A Pound of Spice, A Pinch of Air

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


A few years back, I read a recipe that called for ancho chile powder. Whereas most chile powders are spicy or smoky, the ancho offers a subtle sweetness. The author described its flavor with such enthusiasm that I wanted some. Immediately. But none of the stores I normally go to stocked it. I looked online, but buying spices through the internet seemed strange to me.

Although I couldn’t use the internet as a market, it did lead me to a spice shop in a neighborhood not too far from mine that had it. Whenever I think that I have exhausted every corner of San Francisco, that there is no magic left to discover, I am proven wrong. I imagined a cozy little space, with dark wood and silver tins sealing the aromas of exotic spices. An eccentric but knowledgeable shopkeeper constantly going up and down a step-ladder bringing down spices for the clients to smell before deciding which ones to purchase. Then he would carefully weigh the few ounces you needed and wrap them in brown paper tied with string.

If my conjured image fell on one side of the spectrum, the reality fell on the other end. I walked into a non-descript storefront that led me to a small side room. White enamel-coated metal shelves lay heavy with big bags of spices in clear cellophane. The shopkeeper was a cashier. I became so disoriented that I needed to ask him where the ancho chile powder was and he pointed right in front of where I was standing. My gaze turned toward a one-pound bag filled with a brick-colored spice. It was lovely, but there was too much. A pound of powder is a lot. I asked if I could get a smaller amount, and he said no, they were pre-measured.

This was not my fantasy shop, but they had the chile powder. I bought the pound, knowing that I really only needed a couple of tablespoons for the chili recipe that had sparked this quest.

The ancho chile powder melded perfectly with an assortment of other spices to create a wonderfully complex chili, a recipe I will share another day. But today, the epilogue of this story is elsewhere. My expectations for the shop were high, and though I was sadly disappointed, I gained more than I had expected. I was left with a pound minus a tablespoon of spice and a gnawing desire to use it…in everything. If I had found that magic spice shop, with the silver tins and the shopkeeper who measured out exactly how much I needed, I never would have been so liberal with the ancho chile powder. I used it in split pea soup, on roasted potatoes, and then one day, I put it on popcorn. The popcorn was the perfect palette, highlighting the earthy sweetness, and the flecks of red spice eventually leached into the white corn, creating a beautiful orange hue. They say “less is more,” but sometimes, more is just more. Without that pound, I never would have used that pinch.


Ancho Chile Popcorn

12 cups of plain popped corn (about 1/2 cup unpopped kernels)
1 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon nutritional yeast
1/2 teaspoon ancho chile powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
a couple of spritz of Bragg’s liquid amino acid (optional)

Mix all the ingredients in a large bowl and serve immediately.

Serves 4

Comments (2)


  1. Tara says:

    Very inspiring! I love chile powder (and hot sauce) on popcorn and will definitely have to try ancho chile. Please don’t forget to post your chile recipe!

    Francisco raided that spice store awhile ago, and we still haven’t made a dent in the pounds (and pounds) of spices he bought, but buying spices by the pound is cheap when you cook a lot and that store’s selection is amazing. I’ll be sure to pick up a bag of ancho chile next time we visit.

    Sorry to hear that you’ve left the court, but I look forward to keeping in touch by blog at least :)

  2. Rebecca says:

    Lovely! You do make a mean popcorn! The spice store will have to be the next shopping trip for the next visit. :)

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