Herbs and spices are one of the easiest ways to make the food you cook more interesting. Just a spoonful of these aromatic plants will lend the flavors of the world to your meal. For example, the addition of basil, garlic and oregano will give almost any dish an Italian feel. The seasonings in most recipes are flexible, and I encourage you to to use the herb and spice descriptions below to find more appealing combinations.
The aromatic oils in herbs and spices steadily evaporate and change with time, so it’s a good idea to buy herbs and spices from businesses that have high turnover to ensure they are still potent. If you have a bunch of ancient herbs and spices in your kitchen, toss them and start over with a fresh collection. A 1/4 cup of fresh seasonings should cost more than a couple of dollars, and you can focus on just a couple at a time and use them abundantly to get a solid sense of their flavor. If you can’t find good quality herbs in your area, two great online resources are www.penzeys.com or www.mountainroseherbs.com.
If you have a sunny balcony or patio, many herbs are easy to grow in a bright corner in a pot. Mint can be invasive, and mint and basil need moist soil to thrive. Woody herbs like thyme, oregano, rosemary and marjoram are more drought-tolerant and only need water every other week or so, depending the temperature and the size of the pot. These herbs are native to the Mediterranean and need to be covered or brought inside if temperatures freeze.
In addition to adding flavor to food, many herbs and spices are highly antimicrobial, and they are used abundantly in the food preservation chapter in this book. Herbs and spices are also utilized in many healing traditions around the world. While they can be beneficial, some herbs and spices may also be harmful for certain health conditions. While the amount of seasonings used in these recipes is very small and safe in most cases, you should consult your doctor, and research possible contraindications if you are taking medication, suffer from a serious health condition, or are pregnant.
This book includes possible health benefits of certain herbs and spices based on studies and traditional herbal medicine, however this information is educational purposes only, and is not intended to diagnose, treat or cure illness.
Herbs are essentially the leaves of aromatic plants. Juicy, green-stemmed herbs such as basil, cilantro and parsley can be enjoyed fresh, and as much as a ½ cup may be added to dish. More concentrated herbs with woody stems like thyme, oregano or rosemary are best used dried and used by the spoonful. All herb measurements in this book are for dried herbs unless otherwise specified. Substitute 1 tablespoon of fresh herbs for every teaspoon of dried if you wish, with the exception of rosemary, which you should use 1 tablespoon of fresh for ½ teaspoon of dried herb.
Below are details about the herbs that appear frequently in the recipes in this book.
Basil has a slightly sweet, licorice-like flavor. Basil is used in Chinese and South Asian cuisine, is used as a garnish in the Vietnamese soup known as pho, and is frequently paired with tomatoes in Italian cuisine. It can be used raw, cooked or dried, and it is an essential player in a dried herb blend known as Italian seasoning, which is used frequently in this book.
Bay Leaf is a tough, leathery leaf which is often added whole to simmering broths and sauces and discarded before serving to give a sophisticated herbal flavor. Bay leaf tree is related to the tree that produces cinnamon bark, avocado, as well as the California bay laurel tree. Bay leaf is native to the Mediterranean cuisine but works well in a variety of dishes.
Cilantro is used in Indian, Chinese, Thai and Mexican cuisine. The flavor diminishes when cooked, so it is often used raw in spring rolls, salads and in guacamole. Cilantro has a distinctive citrusy flavor, but it can taste soapy to some people due to a genetic trait. Coriander is the seed of the cilantro plant. Cilantro is in the same family as fennel, dill, carrot, parsnip, parsley, cumin and celery.
Marjoram is closely related to oregano, and has a similar flavor, however it can be enjoyed fresh as a garnish without the bite. Fresh marjoram leaves are great mixed in salad and lends an Italian flavor to omelets. Marjoram is related to basil, mint, thyme and sage.
Oregano gives a distinctive Italian hint to tomatoes, meat, beans and vegetables. Fresh oregano is very spicy and is best enjoyed cooked. Oregano is strongly antimicrobial.
Parsley has a fresh green flavor that compliments red meat and is an excellent garnish for green salads and eggs. Parsley is very nutritious and a great addition to green smoothies.
Peppermint is delightful in savory as well as sweet dishes. Add minced peppermint leaves to fruit salads, green salads and spring rolls. A sauce made with mint is traditionally enjoyed with roast lamb. Fresh peppermint is featured in the mint smoothie recipe.
Rosemary has a pervasive smell and compliments gamey, hearty foods such as lamb,pork, poultry and potatoes. A sprig of fresh rosemary can be added to braised dishes and stews. A little rosemary goes a long way.
Sage is a favorite herb for chicken andis used to season traditionalThanksgiving turkey and stuffing. It’s also used to season pork and bean dishes. Ornamental varieties of sage are popular in drought prone gardens, but are not recommended for culinary use.
Thyme is wonderful in chicken soup and on broiled meat. Dried thyme is excellent mixed with ground turkey, which can be bland on its own. A study comparing the antimicrobial strength of 14 different herbs against common respiratory tract pathogens showed thyme essential oil to be among the top three most effective herbs, along with cinnamon bark and lemon grass. You might consider eating some chicken soup seasoned with thyme and drinking a cup of cinnamon tea next time you have a cold.
Spices come from the seeds, fruit, roots or bark of plants and trees. Most spices tend to be hot, sweet, earthy, pungent or a combination of these flavors. Most spices can be purchased in either powdered or whole form.
Cinnamon (bark)is both spicy and is naturally sweet without sugar. It can make foods more dessert-like or can add an interesting contrast to savory dishes. Sprinkle a little cinnamon on steamed winter squash, yams or hot cereal to make them more exciting. Cinnamon is featured in the preserved lemon recipe, which is fabulous on roasted chicken. It is easy to make a herbal teal by simmering a stick of cinnamon in two cups of water.
Cumin (seed)is an ancient spice with an earthy flavor that is popular throughout the world, particularly in Middle Eastern, Indian and Latin American cuisine. Cumin is found in curry, is excellent in guacamole, and delicious on seared salmon. Add cumin to beans, lentils, meat and sautéed greens. Cumin combines well with garlic, turmeric and oregano. I tend to use cumin liberally and frequently.
Coriander (seed) has a similar flavor to cumin, but has a lighter, more citrusy quality reminiscent of cilantro leaves. Coriander is found in garam masala, a traditional Indian spice blend, and can be used in meat rubs and sautéed dishes.
Garlic (bulb)is a popular and powerful antimicrobial spice. It is used in sauerkraut and other fermented foods to prevent the growth of undesirable bacteria. Raw garlic can burn, so always dilute it with oil or avocado if you wish add it to dressings or dips. Add garlic, olive oil and salt to fruity vinegars for delicious meat glaze. Cooked garlic has a slightly sweet and flavor and is delicious in soups and hot dishes. Garlic is closely related to onion.
Ginger (rhizome)is very hot, and is a common folk remedy for nausea.A quick ginger ale recipe is included in the beverage section. Fresh minced ginger and garlic add Chinese flavor to sautéed dishes. Boiled ginger makes a soothing, spicy tea for sore throats, and a piece of ginger in smoothies gives a nice kick.
Mustard (seed)has a pungent, slightly nutty quality that is delicious in meat dishes and combines well with other spices. I particularly like powdered mustard with sautéed greens and garlic. Raw mustard seed is very hot, much like arugula, horseradish and wasabi radish, all of which are members of the cabbage family. The leaves of the mustard plant are edible and are also quite spicy. The yellow sandwich spread known as prepared mustard contains powdered mustard seed, vinegar and powdered turmeric.
Paprika (fruit)is made from a variety of dried chili pepper, and lends sweetness and a beautiful red color to food. Certain varieties can be quite hot. Sprinkle a little paprika on guacamole, omelets and broiled fish or mix with other spices and rub on meat before cooking for color and flavor. Paprika combines well with most other herbs and spices. Smoked paprika is divine.
Black Pepper (seed) or ground pepper is in not related to chili pepper, which is the fruit of a bushy nightshade. Black pepper is best freshly ground and added to food just before serving, often with salt. Whole peppercorns can also added to simmering broths in a spice ball for a distinctive kick.
Turmeric (rhizome) is used medicinally to reduce inflammation, and is closely related to ginger. Turmeric is very pungent, and is best combined with other spices such as cumin and garlic, and is found in yellow curry and prepared mustard. Turmeric gives a distinctive tang to meat rubs, lentils and roasted potatoes and gives everything a golden yellow hue. Turmeric is usually sold as a powder, but it can also be bought as a fresh root, or “rhizome” which can be minced and added to food.