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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

You can help by leaving comments on posts and by becoming a follower. I'd really like to know who you are and what your thoughts are on what I'm doing. To date, more than a quarter million people have viewed the blog and that's great. But every great leader needs followers and if I am ever to achieve my goal of becoming the next great leader of the Italian culinary world :-) I need followers!

Grazie mille!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Carla Hall's Pumpkin Chocolate Cake is FANTASTIC!

A "MUST" for the Fall and Winter Holidays

Carla Hall's Pumpkin Chocolate Cake
(ABC's The Chew)
You have GOT TO try this cake, boys and girls! Carla Hall posted the recipe to ABC's The Chew as a Halloween treat. Forget Halloween! We made it for Thanksgiving and it's SO good, we're giving it a reprise at Christmas.

I did one little tweak to Carla's original recipe; she may have great luck melting chocolate over direct heat, but most people do not. Therefore, we did the double-boiler method for the ganache. And when you make the filling, be sure the pumpkin puree is very dry. Too much moisture in the filling will make it a little loose and cause the cakes to slide around. You can dowel them if necessary, but making sure the filling is tight will obviate that necessity.


PUMPKIN CHOCOLATE CAKE

For the pumpkin cake:

2 cups sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
4 lg eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
3 tsp pumpkin pie spice
1 tsp salt
2 cups pumpkin puree

For the filling:

4 cups powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tbsp pumpkin spice
2 cups mascarpone
1 cup pumpkin puree (strained until very dry)
2 tsp salt

For the ganache:

3 tbsp corn syrup
6 oz heavy cream
12 oz dark chocolate (small bits)
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
ginger snaps (crushed for garnish)

Preheat oven to 350°. Grease and flour two 9-inch round cake pans.

Combine sugar, oil, and eggs in a large mixing bowl and mix well. Whisk dry ingredients in a separate bowl. Stir dry ingredients into wet until just combined. Fold in the pumpkin puree.

Divide batter between two cake pans.

Bake for 30 to 45 minutes. Rotate pans half way through cooking. Test with a toothpick. When cakes are done, allow to cool in pans 5 minutes before turning out onto cooling racks.

While the cakes are cooling, make the mascarpone filling. Beat mascarpone and pumpkin puree until blended, then add pumpkin spice, salt, and powdered sugar. Mix at high speed until blended, about 1 minute. Once fully combined, add vanilla and beat another 30 seconds.

Once cakes have completely cooled, cut through each horizontally with a serrated knife, making a total of four thin layers. Spread the filling evenly between the layers.

Once assembled, transfer the cake to a cake stand lined with parchment around the edges (to keep stand clean.)

In a double boiler over medium heat, combine corn syrup and cream and bring to a simmer. Add the chocolate. Stir until melted and smooth. Remove from heat and add vanilla extract.

Pour over cake and garnish with crushed ginger snaps.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Sweet Potatoes vs Yams

I Yam What I Yam!

You know, you would think “Iron Chefs” would really be on top of things when it comes to food, especially proper culinary terminology. Alas, such is not always the case. Take, for instance, “Iron Chef” Michael Symon. I swear, if I hear him refer to the browning of meat as “caramelizing” one more time, I'm going to throw something at the TV. Meat browns through the Maillard reaction. It does not “caramelize.” It's like he's afraid “browning” doesn't sound “cheffy” enough, so he uses the “fancy word” instead. And he's wrong. If you put a glaze of some sort on a piece of meat, something that contains sugars, and then throw that glazed meat in a pan, the sugars in the glaze will “caramelize.” Otherwise, the meat itself simply “browns.”

And I recently heard “Iron Chef” Marc Forgione, when referring to a standard Thanksgiving dish, utter the phrase, “candied yams, also known as sweet potatoes.” I can only guess he must have been absent the day they discussed yams and sweet potatoes at culinary school. Ooops, that's right......he didn't go to culinary school. But with a Michelin star to his credit, you'd think he'd know the difference, right? And there is a big difference. Here's the skinny.

The Covington Sweet Potato
(North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission)
The so-called “sweet potato,” or Ipomoea batatas” for you Latin-loving scientific types, is a member of the Morning Glory family. It's a dicotyledon, meaning its seeds have two embryonic leaves. Although widely grown in the United States, with North Carolina and Louisiana leading the sweet potato producing pack, the plant originated in the tropical regions of the Americas, around Peru and Ecuador, before migrating north, where it was being grown by natives on the Eastern coastal plain of North America when Columbus came to town.

African Yam
Yams, on the other hand, were imported to the New World from West Africa. Scientifically, they are of the Dioscorea species and occupy a plant family all their own. A yam is a monocotyledon, having only one embryonic leaf, making it more closely related to a grass than to a broad-leaf plant. And they still don't hail from these parts; their tropical growth requirements mean that the rare yams you encounter in your neighborhood specialty market probably came from somewhere in the Caribbean.

One has only to look at the two side by side to see the difference. Sweet potatoes are smooth skinned and are kind of short and round with tapered ends. They look very much like really big potatoes. Yams are downright ugly by comparison, being long and cylindrical with rough, scaly skins and funky little protuberances or “toes” all over them. And yams can grow up to eight feet in length and weigh in at a hundred pounds. Sweet potatoes weigh about a pound and top out around a foot in length. You'll know the difference in your mouth, as well. Sweet potatoes are.....well......sweet, and very moist, too. Yams are dry and starchy.

There's also a significant nutritional difference. Sweet potatoes are rich in numerous vitamins, minerals, fiber, complex carbohydrates, and of course, the beta carotene that gives them their distinct coloring. Yams are a good source of starch and not much else.

The O'Henry Sweet Potato
(North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission)

So why all the confusion between the two? It's pretty obvious they're nothing alike, right? Some people trace the muddle back to the days when African slaves worked the fields and called the root vegetable they encountered by the name they applied to the tuber with which they were most familiar; “nyami,” a word quickly Anglicized to “yam.” But it took the government to really screw things up. See, the “original” sweet potato, the one traditionally grown on the East coast, is white or whitish-yellow in color. You sometimes see them in stores labeled as “white sweet potatoes.” The orange variety now commonly associated with the name didn't actually come to prominence until some Louisiana growers popularized them in the mid-20th century. A bad cotton crop in the 1930s turned a lot of Louisiana farmers into sweet potato producers. They wanted their product to be clearly distinguished from the plain old East coast variety, so they started calling them “yams” and petitioned the USDA to sanction that label, which it promptly did. Although, if you look at the fine print on the can, you'll find that “yams” labeled as such still have to contain the words “sweet potato” somewhere in the description. But, thanks in part to successful marketing, the orange variety soon overtook the culinary world and the terms “yam” and “sweet potato” became interchangeable in cookbooks and recipes. Nowadays, the traditional “white” sweet potato is looked upon as the odd duck in the flock – unless you're in sweet potato loving North Carolina, where it's just one among the pantheon of varieties designated as the official state vegetable of The Old North State. (The varieties include Beauregard, Covington, Carolina Rose, Carolina Ruby, Cordner, Hernandez, Jewel, O'Henry and NC Porto Rico 198. The O'Henry is the only white one in the bunch.)

White sweet potatoes are generally sweeter than the orange variety, although they are also perceived to have a milder flavor. Some people consider the whites to be drier and “mealier” than the orange. This is especially true among marketing people from Louisiana. The white potato has a softer skin than the orange, which also has a firmer, denser texture. You can tell them apart at a glance; “white” sweet potatoes have lighter skins, “orange” sweet potatoes are darker. Both are very nutritious, but the orange variety obviously has more beta carotene.

All that said, neither white nor orange sweet potatoes are truly “yams.” So if you think you've been serving candied yams at Thanksgiving all these years, you really haven't. Thanks to brilliant marketing out of Baton Rouge, they've actually been candied sweet potatoes. And an “Iron Chef” should really know the difference. I'm only a lowly “Aluminum Foil Cook” and I know. And now so do you.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Thanksgiving Kitchen Safety

Thanksgiving is supposed to be a time of big, hectic-but-happy gatherings. Of course, as “Black Friday” morphs into “Gray Thursday,” the merchandising and advertising people are trying their best to have families enjoy Thanksgiving dinner at the mall food court while they do their shopping for the upcoming “Main Event.” But, until that happens, Thanksgiving is still about family, friends, and food. And when there's a lot of cooking going on, there's an increased danger of disaster. And I don't just mean a dry turkey.

Statistically, Thanksgiving Day provides as much employment for firefighters as the following day does for retail clerks. To pick a city at random, Birmingham, Alabama averages thirty-eight cooking fires over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend every year.

So the national fire safety folks have once again issued their annual reminder. It begins, “For cooking that the involves roasting, baking, simmering or boiling of food, someone should always be home. Don’t leave your home while food is cooking.”

You know, I'm one of those paranoid idiots who won't leave the house while the washer or dryer are running. I unplug my toaster when I'm not using it and I'm even a little itchy about crock pots. If I thought it were practical, I would probably just throw the main breaker when I walk out the door. I can't imagine anybody actually leaving the house while the stove is on. But it happens.

The next tip says, “Whenever you are broiling, grilling or frying food, someone should stay in the kitchen. Turn the stove off if you have to leave this type of cooking unattended.”

See my comment in the previous paragraph. An unattended broiler, grill, or fryer can go from incinerating your food to incinerating your house in about two seconds flat. And yet I've read horror stories about people wandering off and taking a nap only to wake to the sounds of fire engines. Or to not wake at all. Back in Birmingham, statistics there show that ovens and fryers account for twenty percent of cooking fires and that eighty-three percent of frying fires begin within the first fifteen minutes of cooking.

Tip number three advises, “If a pot on the stove catches on fire, put a lid on it and turn the burner off, this should smother the fire. Leave the pan covered until it cools off.”

Salt, baking soda, or a good old Type ABC fire extinguisher like the one that sits one foot to the left of my stove are also good for small cooking fires, but the lid method is the quickest way to deprive a fire of the oxygen it needs. And don't try to peek under the lid two seconds after you put it on. You would be astonished by how quickly a fire can flare back up, costing you at least your eyebrows, if not your whole kitchen. Stoves and ranges get credit for sixty-seven percent of Birmingham's cooking fires.

The list continues, “If food in the oven or microwave catches on fire, keep the door closed and turn the appliance off if it is safe to do so. If you choose to fight the fire, make sure that others are evacuating and calling 9-1-1 for assistance.”

This one is probably an abundance of caution, at least as far as evacuating and calling for help goes. Most ovens and microwaves will contain a fire that starts within. That whole lack of oxygen thing again. This presupposes, of course, that you're not stupid enough to open the door and let the fire out into the nice, oxygen-filled kitchen. That's when you need to evacuate and call 9-1-1. A little grease fire you can usually knock down yourself. When it's burning the curtains and climbing the walls, you need help.

Next tip, “Keep electrical cords for small appliances such as coffee makers, mixers, hot plates and electric knives from dangling off of the counter so they do not get pulled or tripped over, knocking the appliance to the floor.”

Okay. Your mixer, your coffee maker, and your electric knife are not going to set the house on fire if you knock them on the floor. The hot plate is iffy. A deep-fryer might, which is why mine has a magnetic breakaway cord that will detach from the body of the unit when subjected to the least little bit of pressure. Still, this one is more of a general safety tip than a fire prevention issue.

We are cautioned, “Keep pot handles turned inward to avoid hitting them and knocking the pot to the floor.”

Again, a fairly low fire risk, but a pretty decent burn risk. Did I ever tell you about the time Aunt Rose violated this tip? When we were five or six years old, my cousin was about an inch taller than me. That inch made a big difference as we tore full-speed through the kitchen one day. The top of my head cleared the pot handle sticking out; his didn't. Fortunately, nobody got hurt. Nobody got supper, either. It was an awful mess. And even though the cast-iron handle made a small impression on my cousin's head, the incident made a big impression on me. In the half-century plus that has elapsed, I have never left a pot handle sticking out.

The list goes on to say, “Keep items that can burn such as towels, pot holders and wooden utensils away from the stovetop.”

Other than grease fires, this is the biggest cause of most kitchen conflagrations. It's so easy to carelessly toss a dish towel just a l-e-e-e-tle to close the stovetop and walk away to do something else. When you turn back around, your kitchen's on fire.

It is further suggested, “To avoid having your clothes catch on fire, don’t wear loose or flowing clothing if you’ll be cooking. Remember if your clothes do catch on fire you should stop, drop and roll, as this will smother the fire.”

Nothing brightens the holidays like rolling on the floor in flames and then being transported to the hospital with second and third-degree burns. But, gee, that new blouse with the big, puffy long sleeves is just so festive and pretty! In Birmingham, one out of every five fires resulting from clothing igniting results in death. There's a reason cooks dress like they do. Part of the reason is we really hate catching on fire. Oh, losing some arm hair now and then is one thing, but going up like a Roman candle is something else entirely. When it comes to such matters, function beats fashion every time. Now, I'm not suggesting you cook your Stovetop Stuffing geared up in a close-fitting fireproof suit, but it might be a good idea to wear something practical to cook the meal and then change into something festive and pretty to serve and enjoy it.

A few other safety tips to consider: Clean food and grease off cooktops and out of ovens before you get started. No sense in adding an additional source of fuel in case of an accident.

Use a timer – a good, LOUD one – to remind you that things are cooking and when they should be attended to.

Establish a three-foot “kid-free zone” around your stove. Ask Aunt Rose about that one. Kids helping in the kitchen is one thing; kids playing in the kitchen is something else entirely. Same thing applies to pets. They really shouldn't be in the kitchen to begin with, but especially not when you're bustling around with hot pots and pans and full dishes and platters. Tripping over the dog while transporting the turkey to the table ruins Thanksgiving for everybody – except, perhaps, for the dog. And the cat would likely object strenuously to being doused in hot gravy.

Finally, in addition to the aforementioned fire extinguisher, have working smoke detectors throughout your house. And don't yank the batteries when the alarm goes off as you're in the middle of preparing something. The detector is only doing its job. Turn on a fan or move the unit farther from the preparation area. Don't disable it. You might not live to regret it.

Best wishes for a happy – and safe – Thanksgiving holiday.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Trader Joe's Experience

I have had my initiation, folks. I'm a Trader Joe's virgin no longer. And what an initiation it was!

I've heard about Trader Joe's for years, but there's never been one close to anywhere I happened to be. The store started out in the Los Angeles area back in 1958 when a guy named Joe Coulombe opened a local chain of “Pronto Market” convenience stores. Fearing that up and coming competitors like 7-Eleven were going to eat his lunch, he decided to head in a new direction, a direction purported to be inspired by a Caribbean vacation. So in 1967, he opened his first Trader Joe's in Pasadena, California, complete with tropical island décor and employees clad in Hawaiian shirts. The idea is that, like an island trader, Trader Joe's searches markets the world over to bring unique merchandise to your hometown. And that's pretty much the way it is.

Entering Trader Joe's leads to a shopping experience unlike any other. Now, I have to say that my first time at Trader Joe's was at a brand new store that just opened in a completely new market. I was there the second weekend the place was up and running and they were still completely swamped. You practically had to take a number to get into the store and the overwhelmed local staff was being assisted by employees imported from other locations as far as a hundred miles away. One fellow shopper, squeezing past me in the milling herd, smiled and said, “Looks like the novelty hasn't worn off yet.” And have I ever mentioned that I hate crowds? The only exception is when the crowds are lining up with money in their hands to see something in which I'm involved.

Surprisingly, in this instance I didn't care. The atmosphere was more like a big, convivial party than a jostling throng. Trader Joe's is famous for its friendly employees and that was certainly the case here. These poor schmucks were being bombarded from all sides. They were constantly trying to restock even as hordes trampled them to strip the shelves they were struggling to maintain. They were continually being summoned by clanging bells – Trader Joe's has a code; one bell means open another register, two bells means somebody has a question at check-out, three bells summons a manager – and still they kept sincere smiles on their faces as they adroitly answered myriad questions. In an age where rudeness is almost de rigueur among store clerks, there was not an unpleasant or surly one in the bunch. I don't know where Trader Joe's finds these people, but I wish they would share their source with McDonald's and a few other places that come to mind.

Of course, the original “Trader Joe” Coulombe has long since departed the scene, selling out his interest in the company in 1979, but the stores themselves continue to trend in the direction he established. They sell a limited quantity of unique, extremely high quality products at exceptionally low prices. This floors me because the Albrecht family now owns Trader Joe's; the same Albrecht family responsible for Aldi. Talk about polar opposites! Aldi and Trader Joe's are the nadir and the pinnacle. Aldi scrapes the bottom of the barrel and Trader Joe's skims the cream of the crop. Go figure.

<Scraping SFX as the soapbox is dragged out from under the porch> When it comes to food, quality is everything. Far too many people regard food as a necessary evil, something they simply have to have in order to function and survive. It goes in one end and comes out the other and if it accidentally happens to taste good in between, okay. They buy the cheapest, subsistence-level crap they can lay their hands on to fill a basic biological need. Why buy “expensive” durum wheat pasta at two dollars a box when the glorified dried wallpaper paste sold at ten boxes for a dollar is “just as as good?” Why buy real sweet cream butter when you can get by with practically plastic margarine? I'm sorry. I can't do that to my body. I'll drive an old used car and I'll wear clothes from the Salvation Army thrift store, but I refuse to cheap up on food.

And that's the beauty of Trader Joe's. They have astonishing food at equally astonishing prices. I'll tell you up front, Trader Joe's is not the place you'll go to do your regular weekly shopping. They don't carry the 50,000 items most chain grocery stores stock. They limit their inventory to about 4,000 carefully sourced and selected items. But within that selection, you won't find better quality at better prices anywhere. Trader Joe's even gives my old standby, Whole Foods, serious competition.

CBS Money Watch did a couple of stories on what to buy and what not to buy at Trader Joe's. (Read them here: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505145_162-57191657/6-things-to-buy-at-trader-joes/?tag=mwuser and http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505144_162-57191651/4-things-not-to-buy-at-trader-joes/?tag=mwuser.) I've seen the same type of information in other sources, as well. Everybody pretty much agrees that Trader Joe's can be hit or miss on fresh produce. Except bananas. The bananas are phenomenal and cheap. Nineteen cents apiece the day I went there. I found some great prosciutto di Parma, the real thing complete with DOP seal, for an incredible price. And, as the CBS article averred, Trader Joe's has some fantastic deals on maple syrup, both A and B grades. I'm a big fan of Kerrygold Irish Butter, but not at the usual price. I snapped up some at Trader Joe's. They were also passing out samples of a delicious tomato bisque, and I, the guy who bakes all his own breads, actually sprung for a loaf of Tuscan bread that, although commercially baked, was really quite good. I made panini with it, using the prosciutto and some wonderful raw milk emmentaler cheese that I purchased.

In fact, the general consensus is that nobody can touch Trader Joe's in two areas; wine and cheese. I'll certainly endorse that. The cheese section was unbelievable. I've not seen the like outside of a regular dedicated cheesemonger's shop. The selection is huge and the prices are beyond reasonable. I bought the aforementioned emmentaler along with some havarti, some brie, and a nice Wisconsin mild cheddar all for far less than I would have paid at a “regular” grocery store or even at a big-box discount place. All were superb. They had some Grana Padano and some Parmigiano-Reggiano, too, also very reasonably priced. I didn't need any that day, but I know where I'm going when I do.

Now, the CBS report didn't much care for Trader Joe's trademark “Two-Buck Chuck” wine. I didn't buy any, so I can't comment. I was much too busy scarfing up bottles of Montepulciano and Barolo and other Italian wines at prices I've never seen anywhere else. At $6.99 a bottle, I got a great bargain on a beautiful Villa Alena Moscato d'Asti and my wife thoroughly enjoyed the private label Honey Moon Viognier California white she picked up for next to nothing. Trader Joe's wine selection and wine prices are indeed unsurpassed.

As is the case with Trader Joe's everywhere, this new store's décor is a mix of exotic and local. There's the ubiquitous tropical kitsch, but the murals on the walls depicting local landmarks and scenes make the place feel like a real down-home neighborhood grocery store. Add to that the unfailingly friendly staff and the whole vibe that you're embarking on some sort of a culinary treasure hunt and it's easy to see why Trader Joe's has developed such a passionate cult following. And, believe me, I'm now a card-carrying member of that cult. Except, unlike so many chain stores, there's no card to carry in order to get fantastic deals. A philosophy stated on Trader Joe's website says: “ 'Sale' is a four-letter word to us. We have low prices, every day. No coupons, no membership cards, no discounts. You won't find any glitzy promotions or couponing wars at our stores. If it makes you feel any better, think of it as all our items are on sale, day in and day out.”

Trader Joe's began foraying out from California back in the '90s and is expanding into more new markets these days, so if you don't already have one in your neighborhood, take heart, one may be on the way. If you do have a Trader Joe's in your area and you haven't taken advantage of it, shame on you! The store “near” me is about forty miles away, but I'm still going to be a regular. I'm a very picky shopper, and from now on I'll definitely pick Trader Joe's.





Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Shelf Life of Spices

I have about come to the decision that I am no longer going to cook in the homes of friends and relatives. I'm getting older and I'm afraid my heart will no longer take the shocks I so often find in their kitchens. The latest jolt? Spice storage.

Erma Bombeck said, “Once you get a spice in your home, you have it forever. The Egyptians were buried with their spices. I know which one I'm taking with me when I go.”

A recent peek in a friend's spice cabinet revealed several familiar little rectangular tins of McCormick spices. What's so shocking about that, you ask? Mostly the fact that, with the exception of ground black pepper, McCormick hasn't put spices in little rectangular tins in more than fifteen years! Add to that the location of said antique spices......a convenient cabinet directly over the stove......well, I hope you can see why my cardiologist worries.

Spices never actually “go bad.” They don't rot, they don't spoil, they don't ferment. Like proverbial old soldiers, they just fade away. And when your spice has faded, it has the same flavoring potential in your cooking as a teaspoon of sawdust. Even the Bible says, “If the salt should lose its taste, how can it be made salty? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled on.” (Matt 5:13 – HCSB) You know, for a tax collector, that Matthew was a pretty savvy cook.

The dictionary definition of a spice is: “an aromatic or pungent vegetable substance used to flavor food.” And when your spices have spent more than fifteen years in your cabinet, I can guarantee you they are no longer aromatic nor are they pungent.

I know people who go to Sam's or Costco and buy enormous containers of spices because they are such a bargain. And that's quite true if you have a) a commercial kitchen or b) a very large family. But if you're an average home cook preparing meals for two or three or four people, what on earth are you really going to do with five pounds of Durkee Spanish Paprika? Technically, it will “keep” indefinitely, but by the time it progresses from a rich, vibrant red to a dull grayish brown, it's – how did Matthew say it – “no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled on.” Seriously, $22.62 is not a bargain for the few ounces you'll probably use before the rest of it goes stale.

You truly are better off buying the smallest possible quantities of most spices. Buy a little more of things you use a lot. I cook Italian, so I go through a good bit of oregano and basil and such. But Creole seasoning and curry powder are going to last me a long, long time.

And I can't say this enough; the place where you store your spices is just as important as the length of time you store them. More so, actually, because improper storage can shorten shelf life dramatically. Heat, light, and moisture are the deadly enemies of spices. So, will it be convenience or quality? You decide. If you have one of those nifty countertop spice racks full of nice clear jars that spend at least eighteen hours a day exposed to natural and artificial light, be prepared to replace their contents a lot more often. Same thing applies if you just have to have your spices in the cabinet right over or right next to your stove. All that heat and steam will reduce your spices to flavorless dust in short order.

If they still have some of their characteristics, you can get by with doubling up the amount you use in a recipe to achieve the same effect. But then you run into the visual unpleasantness of having teaspoons full of spices in your dishes instead of pinches or dashes, or worse, tablespoons instead of teaspoons. At some point, you've just got to break down and buy new stuff.

So when do you toss those old spices? Simple. When they don't do what spices are supposed to do anymore. I nearly came to blows once with a friend who insisted there was nothing “wrong” with her spices that had been gathering dust since Reagan was in office. Her oregano looked like it had been scooped from the floor of a sawmill – and it tasted like it, too. I produced a fresh bottle and asked her to compare colors. Mine was a nice dark green. Hers was light brown. Then came a sniff test. Mine smelled like oregano. Hers smelled like.....well, it didn't really smell like anything. And it had absolutely no flavor. I asked, “How long have you had this?” She replied, “I don't know. But there's nothing wrong with it.” Rule number one: if you can't remember how long you've had a spice, you've probably had it too long.

Remember, spices are, by their very nature, supposed to be brightly colored, richly aromatic, and bitingly flavorful. In short, spicy! And if they are not any of the above, what possible good are they?

How long will a spice “keep?” Unfortunately, there's no hard and fast rule. It varies from spice to spice. Some people advocate completely turning over your spice cabinet every six months. These are people with a) stock options in a spice company or b) more money than good sense. Six months is a little extreme. I can see evaluating your spice supply on a yearly basis, maybe right before the big holiday cooking rush. But not every six months.

The folks at McCormick & Company are one of the world's largest purveyors of spices, having been dealing with them since 1889. They have some storage and usage recommendations at their website, www.mccormick.com. They say that whole spices – cloves, cinnamon sticks, nutmeg, etc. – are generally good for three or four years. With ground spices, give it two to three years. You'll get one or two years out of seasoning blends and one to three years from dried herbs. Count on four years for extracts, except for pure vanilla, which lasts indefinitely. All of this assumes, of course, proper storage and handling.

And, going back to rule number one, if you just can't remember how long you've had a particular McCormick spice, they have a “Fresh Tester” whereby you can enter the code found on the bottle and find out just how poor your memory really is. For some things, you don't need a code. Like the rectangular tins. Likewise, any bottles that say “Baltimore” on them are at least fifteen years old. And anything that carries the “Schilling” brand is at least seven years old. You may be able to sell these to collectors on E-Bay, but you probably should forgo using them in your cooking or baking.

Hey, they don't come any cheaper than me. I save outrageous things on the chance that I'll use them for something someday. And I know how much it hurts to pay good money – lots of good money – for spices and then face the prospect of tossing them while the bottles are still half full or more. But if you're really serious about the quality of your cooking, you've just got to bite the bullet and do it. Go on. Hit the kitchen. Look, sniff, taste, and toss. Then replace, using reasonable quantities. No more five pound containers, okay? It's not a bargain if you're just going to wind up throwing most of it away. And if you don't buy McCormick products with “use by” dates or handy little online age calculators, label your spices yourself. Write the purchase date on a little sticky label, or right on the bottle if you prefer. I know somebody who uses colored dots and color codes them. Whatever works for you.

Do it for yourself. Do it for your family. Do it for the sake of some old curmudgeon who might visit and stick his nose in your spice cabinet. Just do it! As Frank Herbert said in Dune: “He who controls the spice controls the universe.”