|Penzeys spices. I lost all my photos to a|
cracked phone. Luckily, I had Kyle's
photo from his guest post about "freekah."
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
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.