From growing up, I have a distinct olfactory memory of my mother's spice drawer. Each time I pulled open the wooden drawer, out poured a cloud of aromas - garlic, pepper, dried herbs, cinnamon, nutmeg - all melding together into a wonderfully warm and exotic scent that enveloped me and made me want to eat something. My mother commonly used spices in her cooking, and so I remember fondly the spice drawer for both its utility and its connection to her.
I have created my own spice cabinet of sorts now that I am an adult chef with my own kitchen. I have tried to keep it organized like my mother's, but each time I buy a new spice, I add to the clutter of containers. There is something special about each spice in the cabinet. Some have come from specialty food stores near my apartment such as Formaggio Kitchen and Christina's Spice Shop. At these local spots, I have found unique twists on common spices, including roasted garlic powder and smoked ground black pepper. Other spices that I own have come from my travels, including two South African spice mixes I bought in Cape Town on summer vacation (one is called chakalaka, which I adore for both its fragrance and name). This spice is featured in the spiced roasted eggplant recipe here.
Cooking and baking with spices is at once easy and intimidating because there are so many to choose from in the stores these days. However developing a familiarity and comfort with spices can greatly enhance the quality of all your dishes. Spices add flavor and aroma, enhance the taste of food, and can even enhance the look, color and texture of a dish (for example, coarsely ground peppercorns). There are bitter spices, sweet spices, spicy spices (i.e. chili powders), earthy and warm spices (think cinnamon, nutmeg). Different cuisines across the globe can be characterized by their common spice profiles. For example, Thai food commonly features basil, garlic, cumin, ginger, turmeric, and curry powder. French food is delicious thanks to garlic, rosemary, oregano, thyme, garlic, and herbes de provence. Once you understand which spices and herbs go well together, you can begin to experiment in your own cooking.
To build a quality spice inventory at home, first I would recommend reviewing what you have on hand. Have the spices been sitting in your cabinet for three years, since you decided to move them from your last apartment? If so, toss them out. Spices really should be used within 6 months for peak flavor and freshness. Buying a small quantity of spice from the bulk section of the grocery store is best. You can store each spice in a small metal or glass jar, or even a Ziploc bag, until you use it; this will help to ensure that you buy and keep only what you plan to use in the near future. I also would recommend thinking about what you most like to eat. If you love to cook red meat, consider purchasing cumin, paprika, chili powder, peppercorns, and a ground mustard to blend into a mean dry rub. If you love baking, be sure to keep cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove to enhance your muffins, scones, and cookies. And of course, you can always spice it up with your own creative blends!