Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Penzeys In Rockville: Why 355 Is The Spice Road

Penzeys spices.  I lost all my photos to a
cracked phone.  Luckily, I had Kyle's
photo from his guest post about "freekah."
Five hundred years ago, people caravaned across Asia for less spice than Penzeys offers in a strip mall in Rockville.  All you need to do is cut west on Rte 28.

I went to Penzey's with low expectations.  People raved about it, but I think I imagined some snobby joint with snobby prices.  Actually, I went to Penzeys by accident.  We just saw the storefront on Rockville Pike, and I thought, "It's on Rockville Pike?  This must be different than I expected."

It is different than any store that I have ever shopped.

Penzy's fills a room with spices.  Some mixes.  Tons of individual spices.  You can smell and sample everything, so the room billows with scents and flavors that should excite anyone who likes to cook good food.

Frankly, the selection overwhelmed me.  You see powder spices, whole spices, entire dried peppers, and extracts like vanilla, lemon or orange.  I couldn't decide what to buy -- whether to get my everyday stuff like cumin and pepper or get exotics like kala jeera and espazote.  So I bought too much.  Curry powder, rosemary, cardamon, two kinds of cinnamon . . . .

The "two kinds" aspect of Penzeys amazes me.  Sweet paprika or smoked?  Mild, soft Ceylon cinnamon or strong, assertive Vietnamese?  Which of the half-dozen peppers do you want?  They all smell different.  They all smell delicious.  That's magic to a guy who grew up thinking that the "choice" in spices was between McCormick's or the Safeway house brand.

At a minimum, Penzeys will provide you with spectacular flavors.  If you're really into this stuff, Penzey's could change the way you cook.  For example, I never use dried rosemary, basil or oregano.  I just skip recipes because I have 40 years of experience that says those dried herbs taste like cardboard.

But Penzey's rosemary smells like summertime.  It smells like an August dinner when I have stripped rosemary leaves from my deck.  With just two bottles, I started to make pasta sauces with basil and rosemary.  Now I'm thinking about the smoky paprika that I left behind.  I substitute for that stuff normally, but the sweet version has real flavor -- not just red color on top of deviled eggs.  I'm getting the smoked stuff on my next visit.

Let's talk about your visit.  Go with a plan.  The spices really aren't that expensive.  Buy small bottles for $2-3 because they're volatile.  Try a bunch because you can go back again.  My advice is that you go looking for a few spices to fit each of these ideas:

  • Buy your regulars because Penzey's will immediately improve your day-to-day meals.  I love cumin.  I use tons.  I regret that I skipped cumin and pepper to make room for new scents.  If you're a baker, get cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla extract.  If you cook with oregano, buy some oregano.  Better flavor will improve your regular dishes, so test Penzey's to see if you think it's worthwhile.
  • Sniff a few common spices that you haven't bought in a while.  As I said, most "traditional" spices like oregano and basil have disappointed me so often that I cleaned them out of my spice drawer.  But Penzey's smell like you're rubbing your hands through an herb garden.  See what we have been missing, especially because it will be a few months before your herb garden comes to life.
  • Get a mix or two if that's your style.  They have nine different curry powders that you could just sprinkle over baked chicken or you could mix into salad dressing.  In the same way, they have a dozen other pre-mixed blends -- including several aimed at grilling for the summer ahead.  Spice mixes add flavor in a flash, so grab a Penzey's version if you use supermarket versions already.
  • Buy something for a project.  Get some cookbook that you have wanted to try.  (Two suggestions:  Mangos and Curry Leaves or Mexican Everyday.)  Flip through and pick a few recipes where you would need something new -- like cardamon, black mustard seeds, or tumeric for Indian food or dried chipotle peppers for Mexican.  You'll come home ready to try something, which is better than me coming home with kala jeera and no idea what to do with it.

Again, start with stuff that you know that you'll use.  I bought a few spices because they seemed exotic, but after two months, I still haven't dug out the recipe to try them.  And buy small.  I went nuts on the rosemary and bought an enormous container.  Get small ones because flavors fade and because you'll

Penzey's is a perfect way to celebrate the new Intercounty Connector.  Once that is done, you should be able to zip from Rte 29 into Rockville.  If you're going to Penzey's, check out the food along Rockville Pike.  The bahn mi at Ba Le wasn't spectacular in December, but they're a great treat and better than the "no bahn mi" that we have in Howard County these days.

Penzeys Spice Co.
1048 Rockville Pike
Rockville, MD

NEAR:  This is on Rockville Pike south of the intersection with Rte 28.  There are several way to cut west across the counties.  One way is to take Rte 29 to Rte 198 West in Burtonsville.  Rte 198 changes name to Rte 28, but it basically runs straight across Montgomery County until it hits Rockville Pike.  You turn left, then U-Turn at the light at Talbott Street so that you can reach Penzeys, which is on the other side of the road.


Marcia said...

Welcome to Penzey's! I have been a fan for years. If you aren't sure, try this. Buy a couple things you use regularly at Penzey's, then come home and compare the smell to the bottle of that spice you have in your spice cabinet. You will be shocked at the difference, especially if you have been buying McCormick & you've had the bottle/can for a couple years.

I took a cook friend of mine, who like HowChow, wasn't convinced of the hype. Like HowChow, he ended up buying a lot and now has a 80% Penzey's kitchen. Their blends are nice, especially for people watching salt, most are salt-free. Try taco seasoning not overburdoned with salt - what a difference !!!

I now replace my spices every 2 years or so (not every year like some places tell you, that's just too expensive for me). So I buy small.

Penzey's is online, too, if you aren't up to the drive. Or you're afraid you'll get carried away in the store.

Anonymous said...

I love Penzey's too! Try the freeze dried shallots next time, I picked them up on a whim but use them frequently!

Jen Blacker said...

I love Penzey's! I learned about them , oddly enough, in a cooking thread on Fark. I checked out their website. Their prices are much cheaper than anything you buy in the store and the quality is awesome.

Their Penzey's Cinnamon is a must buy for everyone who bakes. It has four different types of cinnamon in it. My toddler loves the stuff.

Their customer service is great. I've had to change my order many times because I forgot something. A quick email to their staff and they answer back adding the items to my box.

They often have coupons and freebies so you can try out their new spices. The Arizona Dreaming has a nice bite to it, my hubby won't use it but I do. I love how they always throw in a free small bottle of a spice or spice blend into your order.

Sarah said...

If you're driving down to Rockville for Penzeys and want to make a foodie trip, here are a few other suggestions less than a mile down the road in either direction.

Yasaman Bakery: a fantastic Iranian bakery and sweet shop. In the same shopping center is Sam's Cafe & Market, a great place to pick up Iranian groceries and have a bite to eat. Really good restaurant-made gelato.

Ten Ren: Forget Teavana. This is an amazing tea store. This world-wide tea chain only has two locations within a three hour drive and one of them is on Rockville Pike. (The other one is College Park.)

Rockville Gourmet Halal Meat-- a somewhat expensive but excellent butcher-- you can get anything here

Yekta Grocery and Kabobi-- another great Iranian grocery store and kabob restaurant

Wendi @ Bon Appetit Hon said...

So glad you've discovered the wonderful world of Penzey's. I make the trip down from Baltimore a few times a year and always end up leaving the store with more than I planned to buy. It's kind of dangerous like that.

theminx said...

I love Penzeys, although I've never been to the shop. When I run out of more than once spice, I buy them online. One of my favorites: sweet curry. I like to use it in desserts.

Kat said...

Penzey's has been very good to me. When I placed a bulk order of tiny spice jars to give away at our wedding reception, they gave me a discount even though they didn't have a bulk discount policy.

Pantry herbs do go bad; even Penzey's summery rosemary will die on you eventually (unless you use it all before then). Just open the container and sniff; if it doesn't smell delicious any more, it's time to toss it.

Our favorite Penzey's blend is Northwoods Fire; we sprinkle it on roasted vegetables and anything that goes on the grill. And yes, the smoked paprika is fabulous.

Oh! And if you're driving along the Pike and get a little peckish, I recommend the soup dumplings at Joe's Noodle House.

P90 Noir said...

Penzey's is great! Now if only we had one in HoCo. I go there every few months and stock up. I'm a big fan of some of their blends - Chicago Steak, Taco, Northwoods, Pasta Sprinkle, and Herbs du Provence.

I usually make my own rubs for BBQ, but I keep their BBQ of the Americas on hand for when I'm in a hurry.

Anonymous said...

Has anyone bought saffron from penzeys?
I don't really know much about cooking with Saffron. I do know it's ridiculously expensive.
We like to simply add a pinch to brown rice when making a chicken or fish dish.

Anonymous said...

Has anyone bought saffron from penzeys?
I don't really know much about cooking with Saffron. I do know it's ridiculously expensive.
We like to simply add a pinch to brown rice when making a chicken or fish dish.

David P said...

Penzey's has good saffron, but like everywhere else it's expensive. They have excellent vanilla beans, too, several sources (usually). And they have some good seasoned salts.

One interesting fact about them is that they started out mail order, and have never used advertising. It's thrived entirely via word of mouth.

Kristi said...

We went to Penzey's today and it was definitely worth the trip. I stocked up on the basics: Vanilla Extract, red pepper flakes and I am trying their medium hot chili powder for my chili.

I was very impressed with their selection, particularly their cinnamon section.