Spice & herb information

I’ve had a leisurely day–studying about bees in hopes of taking the Journeyman exam at the NC State Beekeepers Association meeting this summer, and as usual when anywhere near access to the internet, doing a little browsing that, inevitably, leads to food or something closely related to it (if not bees or honey).

I found a website that I thought worth sharing on the Kitchn called Spice Intelligence with articles (and recipes using) spices and traditional blends.  There are discussions from asafoetida to za’atar.


Harvesting & using herbs

Now that you have all those lovely herbs growing in your kitchen garden (or just in containers) you need to get them into the kitchen and use them.  There are some general things that apply to harvesting and using almost all herbs in order to get the best flavor in your dishes.

Even though there are “classic” combinations (e.g. basil and tomatoes) don’t be afraid to experiment…that’s the point of having this selection available at your kitchen door!  Smell and taste the leaves of your herbs.  Think about the dish you’re cooking, how you feel today….

Try something different–fresh oregano or marjoram with the pasta sauce today; or maybe even tarragon or fennel with tomatoes.  (Yes, the leaves of that Florence/bulb fennel can be used as seasoning too.)   Experiment!  Taste!  Smell!  That’s what herbs are all about.

In reading through cookbooks, you’ll find may different opinions about when to harvest, whether or not you want herbs to bloom.  Here are a few generalizations about growing, harvesting, and using those wonderful plants that come from my experience:

  • For best flavor you want to keep most of your herbs from blooming; once the plant starts blooming and making seed it is less flavorful.  (You can find all sorts of articles pro and con; this is my opinion.)  To do this you will want to pinch out forming flowers at the tips.  This is particularly true for basils.
  • You generally need to keep herbs trimmed or they can get very unruly, lanky and leggy and straggly.  If you’re not using enough to keep them bushy, and retard blooming, then give them a “butch” every once in a while to keep them bushy and full.
  • Rosemary is an exception it’s not “pinchable” as it blooms along the stems themselves.
  • If you have several plants or if you want to use the flowers (they are edible) then you may want to let part of them bloom–they are lovely, but you sacrifice flavor in exchange for the blooms.
  • Don’t harvest more than one-third of the plant at a time–the herb needs enough leaves to keep growing since it depends on the leaves for photosynthesis and growth.
  • Fresh herbs are best when harvested as needed–not to be stored in the refrigerator for days. That is the whole point of having those pots on the deck.  When I need to trim, I either find something to do with the trimmings (make an herb vinaigrette or put the leaves in salads), or give them to friends…I won’t store them in the fridge.
  •  You’ll be cutting springs rather than picking individual leaves for most herbs (e.g. thyme, tarragon, sage), and then stripping the leaves from the stems (if the stems are woody or tough).
  • Bay is an exception: harvest by picking individual leaves, not sprigs, and not the newest leaves on the plant.  To harvest bay leaves, take the individual leaf and pull downward sharply.
  • You may want to add herbs at several times during cooking:  early to allow flavors to “meld”, but also again near the end in order to have the fresh flavor as many herbs lose some flavor with heating; you can give you dish a “fresh” boost by adding a bit more of the fresh herbs at the end of cooking.
  • If your recipe calls for dried herbs and you are substituting fresh herbs, you’ll need to use about three or four times as much of the fresh as the dried:  e.g. one teaspoon of dried thyme = one tablespoon of fresh thyme.
  • The way that an herb is cut can affect the flavor of a dish.  The more finely it is cut, the more rapidly the essential oils will diffuse into your dish, and the faster the essential oils may dissipate with heating.  Coarsely chopped herbs will release flavor more slowly and “hang around” longer.
  • You can preserve herbs for off season use by freezing but just throwing them into the freezer in a bag doesn’t do well. You can freeze them in ice by coarsely chopping them, packing them in ice-cube trays, and then cover with cold water and freeze. Color may suffer, but flavor is preserved  though you have to consider the effect that the extra water will have on adding to a dish.
  • My favorite way of freezing is to make a “pesto”–an herb and oil purée–of the herbs and pack into zipper-lock freezer bags.  You can cut off what you need.  This has the advantage of not adding additional water, and I think that it keeps flavor better than water and is more versatile.  The approximate proportions for this would be 1/4 cup oil for each gently packed cup of fresh herbs.  This works with basil, tarragon, marjoram, oregano, dill and cilantro.

A favorite herb or spice?

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!