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My first attempt at char shiu (Cantonese Roast Pork) became an instant classic when it hit our dining room table, but that was back in September and the last time I’ve tried making a new dish. I know it’s time to crack open my new Mexican cookbook and get some solid favorite like Tortilla Soup or Enchiladas Suizas under my belt. I started flipping through the pages and have to admit I was having trouble settling down to reading through a recipe. The long list of ingredients and specialty peppers, even for simple dishes like green and yellow rice variations, was giving me a sudden case of ADD. My eyes kind of glazed over and I closed the book again for the time being. That cotija cheese still innocently sits on the top shelf of my refrigerator, its biological clock ticking til January 12, or so.

What a great day it will be when I am as familiar with the different varieties and uses of hot peppers as I am with less temperamental ingredients like root vegetables and will just know which ones I want to have as regulars in the pantry when I visit my regular produce market. In the meantime, I can reach for my Penzeys catalog, where they have a spread of 14 varieties of peppers including illustrations and pepper heat ratings in Scoville units. The hottest peppers they sell are the Chili Piquin at 70,000 heat units and Tien Tsin Chili Peppers at 60,000 heat units. Their mildest is the ground Ancho Pepper (you can buy whole too) at 3,000 heat units. If for no other reason than to have this chili pepper quick guide, I am advising that you send off for your own Penzeys Spices catalog. I expect you will be glad you did.

Maybe you guys all know about Penzeys already and I am preaching to the choir. I only learned about them through a friend a couple of years ago and have since become a regular. I started by trying out their salad mix gift box (Italian, Buttermilk Ranch, Green Goddess and Creamy Peppercorn), some Herbes de Provence and salt-free mixes called Mural of Flavor and Arizona Dreaming. After visiting their Menlo Park store (alas they are not in SF and had not yet showed up in Santa Monica at the time I lived nearby) I started using them for all the baking elements I could – apple pie spice, cinnamon, cocoa and a truly excellent vanilla. I’ve also added their ground ancho chili, smoked Spanish paprika and Turkish oregano (really nice!) to my spice rack.  The quality of the spices is definitely superior, you can taste it in the end result. And even as I am pinching every penny these days, I can justify buying these high quality mail order spices because they really are not appreciably more expensive – sometimes they are even a better price – than the brands you find in the grocery stores like Spice Islands, The Spice Hunter or Morton & Bassett.  

But that’s not the main reason I love Penzeys and felt moved to write a glowing report that may cause people to think I’m some kind of shill here. I’m not. What I love, along with their products, is their attitude – about cooking and about community. Owner Bill Penzey peppers his catalogs with editorial comments and adheres to themes – September/October was the 2nd annual “Back to School” issue. The catalog is very sweet and unabashedly philosophical around how spending time in the kitchen fosters kindness and important connections among people. It’s the same line of reasoning that Michael Pollan espouses, that culture is another word for your mother, grandmother or granddad or anyone else who takes pride in the legendary arros con pollo, say, or coconut cake that they make and serve to an overflowing table of family and friends as a holiday tradition. In other words, making good food is a great excuse for treating each other well, or vice versa. Customers who write in with recipes and have featured profiles seem to rally around this philosophy as well. It’s fun to see an issue full of birthday cakes – to celebrate Penzey’s 25th anniversary – and I hold onto the catalogs like I used to keep copies of Sunset magazine because of all the recipes. I also like it that the company goes out of its way to provide a lot of salt-free options and have a recurring piece in each catalog explaining that they don’t want to get behind the glamorization of salt because too much salt is not such a good thing for us. It feels good to have something in common with a community of cooks out there, even if I’ve never met them.

So, check ’em out, either by stopping by in person at one of their scattered locations throughout the U.S. or peruse a catalog and enjoy the informative folksiness of it all.  Most of the catalogs offer a coupon for a free 1/2 cup jar of a featured spice blend or a sample gift box which should make you feel okay about the cost of shipping too. I’m excited for my bag of ground ginger, replacement bottles of vanilla and apple pie spice and the free sample of a new salt-free blend called Forward! that should be showing up here next week. I’ll try to make myself narrow in on at least one new recipe to make from my saved Penzey’s pages to do in time for Thanksgiving. No pressure. It helps me stay thankful.

Penzeys Spices. Over 250 Spices, Herbs and Seasonings..

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