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Whet your appetite with dry spices that give dishes a kick

Ellen Sweets

When my brother and his wife invited me to join them on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, an addendum to their invitation confirmed a serious suspicion: I was to be the designated cook. I also was warned that food on the island was expensive, so I was urged to bring what I needed, even down to the spices.

The 10 members of our group had come from various points west and east: Omaha, Neb.; St. Louis; Atlanta; Austin; and Washington, D.C. By the time we made our rendezvous, we were too weary to go out. We wanted something comforting. And what could be more comforting than spaghetti and meat sauce?

There was a grocery store nearby but, as promised, it had prices that were off the chain: $4 a pound for yellow onions? $6 a pound for ground beef?

I had stocked up in Austin. I actually brought spaghetti — which was a good thing, too, because the six pounds of good Italian pasta I got from Costco for $6 and change goes for almost $4 per pound there. After all, everything had to come from St. Thomas, via Puerto Rico or the mainland U.S. The waters surrounding St. John are too shallow to accommodate big ships, and fragile coral beds surround St. John, so, little boats, OK; big boats, nope.

Fortunately, I also had availed myself of Austin's newly opened Savory Spice Shop (1201B W. Sixth St. 524-1093, www.savoryspiceshop.com ). Think of it as a Toys R Us for food freaks, with its inventory of organic, freshly ground, out-of-the ordinary herbs and spices.

In my traveling kitchen: a half-ounce of bay leaves; a half-ounce of Cambodian lemongrass curry powder; freeze-dried shallots; five ounces of dehydrated white onion (which lasted for three meals); and an Italian blend called Cantanzaro Herbs , mixed in a Savory Spice formula that incorporates garlic, lemon peel, marjoram, European basil, Mediterranean thyme, rosemary and Greek oregano. My most discerning diners had no idea they were eating dehydrated shallots or onions.

Of course, you don't have to be headed overseas to appreciate Austin's only shop dedicated exclusively to herbs and spices. The original shop in Denver helped give shape to Austin owner Karen Aboussie's long-held desire to own a spice store. (She even lived in India for a time to learn more about herbs.)

There are more than 400 offerings within 1,800 square feet of neatly lined shelves. Under "herbs" are jars filled with familiar and unfamiliar names: organic lovage, cracked rosemary needles, dill weed and Mexican or Greek oregano. And then there are "seeds," including fennel, black mustard, Dutch blue poppy seeds, black sesame and anise. Some have salt, some are salt-free. Many are organic.

For those who prefer to order spices from online order houses, having a local spice shop is a boon. In fact, when I visited friends in St. Louis not too long ago, I sent them a "thank you" gift box from Savory Spice; now they've abandoned their previously preferred mail-order vendor for Aboussie's shop.

Debra Scarbo of Austin frequently traveled to Denver, where a friend introduced her a few years ago to what was then a new business. She bought some items, brought them home and soon found herself addicted.

"I'm so happy to have a store here, because I was buying everything through mail order," Scarbo says. "So today I brought a friend in who is looking for organics, but I never mind bringing people in. Every time I come in here, I find something I hadn't seen before."

Cambodian Lemongrass Shrimp

I have always been a foe of pre-packaged anything, but I've relented over the years — mainly because ingredient quality for many products has improved dramatically. Such is the case for the lemongrass curry powder used in this recipe. Serves 6-8.

7 Tbsp. Savory Spice Shop Cambodian Lemongrass Curry Powder

4 Tbsp. water

4 Tbsp. olive oil

2 Tbsp. soy sauce

2 Tbsp. fish sauce

11/2 Tbsp. dried red bell pepper flakes

2 Tbsp. vegetable oil

1 red onion, chopped

2 ribs celery, chopped

1 cup unsweetened coconut milk

2 lbs. uncooked deveined shrimp (tail removed)

2 Tbsp. fresh-squeezed lime juice

1 16-ounce package frozen baby peas

Long-grain yellow rice (recipe follows)

Chopped parsley for garnish

Make a curry powder paste first by combining curry powder, water, olive oil, soy sauce, fish sauce and dried bell pepper. Cover and set aside.

In a heavy-bottomed stockpot, sauté onion and celery until vegetables are translucent. Add coconut milk and let it warm through. Stir in the curry powder paste. Simmer 20 minutes.

Add shrimp and cook, uncovered, until shrimp starts to curl and turn pink. Add lime juice and continue simmering until shrimp are done.

Serve over yellow rice.

To make yellow rice: Prepare long-grained rice according to directions for 6 servings, adding 11/2 teaspoons turmeric and 2 bay leaves.

It is important to allow rice to stand for at least 5 minutes before serving.

Foolproof Bolognese Sauce

When we arrived on St. John, we were all exhausted from travel security screenings, flight transfers, a boat commute from St. Thomas to St. John, and a cab ride to our condo. We just wanted a familiar meal. Spaghetti and meat sauce with a green salad filled the bill. Serves 6-8.

2 Tbsp. olive oil

2 pounds ground chuck

2 Tbsp. dehydrated minced garlic

2 Tbsp. Cantanzaro Herbs

1 cup dehydrated chopped white onion

2 Tbsp. dehydrated parsley

1 28-oz. can crushed tomatoes

1 tsp. red pepper (optional)

3 cups beef stock

Salt and pepper to taste

Grated Parmesan cheese

In a stockpot or large skillet, brown beef in oil with garlic and herbs.

Add onion, parsley, tomatoes and beef stock. Combine well, cover and simmer for 30-40 minutes, stirring to prevent sticking. Remove cover and simmer for additional 15 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes or so.

Serve over pasta.

Pass the Parmesan.

Jamaican Jerk Chicken

This is the best Jamaican jerk chicken blend I've ever had. And I've tried a bunch. If you like spicy foods, you'll love this; but you must be willing to let the chicken marinate overnight, then come to room temperature before grilling or roasting in the oven.

The advantage of oven roasting is the pan juices are wonderful.

Serves 6.

10 Tbsp. Savory Spice Shop Jamaican Jerk Seasoning

1/2 cup olive oil

1/2 cup soy sauce

3/4 cup vinegar

3/4 tablespoon orange juice

1/4 cup lime juice

12 chicken thighs

To make the marinade, whisk together jerk seasonings, olive oil, soy sauce, vinegar, orange juice and lime juice. Set aside for 3 minutes. In a casserole large enough to accommodate the chicken thighs, pour some of the marinade on the bottom and layer chicken on top. Pour remaining marinade over the chicken.

Cover dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 6 hours, preferably overnight. This is great on the grill, but if you're not up to grilling, try this, although it might scare some people to death: Refrigerate the leftover marinade until the chicken in the oven is done. Pour the pan juices in a saucepan, add the reserved marinade, bring it to a hard boil for several minutes, then simmer covered for another 15-20 minutes.

It makes a great sauce. I've done it a half-dozen times. Friends have done it. No one's been adversely affected.

Oven-Roasted Mahi-Mahi

A friend with a fishing boat gave us several enormous mahi-mahi steaks from a fish that had been swimming in the Caribbean only hours earlier. To do it honor, I prepared it as simply as possible with this lovely blend of lemon peel, garlic, salt, ginger, onion, allspice, parsley and white pepper. It was incredible.

You probably won't be able to find this fish with its skin on. What a pity. Serve with boiled baby new potatoes and a salad of spring lettuce, sliced tomatoes, red onion and avocado. Serves 6.

6-8 mahi-mahi steaks or fillets

1/4 cup olive oil

1/4 cup Savory Spice Shop Hidden Cove Lemon Garlic Blend

Lemon and/or lime quarters

Preheat oven to 450.

Bring fish to room temperature; rinse and pat dry. Drizzle olive oil over each piece, then sprinkle with lemon garlic blend and rub all over the fish. Allow fish to rest for 10 minutes.

Roast for 10-12 minutes. Test for doneness by sticking a knife point in the center of the fish. If it slides in and out easily, the fish is done. Remove from oven immediately. Fish will continue to cook for several minutes. Do not overcook. Squeeze lemon or lime over the fish if desired.

Blackened Salmon Salad

Surprisingly, the balance in this blend of onion, salt, garlic, white pepper, chiles, mustard powder, cumin, thyme, cayenne, oregano, sage and celery doesn't overwhelm the fish. I used it by mistake; I thought I had the Cherry Creek Seafood Seasoning. Oops! (Make sure the vent fan is on when you make this.) Serves 6.

1/4 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice

2 Tbsp. white wine vinegar

1 tsp. dehydrated chopped shallots

1/4 cup olive oil

3 Tbsp. vegetable or canola oil

1 Tbsp. water

1/2 tsp. kosher salt

1/2 tsp. black pepper

6 salmon fillets, skin on*

11/2 cup unsalted butter, melted

1/4 cup Savory Spice Shop Cajun Style Blackening Seasoning

11/2 lbs. spring lettuces

3 thin slices red onion, cut into quarters

3 hard-cooked eggs, sliced

9 red or yellow grape tomatoes, halved lengthwise

11/2 cups sliced black olives

1/2 cup capers

12 peperoncini (also called Tuscan peppers; they are mild and shouldn't be confused with banana peppers, which are hot)

In a bowl whisk together lemon juice, vinegar, shallots, olive oil, vegetable/canola oil, water, salt and pepper for salad dressing. Cover and set aside.

Preheat a cast iron or heavy-bottomed skillet. Allow fillets to come to room temperature. Rub some of the butter on both sides of each fillet. Sprinkle seasoning on both sides. Before laying fillets in the skillet, drizzle half the remaining butter over each one. Cook buttered-side down for 3-4 minutes on one side, turn, and drizzle the remaining butter on the other side for another 2-3 minutes. Remove from skillet and set aside.

In a large salad bowl, toss together lettuces with some of the salad dressing. Divide greens among six plates or bowls. Top each with red onion, egg slices, tomato halves and sprinkles of black olives and capers. Arrange 2 peperoncini on each plate, stem side out.

Lay a fillet over each salad and serve the remaining dressing in a bottle with a stopper so it can be easily shaken in case diners want additional salad dressing.

*Islanders eat salmon with the skin. If you want to eat island-style, place the skin side down first in the skillet; then, when you turn the fish, the skin will be crisp and quite delicious. If you're finicky, don't worry; the skin will come right off.