form.  The caper berry is the fruit of the caper bush and they are larger and typically come with a stem and are not as strong as regular capers

CARAWAY SEEDS – Seeds that have a subtle anise flavor but are not the same as anise or fennel seeds.  They are used in breads (rye mostly) and an ingredient in sauerkraut.  Lovely addition in German potato salad and give amazing flavoring to sautéed potatoes

DEMERARA/TURBINADO SUGAR – Unlike brown sugar which is just white sugar with molasses infused in it, Demerara sugar is a large grained, golden sugar, partly refined with a crunchy edge to it.  It is also known as Turbinado sugar and is now being substituted in many instances for regular white sugar

DEMI-GLACE – You can buy Demi-Glace at specialty markets and it adds tremendous depth in flavor creating robust flavor profile.  It is very concentrated and it can be made from scratch but it is a laborious process.  The best are roasted chicken Demi-Dlace, classic French Demi-Glaze (moisture of beef and veal), Seafood Stock and Classic Mushroom stock. The best brand out in the market is by More Than Gourmet, their Demi-Glaces and stock concentrates are outstanding.

DIJON MUSTARD – Undoubtedly, one of the giants in the staple array of any pantry.  My go to is Grey Poupon.  Nothing compares to the complexity of Dijon mustard which really has no substitute

DUKKAH – An Egyptian mixture of ground nuts, seeds and spices, usually used as a dipping sauce for bread when sprinkled over olive oil.  It is very easy to prepare and there are countless flavoring additions to make it personal.  My preferred concoction is a mixture of: hazelnuts, pistachios, sesame seeds, cumin seeds, anise seeds, coriander seeds, black peppercorns, dried mint, kosher salt.  There are many uses for Dukkah and not just for dipping.  Mix it with some olive oil and add it when you are rooting vegetables, crust it for chicken and lamb chops.  Add it to meatloaf as well as to lamb burgers

DRIED MUSHROOMS – The variety available nowadays can be mind boggling.  Especially in a dried format.  One of the most divine and distinctive in flavor is the porcini, although there are many Chinese dried shrooms to be had.  The dried varietals are pricey but what you pay is apropos when you have such an earthy and aromatic shroom.  When rehydrating dried shrooms, one of the best parts is using their liquid, as that is 100 times more potent

EPAZOTE – Considering some people don’t consume beans on a regular basis because of their “embarrassing consequences”, the two solutions when preparing any bean dish is: soak the beans overnight and add epazote while cooking. The odor upon opening a jar of dried epazote is pungent (pine, citrus, turpentine and mustard greens) but don’t let the pungency of the herb dissuade you from using it. In native Nahuatl it means “skunk sweat” but it adds a very earthy flavor and great dimension to moles, bean dishes (frijoles a la olla), soups and even cheese quesadillas. Much in the same manner as asafetida if off putting when opening the jar, but the dimension of flavor it adds to Indian food is off the charts good.  NOTE: use about 1 TSP of dry epazote and no more, as it could make people nauseous.

FENNEL SEEDS – Sometimes confused with Anise as they are similar in flavor.  Fennel is used more as a veggie (fennel bulb) and anise as a spice, since fennel is more edible as a vegetable as the anise plant is not

FIG JAM – One word – marvelous.  It can be purchased almost anywhere and it is a masterful pairing with cheese in a charcuterie board, much like mustard fruit.  It is the ultimate in grilled cheese, taking it to the gourmet realm and of course you can put it on toast, but that is rather boring.  Try adding it to sauces, vinaigrettes, in BBQ sauces and marinades

HERBES DE PROVENCE – As the terms refers, they are a blend of herbs originating from the French Provence region and popular in stews, soups and grilled meats, veggies and potatoes.  Blends often contain, savory, marjoram, rosemary and thyme with the unique addition of dried lavender

ITALIAN SEASONING BLEND – Consisting of dried basil, oregano, thyme, marjoram, sage and rosemary blend of herbs that are usually used in the preparation of Italian food – pastas, soups, pizzas and stews

HORSERADISH (PREPARED) – Essential for roast beef, it comes already prepared and ready to use.  Making horseradish from scratch is quite a task

JUNIPER BERRIES – The berries from the juniper tree and are very aromatic and a little spicy.  Used to flavor marinades, stuffings, casseroles and stews and can be ground when making rubs for meats.  They complement venison, pork, beef and duck

KALAMATA OLIVES – Hailing from a small town in southern Greece, they are one of the healthiest foods on earth, not to mention adding them to salads, stews and pasta dishes

LEMON PEPPER – This blend of dried lemon zest and pepper, sometimes it may include other ingredients depending on the brand and it is brilliant with poultry, pasta and seafood

WHOLE MACE – The exterior shell of the nutmeg and it is much stronger in flavor, with hints of cinnamon and pepper.  It is predominant in Indian, Caribbean, Moroccan and Mediterranean cuisines and an ingredient in the Indian spice mix Garam Masala, curry powder and the Mediterranean mix Ras el Hanaout

MAPLE SYRUP – When you are purchasing maple syrup, make sure it is the real deal and not a substitute – Canadian is typically the best.  I favor it because it provides sweetens well and it is not as predominant or as thick as honey

MEXICAN PILONCILLO – It is unrefined Mexican sugar and it comes in a hard, conical shape, where it has to be shaved off when used in cooking.  It is known in other Latin countries as Panocha or Panela

MEXICAN ACHIOTE PASTE – Achiote paste is made with the annatto seed. The past is used to color metas while they marinate and it’s used in many Mexican dishes and salsas. You can buy the achiote or annatto powder – the paste has cumin, pepper, oregano, cloves and garlic and it’s a bit more complex than the powder alone as it’s seasoned. Sometimes it’s called Sazón

MEXICAN DRIED OREGANO – Differing from the regular Oregano as it is lemonier in flavor

MEXICAN SEMI-SWEET CHOCOLATE – It is definitely different in flavor as it contains cacao, sugar and cinnamon and some brands may even include nutmeg and allspice – an notable addition to chili and moles

MOLASSES – A distinct seasoning that is not just used in baking or BBQ sauces but it has many other versatile uses.  In England is called treacle, and it’s much blacker and thicker

MUSTARD POWDER – Also called Prepared Mustard it is the dry version of regular wet mustard – Coleman’s is my go to, and it is used when you are making dry rubs and marinades.  It can be reconstituted with some lukewarm water

MUSTARD FRUIT – Some of you may not have heard of Mustard fruit.  It is a fabulous accompaniment to cheeses and cold cuts, much like fig jam in a charcuterie board. They are fruits poached in a mustard syrup and they impart a nice spicy sweetness

NIGELA SEEDS – Often confused for black sesame seeds.  They are about the same size but these impart a mild oniony taste

WHOLE NUTMEG – Please do yourself a favor and don’t purchase nutmeg already ground.  It goes stale quickly and there is hardly any flavor once ground.  Buy the nutmeg whole and grate it fresh when a recipe calls for it

OLIVE OIL AND EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL (EVOO) – Clearly one of the most necessary components in any kitchen.  It comes from many regions around the globe; the most notorious being Italy, Greece and Spain.  All have vastly different flavors, depending on the country the olive trees are grown.  Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) should be deeply green and aromatic – from the first press.  Olive oil is used mostly as a cooking agent, as EVOO has a high burning point.   Besides, EVOO should be the star component in any recipe, as it is usually rather expensive

PANKO BREADCRUMBS – They are crispier and lighter than regular breadcrumbs and they absorb less oil and grease when cooking.  They can be used as toppings for casseroles, when frying crab cakes, chicken breasts, topping for meatloaf mixed with Parmesan cheese and even adding them to thicken up soups stews

PINK PEPPERCORNS – They are milder in flavor to their counterparts, black and white, which in contrast, pink peppercorns are quite perfumed and not as peppery.  Pepper has to be cracked fresh and not pre-bought, so invest in a good pepper mill – you will never go back to using the stale and pre-ground kind again

PICKAPEPPA SAUCE – An amazing little sauce with very unique and irreplaceable flavor profile.  Derives from West Indies, specifically a Jamaican condiment, aged in oak barrels.  It is a great addition to marinades for meats and fish to be thrown on the grill.  Also, great when making BBQ sauces as well as pork marinades

POMEGRANATE SEEDS – Fresh or dried a preferred ingredient in Middle Eastern cooking and now an addition to many salads

PRESERVED MEYER LEMONS – They are used mostly in Middle Eastern cuisine and dishes utilizing a tagine.  They are salty and lemony and a little bit goes a long way

RAS EL HANAOUT – A North African blend of spices which is mostly used in couscous and in grilled meats.  Ras el Hanaout is to African cuisine as Garam Masala is to Indian cooking and it is quite easy to prepare.  It stays fresh quite a while, longer in the fridge and it’s very easy to prepare at home

1 TSP ground ginger

1 TSP ground cardamom

1 TSP ground mace

½ TSP cinnamon

¼ TSP ground allspice

½ TSP ground nutmeg

½ TSP turmeric

½ TSP fresh cracked pepper

¼ TSP ground cloves

¼ TSP ground anise

Mix all the spices and store in an airtight container.

ROASTED PEPPERS – A jar of roasted peppers is always available in my pantry.  I typically prefer to roast my own blend of peppers and remove the skins, however when in a pinch it is really a go to pantry staple

ROSE HARISSA – Key ingredient in North African cooking but a spice that is now being used extravagantly across the board to flavor many dishes. “Rose” derives from it having crushed rose petals in the paste or the powder.  It is aromatic, but don’t let it fool you – it packs a mighty kick in the chili department and should be used in small quantities

SAFRON THREADS – With a definite perfume and enigmatic flavoring it is the most expensive spice in the world, even traded in stock markets around the world.  The flavor is quite hard to pinpoint, but once you’ve cooked with it, it’s unmistakable.  The delicate orange colored threads are plucked from the stems of the saffron crocus flower and then dried.  It’s been used since the 7th century BC and traded as a staple for over four millennia.  The largest growers are Iran, Kashmir, Morocco and Spain

SMOKED SALTS – Used to impart smoked flavor into foods without having to smoke them.  An ingredient that is now in the hot seat and becoming even more popular because of the vibrant and powerful flavor profiles it imparts.  The most common choices are hickory, mesquite, apple wood and oak

SPANISH PAPRIKA – SWEET, HOT AND SMOKED – This spice derives from the Capsicum pepper and they are grown in almost every region of the world, although Hungarian and Spanish tend to have the most popularity.  Pimenton, in Spain has a few varieties: sweet (dulce), semisweet (agridulce) and picante (hot), and are available smoked or unsmoked.  Hungarian paprika is a bit milder and it is typically not a potently flavored as the Spanish counterpart

STAR ANISE WHOLE – A pungent and dry spice in the shape of a star, hence the name, from a tree growing mostly in North Vietnam and China.  That’s where the anise flavor derives from and it’s used in the production of Galliano and Sambuca liqueurs in Italy.  Also used for making mulled wine in France and Germany.  In cooking it is used in Asian and Indian cuisines and a major ingredient in Chinese Five Spice

SUN-DRIED TOMATOES (DRIED OR IN OLIVE OIL) – They are ripe tomatoes that have been dried by long exposure to the sun and thus have lost most of their water content. They are very concentrated in flavor and unique in flavor

SUMAC POWDER – A spice predominantly used in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking, it is tangy and lemony and absolutely divine!  You can use it in salad dressings, grilled meats, Shakshouka, marinades and sprinkled over hummus to give it a mild acidic taste

TAHINI PASTE – A thick condiment typically in oil made out of sesame seeds.  It is easy to make but it is now carried in most supermarkets.  Try to get the Lebanese or Greek variety as it is a much better product

TOMATO PASTE – A very thick and concentrated tomato flavored paste.  Not to be confused with tomato puree or pureed tomatoes with tomato paste added

TERIYAKI (Sauce and Marinade) – A Japanese sauce consisting of soy sauce, ginger, sake wine (or mirin), ginger and sugar.  It is usually used for marinating meat or glazing it as it grills

TRUFFLES – White and black varieties of subterranean pungent fungus that grow in a few parts of the world under the shade of oak trees.  They have an earthy flavor and smell which is a mixture of cheesy and mushroomy (is that even a word?).  They are small and look like a hard, wrinkled potato.  And no, they have nothing in common with the chocolate truffle.  White truffles grow in Italy and black grow in France.  They are a luxurious and elegant costly delicacy, that trained dogs and pigs forage from the forest floor so they can be dug out for sale.  They only grow at certain times of the year and black truffles are a bit more affordable than white, which are labeled as Earth’s Gold since they go for about $3000 per pound.  Yep, you heard right $3,000 smackers.  And white truffles are very delicate and have a very short shelf life – black truffles can be frozen but white can’t.  Since they are so exorbitantly expensive, you can substitute the actual truffle for truffle flavored oil, and experience the luxury

VANILLA EXTRACT – Just like with maple syrup, ensure you are getting original and real deal vanilla extract and not imitation

WORCESTERSHIRE SAUCE – Definitely stick to Lea and Perrins when purchasing Worcester sauce.  It is a world renewed English flavoring created in 1837 and the ingredients are still a mystery today.  It has a complex flavor and aroma used in food preparation and drink and there is no substitute.  An irreplaceable addition to a Bloody Mary

Pantry Rat