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Spice World: Revamp Your Culinary Wardrobe

(post, Deirdra Harris Glover)

Some believe you can learn a lot about a person by snooping in their medicine cabinet, but if I'm looking for insight into your personality I'm far more likely to sneak a peek at your spice rack.

My husband's Grandma Ella knows how to feed a crowd: She's been doing it her whole life. One of the first times I met her, we talked in her kitchen as she finished a few dishes for a Thanksgiving spread. As we talked, I moved over to stand by her decorative spice rack. I spotted a bottle of ancient bay, unopened, the leaves bleached golden by time and Mississippi sun. After a closer look, I realized she'd only opened a few of the jars on the rack, and she'd stuck to the basics: salt, pepper, parsley, garlic and onion. While the wasted potential of beautiful bay personally pains my heart, it says a lot about Grandma Ella. She is a woman who knows the value of moving ingredients directly from the garden into the pot, of letting the quality of her ingredients speak for themselves. Her food is wonderful because it's understated, authentic and free of pretense, just like her.

My first spice rack was a housewarming gift from my mother: corked test tubes that slid into a metal stand. I had no clue what to do with most of them, and they moldered in their tubes as I pushed past the grilled cheese and Ramen stage of my culinary experimentation. As my skills and palate progressed, my spice cabinet expanded beyond the 12 test tubes into a full-fledged laboratory. I mistakenly bought into the idea that being a good cook meant having every imaginable flavor at my fingertips, and paid dearly for the presumption. When I finally felt at ease in my kitchen, I purged my cabinets and only restocked staples I use regularly. Today, the colorful array largely reflects my love for Indian, Italian and Asian cuisine. The glass-windowed metal jars hang on magnet sheets installed into our cabinets, and look more like an eyeshadow display than foodstuff. Each tin is labeled on the back, and I try mostly to rely on color and texture for identification. My spice rack marks me as a culinary adventuress and a bit of a show-off. I've come to terms with that.

Just as the clothes hanging in your closet reflect your personal style, the tins and jars inside your cupboard speak volumes about your nature, your culture and your culinary influences. Here are a few tips to help revamp your culinary style; they may even inspire you to clean out your closet.

Don't be a Slave to a Label
Don't pay supermarket premiums for bottles and labels. Be thrifty and eco-conscious by refilling your empty bottles with loose herbs and spices. Buying spices "in bulk" is substantially cheaper than buying prepackaged jars. You can easily refill the typical 2 ounce spice bottle for less than 50 cents. When my husband and I moved into a house, we replaced all 30 of our "staple" spices for under $20 at our local food co-op. Spices bought in bulk are usually fresher than their bottled counterparts, and are increasingly organic. You can also buy salt-free versions of popular spice blends, which allows you to control your family's sodium intake.

Toss Everything You Don't Love
There's a time to say goodbye to things that no longer serve you. If you don't see yourself using an item multiple times in six months, kick it to the curb. If it isn't in high rotation in your kitchen, it's wasting space, just like those shoes you bought for your sister's wedding that are squatting in the back of your closet.

Keep Your Staples in Stock and Fresh
I keep all the seasonings for our top 10 dishes in the house at all times, because they are the foundations for my comfort food. Since they're my culinary equivalent of my favorite pair of jeans, I'm vigilant in their upkeep. If I open the canister, and I'm greeted by any sort of dull mustiness, I dump it and start fresh.

Sometimes, all it takes is a scarf or a stunning piece of jewelry to revitalize an outfit. If you're interested in trying a new recipe or a type of cuisine, exploit the bulk spice aisle and buy exact amounts of the herbs necessary for the dish in question. It's easy to be a daring cook when you have very little to lose. If you enjoyed the results, you can always make it a staple. 

Work What You've Got
You don't have to be a model to wear things well, and you don't have to be a celebrity chef to feed your friends and family. Whether your style is mac-and-cheese or haute cuisine, your food will taste better if you play to your strengths.

This piece originally ran in the Jackson Free Press