All you need to shift your cooking from serviceable to superb
By now, you (hopefully) know the basic building blocks of good eating: fresh, in-season vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and — for the carnivorous set — lean, unprocessed meat and fish. Awesome. But unless you're an adherent of the new Paleo diet fad, which mimics the eating habits of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, it's going to take a bit more to transform this no-frills foundation into something you'd want to sit down to. Here are a few kitchen essentials that can quickly shift your cooking from serviceable to superb. (Emily Appelbaum)
Ancient Assyrian legend holds that when the gods assembled to create the universe, their drink of choice was sesame seed wine. And when Ali Baba needed to unseal a magic cave stocked with treasure, it was Sesamum indicum, which bursts open at maturity, that he invoked with the famous phrase "Open, Sesame!" If you're looking to introduce some similar magic into your cooking, sesame oil is a good place to start. The cold-pressed oil has a light flavor and high smoke point, making it ideal for fast, high-temperature stir fries and wok cooking. When toasted, the oil becomes rich, smoky, and deep. A few drops make salads and noodle dishes sinfully savory and create the perfect base for dipping sauces. For a decadent indulgence, try the following: spread hot toast with miso (fermented soybean paste), top with a slice of avocado, and a drizzle of toasted sesame oil, then close your eyes and float a bit.
Available at Ming Lee Trading Inc. 759 Jackson, SF. (415) 217-0088
Speaking of sesames, Bay Area veggies, vegans, and carnivores alike have been blending tahini, a paste made from hulled sesame seeds, into homemade hummus for years. When mixed with a little fresh garlic, lemon, and salt, tahini will make quick work of a can of garbanzos — but there are tons of other uses for this simple spread. Try branching out with bean dips. Include white cannellini beans, black beans, or even kidney beans, which are super-high in antioxidants. Ditch expensive bottled salad dressing in favor of tahini mixed with soy sauce, lemon juice, or cider vinegar, and any fresh herbs you like. Toss soba noodles with steamed veggies and tahini for a fast, healthy dish served hot or cold. Or, for a whole array of desserts, start by kneading tahini and honey into flour for a tender, pliable pastry.
Available at Semiramis Imports, 2990 Mission, SF. (415) 824-6555
If you haven't tried this indigenous staple from the Andes, you're missing out. Stocked with the full set of essential amino acids, these unassuming seeds may be the most complete protein source the plant kingdom can provide. Quinoa even made NASA's short list for crops to be included in ecological life support systems for long-duration manned spaceflights. It cooks in minutes and — with its mild, nutty taste and light texture — it's an ideal base for curries, stews, and cold salads mixed tabouleh-style. Unfortunately, the quinoa craze in wealthy countries has left the crop unaffordable in some traditional regions such as the Bolivian salt flats, where most cultivated quinoa is now grown for export. Be sure to look for quinoa from companies like La Yapa Organic that pay a fair price to farmers.
Available at Rainbow Grocery, 1745 Folsom, SF. (415) 863-0620, www.rainbow.coop 
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
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 
Like nutmeg, the edible rhizome of Zingiber officinale is often relegated to the subsidiary role of sweet spice — at least in American cooking. But travel nearly anywhere else in the world, from Morocco to Malaysia, Venezuela to Vietnam, and ginger plays the snappy star in soups, roasts, stews, and salads. Grate fresh ginger and garlic into peanut oil as the base for a superlative stir-fry. Stir into soups for a revitalizing broth. For a crisp, peppery salad, shred cabbage, carrots, and green beans and toss with ginger, vinegar, or lime juice, and maybe a dollop of peanut butter (or use your newly purchased tahini). Pulse ginger, chiles, and garlic in your food processor for a quick crust to sear onto meats or tofu. Ginger is a versatile gal, so don't be afraid to experiment.
Available at New May Wah Market, 707-719 Clement, SF. (415) 668-2583
Nothing wakes up heavy, sleepy flavors like a bright squeeze of acid, but don't even bother with the bottled stuff here. Before you juice, take a second to zest the thin colored rind — which contains tons of essential oils — from the outside of the fruit, being careful to stay away from the white pith. Then cut in half through the equator and squeeze. Older fruits can be coaxed to spill their juice by rolling back and forth between the palm and the cutting board. Or zap in the microwave for just a few seconds. Lemons add zip to Italian and French dishes, limes to Asian, Indian and Latin. The brave and adventurous might even try whole lemons or limes — rind, pith, pulp, and all — chopped very finely in salsas; crusts for veggies, fish or tofu; and marinades. An old-timey recipe for something called Funeral Pie uses whole lemons, thrown in a blender with some sugar, eggs, and a little flour. The result is poured in a pie crust and "Viola!" A super-quick desert ready in a flash, in case of Great Aunt Millie's untimely demise.
Bi-Rite Market stocks organic, biodynamic lemons and limes from Becks Grove whenever possible. 3639 18th St., SF. (415) 241-9760
Hot Chinese sriracha sauce might be manufactured right here in Northern California, but that's no excuse for indiscriminately squirting that sticky red rooster bottle over everything — from eggs to escargot — that stands still long enough. If it's spice you're craving, aim for a subtler, deeper flavor. Chinese-style black bean sauces, garlic or chili, provide plenty of heat without the cloying, vinegary sweetness of sriracha. Instead, their fire is mellow and a bit smoky, and develops on the tongue. Try over steamed veggies such as asparagus, broccoli, or bok choy. Use to marinate tofu or chicken, and serve over everything from tempeh to tacos. If you like the taste, try going a step further and purchasing some fermented black beans — a salty, spicy condiment something like a cross between miso and Marmite.
Available at Pang Kee Bargain Market, 1308 Stockton, SF., (415) 982-1959
All mustards are essentially a combination of whole or ground mustard seeds suspended in vinegar and spices. But subtle variations in the type of grind and proportions of ingredients can make all the difference. If you inhabit the realm of ballpark-yellow, your culinary development has been sorely stunted. All mustards work as emulsifiers, making them ideal mix-ins for dressings, marinades, and notoriously finicky Hollandaise sauces. Whole grain mustards combined with miso, maple syrup, horseradish, or Parmesan cheese (not all at once!) make a crunchy coating for salmon, chicken, pork chops, or baked squash. Finely-ground mustards like German Hangstenberg are superhot and go well with preserved meats and blander veggies like cabbage. Some mustards are made with imported vinegars or champagnes, and are best paired with simple breads and cheeses so their unique flavors come through. And for something a little closer to home, try Mendocino Mustards, made in Fort Bragg.
Available at Canyon Market, 2815 Diamond, SF. (415) 586-9999