It’s fair to say that my recipes call for a significant amount of herbs & spices, which may be a bit off-putting to folk. If your normal food shop is one of the big supermarkets, you may be more used to getting spices in little glass jars, costing £1 – £1.50 for a tiny amount, or fresh herbs for 80p – £1 for a small bunch.
To put it simply, these aren’t really cost effective ways to go & get your herbs & spices. Firstly, UK supermarkets now often have an ‘ethnic’ food aisle, which sell bags of the common spices for a lot less than the glass jar options (for example, just looking at Sainsbury’s online grocers, you can buy 28g of ground cumin in a jar for £1.35, or 100g of ground cumin in a bag for 50p!). You can now also get things like pomegranate molasses in supermarkets these days.
Another option are ‘ethnic’ mini markets or supermarkets – be they South Asian, Turkish, Chinese or some other culture. They tend to carry a wide variety of spices, big bunches of fresh herbs & pretty much anything else you’d need for these recipes (including a butchers counter in some of the larger ones), all for significantly cheaper prices than you’d find in a traditional UK supermarket.
Finally – online is always a good bet for some of the more exotic ingredients, such as the pasilla chile I used to make my carnitas, or just google to find a stockist near you.
In terms of whether to buy spices as seeds or ready ground, I’d always recommend getting the seeds where practical. They keep their flavour for longer – so your bargain bag of cumin remains a bargain as you get to use all of it, as opposed to it losing its lustre when you’ve still got half left. When I want to use them, I just put them in a pestle & mortar & grind them up.
Should you toast your spices in a dry frying pan before grinding….? For me it depends on the recipe. As a rule of thumb, if the spices are going into something cold, e.g. a salad dressing or marinade, I’ll toast them. If I’m going to throw them into hot oil, or into a slow cooked dish, I won’t bother.
As for storage, I just save up any small screw top glass jars (mustard, capers, jam, whatever) & store the dry herbs & spices in there (making sure I label the more obscure / easily mistaken ones!)
In terms of a basic store cupboard, I’ve listed the most common Eastern Mediterranean ingredients I use, so you’ve an idea of what it may be useful to pick up when you can:
Cumin seeds (of course!)
Cinnamon -both ground & sticks
Green Cardamom pods
Allspice (ground, unless you have a spice grinder – the pimento berries that allspice ‘comes from’ can be a pain to grind finely in a pestle & mortar)
Urfa pepper – Turkish chilli flakes with a rich, fruity, earthy flavour & mild heat
Smoked Paprika – a tin of sweet & a tin of hot.
Other stuff that may interest you:
Date syrup – a sweet, treacly syrup that can be used as an alternative to honey if you want a richer flavour.
Rosewater & Orange blossom water – If you’re into deserts, these generally make an appearance at some point.
A selection of dried South American chilies – I tend to go tex / mex with my pork dishes, so have a few types in my cupboard to add flavour – herbaceous & dried fruit flavoured pasilla, hot & citrus flavoured habanero & full bodied & fruity amarillo