Lou's Clues: Spicing up your scratch kitchen

spice rackWhether it be a shelf, a cupboard or a complete closet or room, your pantry can be a scary place. It's that place in my life where $6.00 bottles of some celebrity Chef's spice blend gets eaten up like Pac-Man eats dots. It's the same place that swallows simple jars of paprika and garlic powder, only to give them back when the new spices arrive. I swear, this place is somehow related to my sock drawer, but that's a whole other story. Anyway, whether you're setting up shop for the first time, or you just want to streamline your spiced up life (and save money, too), I'm here to help you navigate the world of seasonings.
First, let's get one thing straight: store-bought spice blends are out of the question. One look at the ingredients and you will see that a lot of them are unnecessarily loaded with salt -- sometimes up to half or more. At 4 to 6 bucks a bottle for these blends, with such a salt volume, the price becomes totally outrageous -- not to mention the nerve these companies have demanding you to lay down and be satisfied with their flavors instead of your very own. Now let's look at the spice bottles themselves. WOW! Two to Three ounces of product for $3 to $5 each. Between the blends, the lost bottles and the prices, the pantry starts to sound like nothing but a hole in the wall you throw money into. Luckily, this can be fixed pretty easily.

Now, you may be saying to yourself, "But Louie, I like having pre-mixed blends at my fingertips. They save me time and space in the kitchen." And I'm not disagreeing with you. I'm just going to suggest you make these blends yourself. You'll save money, and save yourself some sodium while you're at it.

It may take some experimenting to figure out exactly what ratio you like of each spice, but that's half the genius here -- you get to customize the blend to your tastes.To get you started, here are a few of my favorite blends:

Traditional Italian: Simple and inexpensive, you can start out with equal amounts of everything and adjust to taste.
Basic: marjoram, thyme, rosemary, savory, sage, oregano, and basil.
Not so basic: Add powdered garlic, dehydrated onion, grated parmesan cheese, and mint.

Greek Seasoning: Because of the similarity with this and the Italian, I will do something I usually don't do with blends -- give measurements.
Start with a tablespoon of dried oregano, then a teaspoon of mint and thyme. Then add 1/2 teaspoon of the following: basil, onion, marjoram and garlic.

Seasoned Salt: Simply take ordinary table salt (about a cup) and add a tsp of sugar, paprika, turmeric, onion, garlic and a dash of cayenne.

A lot of people will shell out money for a poultry blend, but let's try one of mine, which can be easily adjusted to your taste. When I make baked chicken, I usually add a little fat in the form of a good olive oil rub on the bird. Then, I have my jar of the following: equal amounts of garlic, kosher salt, coarse black pepper and tarragon, with a dash of rosemary. Have at it, add and adjust to your liking.

Beef seasoning is similar; however, I stay away from the tarragon, and jump the rosemary up to an equal part. If you want a great lamb seasoning, use the beef seasoning and simply add mint.

Vegetable Blends: Hey, why not? Everyone seasons their veggies, right? Try one of these, and see if you can get one of your anti-veggie friends to change their ways:

Great American: Super on most green veggies. Instead of steaming or microwaving, try frying them in a heavy pan with olive oil, and shake a little of this over it: 2 tbsp of garlic, 1 tbsp of fresh ground black pepper, 1/2 tsp Kosher salt, and a pinch of cayenne.
For a Mexican flair, add 1/2 tsp of ground cumin and annatto.
For Italian flavor, add basil and oregano, and mint.

Remember, you can take control of the flavors and the additives in your diet by doing things the scratch kitchen way. And let's not even get into the savings. Store your blends in jars, label them accordingly, and your spice rack will become a much better place both for your body and your wallet.

Chef Louie is a contributor for Doug Stephan's Good Day, a nationally syndicated radio show. A culinary veteran, Chef Louie pledges to empower you in the kitchen and supermarket, and help you eat better, entertain better and keep more of that hard-earned money close to home. Sign up for his free e-newsletter here.
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