In navigating our strange, new world, many of us have taken up cooking — both as a necessity and a way to stay busy and feel productive in a moment when it’s easy to feel anxious and restless. At the very least, we’re all making ourselves a lot more food, with a lot less ingredients. We reached out to Alissa Wagner, the co-owner of beloved Chinatown restaurant Dimes (which has grown to include a deli that sells both upstate New York–made muesli and food-grade perfume, and a cookbook called Emotional Eating) to ask what spices, sauces, and pastes she uses to brighten up the blandest of meals.
One of Wagner’s favorite things to work with is za’atar, which she says “can be sprinkled on basically anything,” although her favorite way to use it is on roasted vegetables. Her most-used za’tar spice blend (which is stocked at Dimes Market) is from Canaan Palestine, and contains a mix of dried oregano, roasted sesame seeds, and sumac. “It gives anything you put it on a nice, citrusy, zesty flavor,” she says.
Editor’s note: Canaan lists all prices in Israeli Shekels, so the price shown is an approximate conversion in U.S. dollars.
Chili flakes are a staple for spice connoisseurs, whether they’re being sprinkled into a chili or dumped on a cheesy slice of pizza. Alissa always opts for Aleppo chili flakes, which she says are a finer consistency and less chewy. “They melt into the food a little better,” she says, “and also give a nice heat without being overpowering.” Aleppo flakes are good for all sorts of beans and legumes, says Alissa, especially with a little lemon juice and olive oil to round it out.
“Paprika is a great, basic spice,” says Alissa, “my favorite way to use it is on roasted mushrooms.” It also works well with vegetables and meats, she says. As for her favorite paprika, she likes Burlap and Barrel, which sells locally grown, single-origin spices. The brand currently stocks two types of paprika — smoked pimentón and sweet pepper, the former offering a smoky sweetness, and the latter giving dishes a sweet pepper taste without the heat.
“It’s important for people to take good care of themselves right now, so turmeric and ginger are great things to incorporate because it gives your body an extra boost of antioxidants,” she says. She likes to add both spices to soups, savory porridges and juices in particular: “I’m doing a juice right now that’s carrot, lemon, ginger, and turmeric.”
Popular in mediterranean dishes, Alissa uses fennel seeds to add flavor to sauces and grains. “I always put toasted fennel seeds into my tomato sauce,” she says, “it gives it another layer of flavor that’s kind of nutty and unexpected.” When it comes to fennel seed, toasted is the only way to go, says Alissa, noting that they taste the best dry-toasted, and are easy to mix into a sauce or grain. She’s partial to fennel seeds from Daphnis and Chloe, which have a fragrant nutty-sweet flavor, and are sourced in the northern region of central Greece.
This salsa, which Alissa uses as an oil, is made with slow-fried chipotle peppers and toasted peanuts in a smoky chili oil. “I put it on literally everything,” she says, because it elevates even the blandest dish. “If you have a simple fried rice dish, this immediately gives it another level of texture and heat,” she says. She also likes to use it on fish and meat, and even adds it to hummus.
Another must-have for Alissa is this pad thai tamari sauce, which is versatile enough to use as both a marinade and a dressing. “It’s a simple tamari but has an extra boost of saltiness to it,” says Alissa, who likes it for roasting vegetables and marinating tofu: “When you marinate tofu in it, it gives it a nice caramelization,” she says.
Alissa is also a fan of this versatile kimchi paste which comes in three different varieties: original, vegan, and super spicy. She likes to use this as a sauce by thinning it out with water and adding it to stir fry’s.