True confession: I am obsessed with spices. Obsessed! Luscious cinnamon from Vietnam? I can’t get it out of my mind. Barbecue rubs made with spices I would never dream of putting together? They set my heart on fire! Dried parsley that actually tastes like parsley? It makes me weak in the knees.
Taste aside, I adore spices because they spark the creative cook in me, and transport me to places and cultures that I may never have the chance to experience.
Best of all, since I love to share everything I learn along the way, spices serve as a catalyst — in my world — for bringing people together.
While local supermarket chains have plenty of good spices, I typically make short trips to local specialty shops for my spices. And I do so for these important reasons: the spice selection is vast, the spices themselves taste fresher and more vibrant, the value is spot on and the customer service is unparalleled.
Here are two of my favorite spice shops:
Niblack’s in Henrietta
Located in the Genesee Valley Regional Market in a nondescript building, Niblack’s quickly becomes anything but nondescript the moment you set foot inside. Oh, the aromas! Oh, the friendly service! Oh, the selection! The spices, the herbs, the blends and rubs, all the other cooking ingredients, it’s truly a one-stop shop for many culinary needs.
Rochester’s oldest and most seasoned “bulk food ingredient supplier,” Niblack’s is run by owner Doug Niblack, who some call the “Doctor of Spices.” When I stopped by the other day for some smoked paprika and Somalian Xawaash spice, I saw that Niblack, toting a basket of spices, was engaged in a “spice consult” with a local restaurateur. Later, Niblack shared that Sal’s Birdland’s new owner, Jim Ortiz, is among many in the restaurant business who turn to Niblack’s for special ingredients and unique blends.
Another confession: I lose my resolve when I’m at Niblack’s. In other words, I go in for one thing and I leave with many. Gourmet salts, savory blends from here and afar, Madagascar vanilla, apple pie spice, small-batch mustard … you get the can’t-resist picture!
Stuart’s Spices in the South Wedge
Stuart’s had me at cumin, and I’m not kidding. Parked outside their beautifully painted shop on Clinton Avenue is a little sign that reads, “CUMIN We’re Open.” Smitten with the clever invitation, I ventured in and stayed in, which seems to be my M.O. when it comes to spices.
Founded in l992 by Stuart Schultz, Stuart’s Spices is now owned by Tom and Vicki Finnefrock. Cozy and deliciously fragrant, Stuart’s is all about gourmet-quality spices, herbs, seasonings, rubs and blends. Why make the trip to Stuart’s? They grind many of their spices — like cinnamon, cumin and “no sneeze” black pepper — in small batches on-site, which ensures freshness and flavor. They have a large selection of low- and no-salt seasonings. And, they have an extensive line of truly original blends and rubs — some, award-winning! — and more sausage seasonings than I’ve ever encountered in one place. In fact, I just picked up some Dragon’s Breath seasoning for the deer sausage my son intends to make.
Oh, and like Niblack’s, Stuart’s also makes proprietary blends for local restaurants, butcher shops and more. That’s how good their products are.
Finally, I always learn something new at Stuart’s. The team sincerely cares about educating customers and it shows, from the attentive service to the interesting classes offered to the organized small-group tastings.
Anne Palumbo writes this column for Messenger Post newspapers. Her email is avpalumbo@aol.com.