A week before Christmas I was looking in my spice cupboard for some specific ingredients that I might need to make my annual homemade Christmas gifts. I hated to give the same thing year after year – after all, how much homemade jam can people use? – and I had decided that this would be the year of the spiced nuts. The annual activity, now nearly a decade long, was perhaps inspired by the delicious box of baked goods my pastry-chef step-sister would send along every year. I’m not much of a baker, but I started to can my meager harvest of strawberries and tomatoes and was proud enough to give a jar to each of my parents and my grandmother. I expanded to pickles the next year and then experimented with jelly: the least successful was wine-flavored (or perhaps I should say, the least versatile), the most sought after was my strawberry balsamic black pepper. This year, inspired by a recent trip to Morocco where a shop’s excellence might be measured in the depth of their ras al hanout and the entire country seemed to smell like the inside of an herboriste, I wanted to use spices, and lots of them.
I decided upon three versions of nuts – New England, Italian and Spicy – and started searching for the appropriate spices in my cupboard. The cupboard is in the corner, near the sink, which means that it goes back at least two feet – farther than I can reach without perching on the counter. I thought I had a pretty good mental inventory of what was in the cupboard, but was taken aback by some of what I found. Memories from past dishes and travels were defined through my spices, much as I had recently seen the history of the country of Morocco defined their food.
Digging around in the cupboard, while sitting next to the rack of drying dishes and row of olive oils and vinegars, I started pulling out jars. First there was the homemade pate spice, thoughtfully labeled as such, just one souvenir from my year-long charcuterie adventure. Next I pulled out a large jar, half-filled with dark orange spices, and smelling of heat and flavor. It had to be chili spice or something with cayenne and cumin and ground hot peppers, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember what it was. It had to be recent, judging by the shiny lid and location at the front of the shelf, and I swore to be better in the new year about labeling my concoctions. Behind the chili spice were a few jars of homemade spices purchased on a trip to Florida for a friend’s wedding: Florida fish rub, Thai seasoning and lemon pepper, all made from mostly locally grown (to the purveyor in Florida) ingredients. These brought back memories of how happy my friend was, nearly bounding down the aisle to meet her husband to be at the altar; of the afternoon on the beach when my husband first saw dolphins in the wild; of the morning before the wedding when we sought out our favorite tourist destination – a farmer’s market – to buy distinctly local delicacies that we could not find back in the northeast.
I set aside some rosemary and thyme, both picked from the raised bed in my tiny urban back yard, and dried in the dehydrator for my own use. Behind that I found the jar of ground hot peppers – truly the spiciest and most flavorful blend I have ever used – given to us by an old friend of my husband’s.
On the next shelf up I found a container with pink salt – clearly labeled as curing salt, not for normal consumption – an ingredient I had only recently discovered and learned to use. This reminded me of what I had learned in the past year as a cook and of the family and friends, virtual and in-person, who helped me with encouragement, stories of success, taste-testing and sous chef-ing. I found a jar of za’atar spice, a few years old now, that a friend gave us when she and her husband moved overseas. I thought of her and her little daughter, whom I had only met once, and thought to make a point to send her an email. I also found a jar of whole nutmeg, a gift from a high school friend’s mother for my wedding, now nearly four years old. She had sent us a box of spices after the wedding, and this was all that remained. I doubt she knew I was much of a cook – I wasn’t much use in the kitchen back when her daughter and I snuck rum from the liquor cabinet and blasted Pearl Jam in her bedroom – but her small gift was one of my favorites.
I gathered the spices I would be needing to make my homemade Christmas gifts, and put the rest back into the cupboard, trying to bring a few forward to encourage their use. I knew that spices lost their pungency, especially after a year or two, but I couldn’t bring myself to toss the za’atar – especially because I only recently was inspired to use spices from this part of the world – or a few others that reminded me of dishes I had attempted or friends with whom I had shared a kitchen or a meal.
I wondered what other shelf in my life contained such memories, such a ledger of times shared with others or skills learned. I vowed in the coming year to revisit this shelf more often, to try new dishes, label old spice mixes and toss those that lost their flavor. If I could do this on one little shelf in my life, I could only image the possibilities elsewhere.
Italian Spiced Nuts
1 tablespoon thyme
1 tablespoon oregano
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
In a separate bowl, whisk 1 egg white until frothy
Toss a pound of nuts (your choice – maybe mixed or all cashews or almonds) in the egg white until coated. Toss the nuts with the spice mixture and roast in a single layer in 325 degree oven (on a silpat, greased cookie sheet or parchment paper) until lightly brown, ten minutes or less.
Take out of oven and immediately toss with a half cup (or more!) or grated parmesan (or grated pecorino would also be delicious). Package up for gifts or just serve at room temp.