Herbs and Spices for Flavorful Food

October 10, 2017 in Antioxidants, Cooking & Baking Hints, Health by Joyce Bunderson

As I begin typing this post, I realize that I’m headed for Greece, where herbs and spices are integral ingredients in making food quite wonderful. This article won’t get posted for about a month, but I’m in one of my moods to share a bit about the use of herbs and spices. On April 25, 2017 I wrote about Keeping Sodium Down by using herbs and spices; so today I will just refer you to that article. Just in case you’re not familiar with the high sodium found in so many processed, packaged and restaurant foods, that article may give you a little impetus for home cooking with herbs and spices.

While we’re in Greece our neighborhood is having an annual salmon bake. Rats! We hate to miss that lovely event. Each year, the chef of the bake cuts Tarragon fronds from my herb garden and uses them on the fish. Everyone rightfully raves about the delicious salmon. Yesterday, he asked me if I have plenty of herbs for this year’s event (I do; it thrives in our garden). It reminded me that herbs are one of the really healthy additions that make food taste great.

It’s so easy to become accustomed to the highly salted processed foods of the day; but you might be surprised how much less salt you really need. Just by cutting back gradually while increasing the use of herbs and spices, your food can taste great without so much salt.

It’s amazing how many different herbs and spices are known. Spices are generally dried and are a little stronger tasting than herbs. Some spices are: Cinnamon; ginger; turmeric; cloves; saffron; peppercorns, allspice; cumin; and cardamom. Some herbs are: parsley; rosemary; thyme; basil; dill; mint; and oregano. In addition, there are vegetables that are used to add flavor: celery; garlic; onion; and chili peppers. Even fruit can be used to bring out the flavor of foods; I frequently use lime and lemon juice and scrape and use their zest using a zester (very fine grater) on the citrus skins. Flowers are yet another classification of food to add flavor to recipes – nasturtiums add a little pepper tang to a fresh salad. Or you may enjoy fresh dill snipped onto your salad, or even pansies or chive blossoms.

The nice thing about using herbs and spices is that they add wonderful nutrients while increasing taste and enjoyment. The June 2017 Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter says that spices and herbs contain more than 2,000 different phytochemicasls. Some are known to provide anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory health benefits.

When you begin using herbs and spices, you generally use the common ones; in the common applications. But as time goes on you may discover that there’s a universe of options. For example, sprinkling cinnamon on sweet potatoes; baked apples; winter squash; all kinds of baked goods and oatmeal may be your norm now. But adding cinnamon to yogurt; rice dishes; meat marinade or to black beans in a nachos or burritos recipe may be a wonderful experience coming to your kitchen in the near future.

When it comes to spices, you can’t go by the old adage, “If a little is good, more is better.” Many decades ago, I had my very first curry dish. Unfortunately, the person that made the recipe had the idea “more would be better.” It was so awful, that I declined curry for decades, when it was offered. One day, I was eating something at a potluck event, and tasted this most divine flavor. I asked the person that brought it, what it was. She told me that it had curry in it. I was so sad that I had missed all those decades of not eating curry because of a mistaken prejudice. So my advice based upon this experience is, if you have something that’s too spicy, try using less the next time. Don’t give up on that spice.

One good trick to know as related to spices is that as dried spices age in the bottle, eventually they lose flavor. If you rub them between your fingers and there is little to no aroma or they lack flavor, it’s time to bite the bullet and toss them out.

I grow several different herbs and extend the season by preserving and storing them. Fresh basil has several options. I cut it and put it in a little pitcher of water on the kitchen counter. By doing this I discover that I remember to snip it and add it to many more dishes than when I’ve got to run out and cut it. If it’s in the pitcher for a little while (about 2 weeks), it begins to sprout roots. Those rooted basils can be planted in a pot and used all winter long. I also, cut basil, wash and dry it; and put it into the freezer. The leaves just crumble off the stems after they’re frozen and then you discard the stems. One thing to remember about basil, it doesn’t like cold refrigerator air. Freezing it is essentially the same as drying it; you end up with dry crumbled flecks of basil.

Tarragon is another herb that is so easy to store. The main two ways that I store it are: 1) Just shove the rinsed stems with leaves in a large plastic sack and freeze. When frozen, hold the stems and pull through you hand. All the leaves come off and then you can throw the stems away; and store the leaves in the freezer. 2) If you want dried tarragon, all you do is lay the washed tarragon on a flat surface. Here in the mountain west the air is generally so dry that it doesn’t take but a few days and the dry leaves can be crushed off the stems. Then the stems can be discarded and the thoroughly dried leaves stored in a zip lock bag. When you’re using tarragon, add it toward the end of your cooking; as it is a delicate flavor and can be over cooked and thus lose the wonderful flavor. Actually, basil is another of the delicate herbs that is best added at the end of cooking. Thyme, oregano and rosemary are best added at the start of cooking with the oil.

To store parsley; sage; oregano; and dill just rinse them and store them in the freezer in a plastic bag.

On growing mint, my big hint is to grow it in a pot. Mint can easily become a huge pest in your herb garden, if you don’t stay after it. Mint can easily be classified as a weed.

The flavor of food is a key factor in the choice of the food and the enjoyment of that food. Have a little fun experimenting with herbs and spices; you may discover that you not only increase the nutritional value of your meals, but the enjoyment of home cooking at the same time.