Eat Well: Spice Girls

The following post was written by my mom, WWW. Thanks, mom! 
The other day, my dear friend Lorraine called to see if I wanted to go with her to Penzeys to get spices. I’d never heard of Penzeys but I’m always up for a fun field trip with my friend. (Lorraine and I used to drive over an hour just to buy olive oil and the best balsamic vinegar ever made from We Olive before they opened up a store in La Jolla.) “You’re going to be hooked for life,” she told me. “Their herbs and spices are the freshest I’ve found. And what a selection!” Lorraine has been buying all of her herbs and spices online from Penzeys for years and recently they opened up a store in San Diego. I had no idea what I was in for, but I inventoried my spice cabinet and made a list of what I needed. I also messaged my son, David for ideas.

Me: Hi, Sweetie. I’m going to a really cool spice store tomorrow. What special spices should I buy?

David: Urfa! Zatar is delicious for things like hummus…also Ras el Hanout. Those three will give you all the North African/Eastern Mediterranean flavors you've ever wanted.

I had never heard of any of these spices but was excited to try them. I thanked my foodie son and the next day Lorraine and I set off for Penzeys. When I entered the store, I gasped. I had never seen so many spices in one place and it is a beautiful sight to behold for someone who loves to cook. But I get overwhelmed and have difficulty deciding on anything when presented with too many choices so I was glad that I had made a list…except…when I checked my purse, AHHHH!!! NO LIST!! In my typical forgetful fashion, I had left it on the kitchen table. I couldn’t remember any of David’s suggestions—I guess the names were a little too colorful for my aging brain—so I texted him. Luckily he immediately answered with his favorite trio.

Being a newcomer to Penzeys, I shadowed Lorraine as she hunted and found her favorite selections. “Be careful,” she warned. “These add up quickly.” I was lost without my list, but decided to try some new spices recommended by Lorraine, a few things that I remembered I needed, and some others that caught my fancy. And I chose the small bottles. That way, I could try more things, stay within my budget, and be more educated on my next visit.
Penzeys is immense and has ALMOST everything your spicy heart could desire (of David’s fab three, zatar was the only one they carried). Everything is super fresh. I bought their powdered ginger which is so hot and pungent that it tastes like raw ginger. It is fabulous in sauces or stir-fries as well as for baking. And they carry Vietnamese cinnamon—“the strongest, richest, and sweetest cinnamon around.” (Try some on custard, rice pudding, French toast or sprinkled in your morning coffee!) They have amazing curry powders and garam masalas, many chili powders (I bought the Chili 9000 which is yummy), the best vanilla extracts you can buy, and fabulous rubs and herb blends. Lorraine suggested the Mural of Flavor blend and I love it so much that it is already gone! I put it in my salad dressings, add it to vegetable dishes, and sprinkle it on eggs.

Penzeys has quite a few retail stores but also a thriving online business. Lorraine told me that she often gives their gift boxes for wedding gifts or Christmas presents. They have a great website with recipes and free shipping on any order over $30.

I’ve loved having some new spices to play around with. Zatar now dusts the top of my hummus as suggested by David. As for his other two recommendations, I haven’t found the urfa yet, but our very own neighborhood farmer’s market has a Moroccan stand and a few days after my visit to Penzey’s I was excited to discover they carry Ras el Hanout, hand blended by the sellers. David was right—it’s amazing.

I found this recipe online and thought it would be fun to try since it uses several of my new spices. It’s a super quick meal to make. Add more or less cayenne to adjust the heat. If you don’t have Ras el Hanout, you can make your own.

Moroccan Vegetarian Carrot and Chickpea Tagine 
(Christine Benlafquih) 

1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped or pressed
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 ¼ teaspoons salt, or to taste
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon turmeric
¾ teaspoon cinnamon (I put less because I used the super pungent Vietnamese cinnamon)
½ teaspoon black pepper
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper (or to taste)
1/8 teaspoon Ras el Hanout, or more to taste (optional)
2 or 3 tablespoons chopped cilantro (or parsley if you don’t like cilantro)
4-5 carrots, peeled and cut into ¼” slices the long way
1 cup water (or half water and half broth—I used 1 ½ cups)
1 ½ --2 cups cooked or canned chickpeas, drained
2-3 teaspoons honey (optional)
¼ cup golden raisins (optional)

1. In a large skillet with a lid (or a tagine) sauté the onions and garlic in the olive oil over low heat for a few minutes.

2. Add spices, carrots, cilantro, and water. Cover and simmer until carrots are tender, about 20 minutes.
3. Stir in chickpeas, honey and raisins (if using) and simmer until chickpeas are hot and sauce is thickened. Adjust seasoning to taste.
4. Serve over rice, couscous, or quinoa.

Have you ever shopped at Penzeys? What are your favorite exotic spices? I’d love to hear from you! 



karin | 3:49 PM

If you liked Penzeys you would love The Spice House in Chicago. It was how the Penzey family began. My chef hubby stocks up whenever we are back home!

Leslie | 7:11 PM

Penzey's is amazing!!! The smaller sizes are my go-to stocking stuffers & coworker gifts for the holidays. You can't go wrong with anything there!

Jenna H | 7:26 PM

My mother gifted me a Penzey's baking spice set and since then I haven't been able to get their wonderful spices out of my head. There is a Penzey's store about an hour from where I love here in Kansas and you've reminded me I need to make it over there soon! Thanks for all of your wonderful recipes and inspiration. I love each new recipe you post. And as a new mom, you always remind me of the kind of food I want to feed my family. Thank you!

Megatron | 10:17 PM

I LOVE Penzey's. I use their California pepper the most but our spice drawer is overflowing with Penzey goodness. You will probably also like Sunny Paris for salad dressings. Northwoods Fire is a great one too but it might be more for, suggested for someone else. I also love their anise seeds. They are out of the seed pod so you can tuck them into pie crusts. Yum! Enjoy your new obsession!

Anonymous | 6:17 AM

My family consisting of myself, my husband our three kids and an Irish Setter named Kathleen N'Houlihan, live in a 2002 Hundai that we park at a Wal-Mart overnight. Do you think Penzey's will ship some spices to the parking lot if I write in the additional information section of the online order form "Deliver to blue Hundai with a big dent in the driver's door and the dog in the back?"
The spices are expensive but some Zatar or Ras el Hanout would live up the Ramen noodles that are our main form of sustinence.