A warm swirl of pleasant aromas entice me into The Spice & Tea Exchange in downtown Mystic. Rows of glass jars fill each wall. Natural wood beams, barrels and counters embody an inviting mid-1800’s general store. Fine herbs, spices and teas from around the globe surround me and I’m happy to be here. Today’s food samples include a whipped pumpkin dip, herbed bread dip, Onion Obsession dip, and three types of hot tea include a yummy fruity herbal blend.
Manager Brian Thomson, answers questions with enthusiasm and the heart of a teacher. “Essential oils within each spice or herb become less-flavorful over time. You can add more of that spice to your food and it will be a little bit better but not as good as with fresh (spices)”, he shares. “Spices from discount stores are at the end of their life.” His comments cause me to focus on bags of hand-packaged bay leaves at eye level nearby. I made beef stew last week and even three of my old bay leaves didn’t impart the flavor I wanted. I have lots of these “bargain spices” in my cupboard and tend to add more of them to achieve decent results. I baked some Italian cookies recently that had almost no flavor. It makes sense now that the extracts and spices were probably old but I’m disappointed to have wasted my time and ingredients. I’ve been sabotaging myself.
Alongside familiar spices are pumpkin powder, burgundy wine powder, and beer powder. They all smell exactly like their names and tiny plastic spoons are available to taste everything in the store. All of these flavors come from real food without MSG or artificial additives.
Once home, I discard a third of my aging spices. I don’t throw out all 16 ounces of cinnamon because they will become rustic Christmas ornaments. I don’t know what I was thinking when purchasing so much. Despite a naturally – frugal nature, it feels good to throw out old bay leaves, paprika and garlic powder which have been with me for years. Most of us do this though; we buy too much of something for a recipe then ignore it for months (or years) until it’s time to make that recipe again. My tidy spice cabinet now holds only flavor enhancers with integrity. I’m going to rock that holiday turkey and dazzle with spiced cookies, pies and cakes. Kits for brining turkey and spicing up cider take all the stress and guesswork out of holiday entertaining. But it’s my everyday cooking that will improve the most.
In separate dishes, I mix about a teaspoon each of Tuscan and Coastal spice mixes with a couple tablespoons of olive oil, cover and leave them on the counter overnight. I slather blackfish fillets from last week’s fishing excursion with each mixture. Three minutes of searing each side in a hot pan (no extra oil needed) produces nice browning and marvelous flavor.
Coastal’s herbaceous blend is luscious on the mild fish and reminiscent of summer dining. It would be fabulous with grilled zucchini or a green salad. Tuscan has a spicy tomato heat that could easily pair with an oilier fish. I’m hooked. These two mixtures will be my “go to” favorites for fresh fish. It took less than 10 minutes to produce an amazing entrée. I predict even non-fish eaters will enjoy them but the same flavors also work on chicken.
Chicken with Crazy Chicken Spice and roasted potatoes with Italian Street Food Spice blend need only steamed broccoli to round out a vibrant meal. Mushroom Paradise is good cooked into brown rice but I’ll bet it would taste even better flavoring olive oil for dipping bread. Gourmet Pepper Blend deliciously elevates an average piece of steak with balanced flavor rather than aggressive heat.
All of the mixes include suggested uses. Staff are knowledgeable about this stuff and love food talk. Jeremy and Sarah both recommend Backwoods Hickory Rub on chicken and beef and Espresso Steak Rub is a direct path to culinary greatness. Vik’s Garlic Fix makes a killer shrimp scampi… but not for date night.
Brian’s ten years of experience representing a major spice company is at the core of this store’s success. Smiling employees use the ingredients themselves and are great resources. By allowing myself to be guided, I left the store armed with knowledge and resources to easily create fabulous food. Successful restaurants season their meat and fish with proprietary blends. These spice mixes will become my own culinary secret weapon but you can do this too.
Spices are sold by the ounce after being ground and packaged by hand in the store. The average cost per ounce is about $5.00. That may seem pricey but “per ounce unit prices” at grocery stores are comparable or even more. I’m just realizing myself the benefits of buying smaller amounts more frequently. A little goes a long way. A range of curry blends beckon so I’ll start with mild and slightly sweet Tandoori.
An entire wall of beautiful teas and another of flavored sugars catches my eye. Raspberry Sugar dazzles atop classic sugar cookies. Rose Sugar is lovely in tea. Other sugar flavors range from sweet to hot and inspiration abounds. Another wall holds flavored salts including smoked varieties for wood grill flavor. As the weather chills, I’ll cook indoors but may still enjoy outdoor flavor. Only the smallest sprinkle is needed to impart flavor. Two different flavors of salt for salmon are perpetual customer favorites. Pink Himalayan Salt contains 84 nutrients and comes in all shapes and sizes ranging from a big hunk to fine crystals.
Free business cards at the counter suggest adding 1 or more tablespoons of any TSTE spice blend to 8 ounces of sour cream (or cream cheese or plain yogurt) then refrigerating 8-24 hours for a delicious dip. At home I mix Onion Obsession and light sour cream but am anxious for a taste. Concentrated spices and vegetables need time to develop and huge flavor is the reward for patience. The resulting dip is addictively delicious. This versatile one ounce mix is enough to make 2-3 dips and would be a good pantry item to stock at home. Right now, I’m daydreaming of a toasted bagel smeared with cream cheese flavored with Onion Obsession. Or maybe a dollop on baked potatoes. But I definitely want that bagel.
The Mystic store carries darling spice jars, diverse styles of tea pots and individual tea cups, popcorn seasoning gift packs, and more. Olive oil with 4 seasoning blends makes a great gift. I’m intrigued by a caffeine-free detox tea and may try that in January. A Kobucha kit, classic pepper mill or infusion tea travel cup will please foodie friends and family. Tea enthusiasts rave about the special blends available only at TSTE stores. Brian and his crew pack online orders in the store and tuck a little surprise gift into each one. Isn’t it time to rock someone’s world with more flavor? That someone can be you.
Pro Tip 1: If they aren’t being hydrated with liquids during cooking, many of the spice mixtures need 12-24 hours in olive oil for their flavor to fully develop. The infused oil makes a great focaccia topping or dip for bread.
Pro Tip 2: Mark the purchase date on each food item. Most are best used within a year of opening but okay for 2-3 years.
Pro Tip 3: Interact with the helpful, knowledgeable staff.
The Tea & Spice Exchange Info
6 West Main Street Mystic, CT / 860-245-4153 / SpiceandTea.com/Mystic / Open daily 10 a.m.- 9 p.m.