I was recently faced with answering a question on an application for employment that really made me think about herbs and spices. The question: What is your favorite spice or seasoning, on what do you use it? My first inclination was herbs and spices, and I use them on everything, but I decided that was inappropriate, and gave some thought to the matter.
Well, I’ve decided that I cannot say that I have a favorite herb or spice! My difficulty in answering this question is that I love most herbs and spices (not really sure about asafoetida yet), and that my preferences change seasonally, and even with the weather within any particular season. I likely will not season haricots verts in the middle of the winter as I might with the first fresh ones off the bush in the spring. Crisp autumn weather leads me to use “warmer” herbs and spices than during the heavy, humid summer heat, when I want cool and refreshing seasoning.
As a person who cooks for one and sometimes has several servings of the same vegetable, fruit or meat in a relatively short period of time, I find that one of the best ways not to get that “leftover” flavor is to use different herbs and spices with the same vegetable or meat at different times. When I come home from the farmers’ market with a huge bunch of greens, I may prep them so that I can use them in multiple ways: first, I may sauté some simply seasoned with good extra-virgin olive oil salt and fresh-ground black pepper. The second time I use them, I may add onion, or sweet peppers, and if there is a third use, maybe more robust seasonings like garlic, crushed red pepper flakes. Sometimes I open up the drawer where my herbs and spices live and just open jars and sniff to determine what I’ll use. I suppose that I have to admit that even mood affects how I season things! (I have the same difficulty answering the similar question about what is my favorite color, and to me herbs and spices are very much like painting with a palette of colors.)
There are classic pairings, such as basil with tomatoes, which are wonderful, but fresh sweet marjoram is also wonderful with those luscious summer tomatoes; so is Greek oregano and Syrian oregano, though I suppose I tend to use those even more in the winter or at least cooler weather. Classic combinations not withstanding, I love the process of seasoning my food–of smelling the individual components and blending, and tasting the results, and that is a large part of cooking for me to fit my taste for a particular ingredient, or season, or mood. Seasoning can make cooking for one a delight–a son goût!
I’m left without an answer to the question that started all this! In looking at my selection of herbs (dried in the drawer, or fresh in the pots on my deck) I simply cannot say that there is a favorite. I have very few prepared mixes of herbs or spices, usually choosing to do my own blends.
I’m not intending to denigrate pre-mixed seasonings, at all, if they are made with quality ingredients and are not mostly salt or sugar. There is one mixture of herbs that I do purchase blended, and that I do use when I find myself unable to make up my mind or am really in a rush: herbs de Provence. But I’m not willing to say that is my favorite–it’s a regular potpourri of herbs that is useful for meats, vegetables, soups, and stews. My favorite herbs de Provence I order, as I do almost all of my herbs and spices, from Penzeys Spices. It reflects an admixture of French and Italian herbs that must hark back to Roman influences: rosemary, fennel, thyme, savory, basil, tarragon, dill weed, Turkish oregano, lavender, chervil, and marjoram. What’s not to love in that mixture!
I’m sure that good seasoning mixes do fill a niche for many home cooks who don’t love the seasoning process as much as I do, and have a definite place in their kitchens. I just love the sniffing and tasting part of food preparation. Penzeys Spices has a great selection to browse if you are finding your way and learning about herbs and spices outside the basics. You will find lots of salt-free seasoning mixes to try. That’s one of the good things about cooking for one, it’s definitely a son goût!