Eats: Auburn’s Chef’s Cupboard spices it up with custom blends

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I like to do my food shopping slowly and deliberately, unencumbered by a big metal cart and away from the glare of fluorescent lighting and programmed music. So you’ll often find me at a farmers’ market somewhere.

I especially enjoy the opportunity to chat with the farmers and makers connected with the food I’m preparing in my own kitchen.

And of course there are the colorful displays of Maine’s seasonal fruit and berry harvests, farm-raised meats, creamy dairy products and colorful displays of garden and greenhouse veggies that we so enjoy.

But on a recent foray to one farmers’ market I found another reason to love the experience: spices. While perusing the farmers’ traditional offerings I perked up at the scents of cloves, cumin and oregano. Following my nose, I walked straight to The Chef’s Cupboard display and found owner/entrepreneur Jon Staples presiding over pyramids of glass jars filled with spices and herbs.

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There were the usual offerings, including ginger, garlic powder, thyme and rosemary, but there were also harder-to-find items such as anise star, fenugreek, cardamom pods and food-grade lavender. What was most intriguing to me, however, were the original spice combinations created in Staples’ home kitchen in Auburn.

I learned that before starting up this enterprise, Staples worked at Shaw’s in both the produce and bakery departments for a combination of nearly 20 years. He was also a long-time member of Edward Little High School’s track and field coaching staff, often preparing team dinners. He admitted that he used to keep things pretty plain and simple for the team, but when he met his wife, Annika, he stepped up his cooking skills to impress her.

Staples said he was inspired to delve into the world of culinary herbs and spices as he embraced his role as chief chef at home. Both he and Annika, who is German, have such a yen for international cuisine that they schedule ethnic meals throughout the week.

Staples still likes to keep things quick and simple, but wants to be sure his dishes have the unique flavors the couple craves. He came to realize that many of the spice blends and typical meat rubs found on grocery store shelves weren’t meeting his flavor requirements, plus they were sometimes chock full of unsavory additives and fillers such as MSG, artificial flavoring, chemicals and extra salt.

Staples did his research and discovered Starwest Botanicals, a California company whose spices and herbs are USDA-approved and 90 percent of which are organic. He set to completing the required paperwork to qualify for selling them at Maine farmers’ markets. One requirement is that 75 percent of his products need to be grown/produced/sourced in Maine.

“Although my spices are sourced from all over the world and I use a Californian wholesaler, my blends are my design, and I package and brand them in my Maine kitchen,” said Staples. “Some items, such as cinnamon and turmeric, don’t grow in this part of the world. Others, like oregano and basil, are not readily available as an organic shelf-stable product. I’m not equipped to dry my own herbs on the scale and cost efficacy I need, but I am on the lookout for local suppliers.”

Staples’ blends are an economical alternative to purchasing each and every individual spice and herb. For example, there are over 20 different herbs and spices in Staples’ favorite, Ras el Hanout, a Moroccan medley that includes cinnamon, cloves, lavender and turmeric.

“Every month I research the origin of a couple different blends, evaluate the ingredients based on availability and cost, and then experiment with the blend in my own kitchen.”

Another unique Chef’s Cupboard blend is Berbere African Seasoning consisting of cayenne pepper mixed with cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. This medley of spices is typically used to season fish, chicken and pork.

Yet another go-to is what Staples calls #1 Meat Rub. Not only recommended as a dry rub, the seasoning can also be mixed into ground meat for meatloaf and burgers, or used to flavor a roast in the crock pot.

Besides #1 Meat Rub, top-sellers are Greek Poultry Dry Rub with its surprise ingredient of cinnamon, and Staples’ Tater Flavor. Just a light dusting of this seasoning brightens the earthy taste of root vegetables, giving them a garlicky, smoky flavor.

Currently Staples stocks more than 50 spices and herbs as well as nearly 30 original spice blends, with more being added all the time. “Recently, it was suggested that I add a sazon blend, a seasoning featuring coriander, cumin, turmeric and garlic that is used in Puerto Rican dishes. That may be my next addition.”

Karen Schneider is the editor of Northern Journeys, a quarterly publication that supports the arts. She is also a book editor, and a writer who has contributed to the Lewiston Sun Journal for twenty years. She can be contacted at iwrite33@comcast.net.

Owner Jon Staples gives everyday chicken a Mediterranean flair with his Chef’s Cupboard Greek Poultry Rub and a dash of olive oil.

All Chef’s Cupboard blends are created by owner Jon Staples of Auburn.

Where to find them

The Chef’s Cupboard spices and spice blends are tapped to be featured at these farmers’ market locations this spring:

Waterford: Monday from 2-5 p.m. beginning in June

Augusta: Tuesday from 2-5 p.m. through April

Falmouth: Wednesday from 12-4 p.m. beginning in May

Farmington: Friday from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. beginning in May

Topsham: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. through April

Auburn: Whiting’s Farm, 876 Summer St. Expanded display at the farm store in June

One of spicemaster Jon Staples’ suggestions is to merge some freshly baked bread with his Chef’s Cupboard lavender dipping oil.

Savory Greek chicken

Serves 3-4

3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

2 tablespoons Chef’s Cupboard Greek Poultry Rub

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus a bit more for baking sheet

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Cut chicken into 1/2-inch slices. Combine Greek Poultry Rub and olive oil in a large bowl. Add chicken and toss to coat. Lightly oil baking sheet. Spread out chicken slices evenly. Bake 20 minutes.

German hamburgers

Serves 4

1/2 pound ground pork

1/2 pound ground chicken or turkey

2 tablespoons Chef’s Cupboard #1 Meat Rub

1 tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce

1 egg

1/2 cup cracker crumbs

2 tablespoons olive oil

Combine all ingredients except olive oil. Form mixture into 4 equal portions and pat out 4 uniform patties. Add olive oil to a large skillet and set to medium-high heat. Add patties and turn down heat to just above medium. Flip when edges begin to brown.

Spicy dessert muffins

Serves 10-12

1 package yellow cake mix

1 1/2 tablespoons Chef’s Cupboard Dessert Spice

1 cup water

1/2 cup oil

3 eggs

Topping:

1/2 cup brown sugar

1 additional tablespoon Chef’s Cupboard Dessert Spice

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine wet ingredients in a medium-size bowl. Slowly add cake mix and stir until fully incorporated. Stir in Dessert Spice. Lightly oil muffin tins or use muffin cups. Divide batter evenly in muffin tins. Mix brown sugar and additional tablespoon of Dessert Spice. Sprinkle on muffins. Bake 22-24 minutes.

A display of The Chef’s Cupboard spices, produced by Auburn resident Jon Staples.

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