All you need to shift your cooking from serviceable to superb
If you're the kind of good San Francisco citizen who duly visits the local farmers market every week, gets carried away by the textures and colors and aromas of nature's bounty, and then balks at everything you've brought home when it comes time to stuff it in the fridge — fear not. Coconut milk is the thing for you. Nothing else can so quickly transform a mountain of disparate vegetables into a rich, harmonious meal. Nearly any food in any season (potatoes regular and sweet, carrots, sweet and spicy peppers, pineapple, green beans, onions, garlic, eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, pumpkin, spinach, kale) can feel at home in a coconut milk bath, spiced with a pinch of curry powder or garam masala and perfumed with handful of fresh herbs.
Available at Khanh Phong Supermarket, 429 Ninth St., Oakl., (510) 839-9094
FRESH-GROUND BLACK PEPPER
My list of Things for Which There Is No Excuse is short, and most of the items on it — like tube tops and being mean — are negotiable under certain circumstances. But one entry that cannot be compromised on is the use of pre-ground black pepper. It is simply never, ever OK. The difference between the freshly cracked pepper and the plebian, tasteless grey powder that sifts from a can is like the difference between a jam band CD and a live show. Invest in a good-quality peppermill and you'll end up putting pepper in all kinds of places you never imagined: after experiencing pepper's pungency in soups and bisques, on roasted root vegetables, and over tomatoes served sliced and sprinkled with kosher salt, you'll find yourself shaking it onto strawberries marinated in balsamic vinegar and pondering the possibilities of peppercorn ice-cream. A few turns of your grinder set to coarse can quite possibly make the world go 'round.
To browse more varieties of pepper than you crank a mill at, visit San Francisco Herb Co. 250 14th St., SF. (415) 861-3018, www.sfherb.com
Everything said on the subject of black pepper applies — with perhaps a smidge less fervor — to nutmeg. That sickly stuff stuck with humidity to the inside of a glass shaker at Starbucks does not even remotely resemble the delicately perfumed flakes that you scrape from a whole nutmeg seed, the hard, egg-shaped center of the nutmeg tree's fruit). Once you stop shaking the horrid pre-ground granules over your coffee, you're likely to realize the nutmeg is not just a sweet spice. It goes particularly well with cheese and cream sauces, enriches egg and pasta dishes, and enhances all types of savory cookery with that little something-something that makes diners go "hmmm." But if you want to relegate it to the dessert realm, no one's going to stop you from grating a little bit over your midnight dish of chocolate ice-cream.
Fremont-based organic spice company Spicely distributes to a bevy of Bay Area retailers, but their products are also available in bulk on its website, www.spicely.com