There are the spices and seasonings you should always have in your pantry, and then are the special bois. These are the blends that smell so good and look so pretty, but maybe seem just a little too precious for everyday use. These are the blends you should give as gifts.
Making your own spice blends isn't particularly challenging, but buying a single bottle of a blend is both more convenient and fiscally responsible than buying five bottles of five different spices. Plus, if you're just getting into the world of seasonings and spices, blends can be a bit less intimidating.
Truthfully, I’m all about using super fancy seasoning every day of the year — even the plainest dish can feel special with a sprinkling of something special—but your friends and family might need the tiniest shove of encouragement.
The holidays are the best time to introduce your loved ones to something delicious that they probably wouldn’t buy for themselves, and any of the below would be super welcome under our tree.
Za’atar: Recipes for za’atar vary from region to region, but they pretty much always contain thyme and oregano. Marjoram, mint, savoury, sage, and sesame seeds are also common. (Personally, I simply must have sesame seeds in my za’atar.) You can make the blend yourself—I like this recipe — or you can buy it at a Middle Eastern grocery store or online.
My favourite applications for za’atar are the simplest. It makes a great rub for roast chicken, but it will really perk up a scramble (or any egg, for that matter), and it’s pretty phenomenal sprinkled on popcorn, stirred into labneh, or swirled into good olive oil (for dipping fluffy flat bread).
Herbs de Provence: In its most basic form, this sweet and woodsy blend contains savoury, rosemary, marjoram, and thyme, but I like the blends with a little tarragon and lavender. Making it yourself requires buying a lot of individual herbs, so I like to buy it already mixed.
(This one from Penzeys is good, but any specialty food store is bound to have an adorable crock of the stuff.)
Not to sound overly basic, but my favourite use for it is roast chicken, pork loin, and roasted potatoes. (You can also blitz it in the food processor to get it super fine, then sprinkle it on popcorn to consume while enjoying French cinema.)
Supeq Spice: This spicy and savoury blend contains all of my favourite friends. We’ve got your seaweed, your ginger, some shiitake mushrooms, and smokey hot paprika.
(All of it sourced from New England.)
It’s obviously begging to be put on popcorn (honestly, what isn’t?), but it’s great on a sautéed green, and absolutely dominates on eggs and fish. (It also comes in a very cute tin.)
Chilli crisp: This oil-based condiment is not technically a seasoning blend in the traditional, dry sense, but it truly contains all things that are good. Fermented soy beans and peanuts add savoury depth, while fried onions and garlic add flavour and crunch.
In terms of heat, you’ve got your spicy “hot” heat from chiles, but you also get a delightfully tingly, slightly numbing sensation from Szechuan peppercorns.
Buy it at your local Asian market. Put it on everything.
Black garlic salt: Fancy salt is one of my favourite gifts to give—Maldon is the best host gift; do not @ me — and this is my favourite-est. Though all varieties of Jacobsen salt are beautiful and delicious, their umami-rich black garlic salt is almost erotic.
(You can buy it here.)
Tony Chachere’s Original Creole Seasoning: This bright green shaker of salty, spicy goodness was a constant presence in my childhood kitchen.
In fact, when we first moved to Los Angeles, my mother panicked when she couldn’t find it at Von’s, and had one of her siblings ship it from Mississippi. Luckily, it’s very easy to find now, and it’s quite inexpensive. Use it in gumbo (obviously), but also make sure to sprinkle it on french fries.
Cancale N. 11: This blend of fleur de sel, orange, and fennel is good on all sorts of savoury dishes — especially seafood and salads — but it’s also super fun sprinkled on sweet things like ice cream or — I don’t know — perhaps some Christmas cookies just before baking?
If you’re looking for a very good, tasteful stocking stuffer, I have to recommend my BFF Everything But the Bagel Seasoning from Trader Joe’s, which is good on most food stuffs, and these adorable little tins of Maldon, which ensure your loved one is never without really good salt.
(Also, if any of you have a recommendation for a truly great store-bought garam masala, please share it with the class. I have yet to find one that comes close to homemade.)