Since ancient times, spices have been essential to the travel life. Before refrigeration, spices were essential to food preservation. Primitive diets were made palatable with a pinch of spice. Spices were believed to cure illnesses, brighten minds, and improve romance. In some cultures, they were even used as currency.
In the 15th century, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama found a trade route around Africa to the spices of Southeast Asia. Then, battles began to control that trade. Columbus sought a route to the spice fields of the East. Wars were fought for the spice islands of the Caribbean, the lavender fields of France, and saffron crops that now bring $10,000 per pound.
Any cooks worth their salt have a spice rack. The problem in RV travel is to keep it relevant, fresh and restocked in the limited spaces of an RV kitchen. Here are some ideas:
Keeping spices in an RV kitchen
- Rule one: Keep spices cool, dark and dry, stored away from the stove. Don’t shake them over a steaming pot.
- Where possible, buy whole spices. They last longer, releasing their best flavors only when freshly ground. Some pop open when heated in a dry skillet. Some, such as curry, release their magic when heated in oil. Others are ground in a mortar and pestle. (I use a small, battery-operated coffee grinder.) Great-grandmother’s kitchen had a nutmeg grater and a ginger grater.
- Another way to use whole spices is the bouquet garni. A yard of cheesecloth and a few inches of kitchen string are all you need to make little pouches of herbs and spices. Drop one into a simmering soup or stew, then fish it out and discard it. Example: Make a pouch filled with 8 each whole peppercorns and whole cloves. Simmer with a large can of tomatoes, 1/2 cup brown sugar, diced onion and 1/4 stick butter. Serve over croutons as a side dish.
- If you’re a seasonal or a sometime traveler, don’t let spices go stale in an unused RV. For each trip, measure spice blends at home for your favorite recipes and put them in small, zip-top bags. (I use pill bags, sold in drugstores.) Serious foodies make their own blends for Italian, Creole, cinnamon-based, barbecue, Asian, German, Jewish and Middle Eastern cuisine.
- According to Better Homes & Gardens, ground spices last for 2-3 years and unground whole spices can last up to 4 years.
- Some seeds, barks and spices are highly prone to infestation by bugs, mites or beetles. When you get home from the store, freeze unopened containers for 24 hours and store them unopened until needed. Observe use-by dates. While spices may be safe to use after expiration dates, they lose their peak flavor.
Using spice substitutes
Other all-in-one seasonings contribute complex flavors and many of them keep well without refrigeration. They include wines and liqueurs of all kinds. Many are available in single service and “nip” sizes that are just right to add to a dish.
Tried-and-true flavoring ingredients include onions, garlic, shallots, citrus zests, bacon fat, capers, olives, proprietary blends such as Lawry’s Seasoned Salt and Jane’s Crazy Mixed Up Salt, seasoned vinegars, specialty oils, dried mushrooms, specialty salts such as sea salt and Himalaya pink salt, and peppercorn blends made up of White, Black, Green, and Pink Peppercorns plus Mexican Allspice.
Bursts of flavor are also added with centuries-old sauces such as soy sauce, liquid smoke, Worcestershire, a full range of Asian pastes and sauces, regional barbecue and hot sauces, infusions like the sour orange found on Caribbean tables and “browning” such as Bovril.
MSG is controversial, but some cooks swear by it as a flavor enhancer. Bouillon has been around since the Napoleonic wars, adding meaty richness to broths, gravy, soups and stews.
Since ancient times, highly spiced, dry-cured sausages and dry cheese were a way for travelers to carry foods that did not spoil. Still today, bits of pepperoni, jerky, dry-cured sausages and grated hard cheese add a symphony of flavors to a simple rice dish or omelet.
An Old Sourdough’s space-saving spice tricks
- Fill a salt shaker with 1 part rice (to absorb moisture), 2 parts pepper to 4 to 6 parts salt. You’ll need only one shaker for most savory dishes.
- For sweet dishes, fill a cheese shaker (it has larger holes than a salt shaker) with 1 part ground cinnamon to 6 parts raw or other coarse sugar. Sprinkle on muffins, toast, and French toast.
- Fill the pepper mill with mixed peppercorns, then pass at the table.
- Use dried bay leaves as bookmarks to discourage silverfish and other paper-eating pests.
- Add just a tiny pinch of ground cloves to Harvard beets, spaghetti sauce and chili.
- Soak whole cloves in olive oil to use on a toothache.
- Cinnamon sticks keep forever and they also make good stirrers for tea. To make cinnamon sugar, combine sugar and cinnamon sticks in a tight container until flavors blend, then sift and keep in a glass jar.
- To make coffee liqueur, dissolve 3/4 cup instant coffee in 2 cups very hot water. Add 4 cups sugar, 2 1/2 cups 100-proof vodka and 1 vanilla bean cut in half. Seal the container and keep in a dark place for 2-3 weeks. Tip or shake gently from time to time. Strain and bottle.
- To make vanilla extract, cut vanilla beans in half and soak in 100-proof vodka for 2 to 12 months. Drain and bottle in dark-colored glass.
- Use pickling salt for pickling, never iodized salt.
* Just before tossing a salad, lightly sprinkle the greens with salt, then add salad dressing.