Spicing up your Meals with Herbs and Spices
The transition to healthy eating is not always easy, so learning to season with herbs and spices can be a tremendous help, particularly if cutting salt from your diet. Even a simple dish becomes special and elegant with the addition of some favorite herbs and spices. The fine art of seasoning is not complicated when you use a few guidelines. As with many art forms, appreciate the process and you are more likely to appreciate the results.
Herbs: These are the flower buds and leaves of plants and are much more delicate than spices. Herbs can be stored for about six months to one year after which they loose their flavor and color.
Spices: These are taken from parts of the plant richest in flavor- stems, barks, seeds, or roots. Spices can be purchased either whole or ground and stored for up to three years before losing their flavor.
Storage: Store dried herbs and spices at room temperature away from heat, light and moisture. Fresh herbs, such as parsley, cilantro and dill can last over a week when stored in the refrigerator. Place in a wide mouth glass jar, fill with water and place a loose bag over top. Change the water every two days and they will remain crisp.
Salt sometimes enhances flavor, but excessive salt can easily drown out the delicate flavors and leach out important nutrients from vegetables.
Add whole spices at the start of cooking to allow their flavor to permeate the food.
Add ground spices midway through cooking; always start off with small amounts when using hot spices.
When blending herbs with dressings or sauces that will not be cooked, blend a few hours before needed to let flavors meld.
To release the flavor of dried herbs, crumble them between your fingers to release their aroma before adding them to your dish.
To use fresh herbs, when the recipe calls for dried, you can use one tablespoon of chopped fresh herbs for every teaspoon of dried herbs.
Some herbs and spices compliment each other well. They form “flavor families” and can be used together to enhance flavor. Here are some winning flavor combinations.
Sweet – allspice, anise, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg. Use in breads and desserts, especially fruit based pies and fruit breads.
Hot – chili peppers, cilantro, cumin, garlic, onion. Fresh cilantro is best and has a unique flavor and is used to cool down hot spices. These flavors are must in Mexican, Cajun and Spanish dishes. Use in seafood, poultry, soups, salads, marinades and in bean dishes.
Spicy – cinnamon, ginger, pepper, star anise. These have a zing to them and are wonderful in Chinese stir fry, soups, poultry, meats, seafood dishes, and whole grain dishes such as stir fried brown rice.
Pungent – celery seed, chili peppers, cumin, curry, ginger, black pepper. Curry blended here in America is not necessarily hot by itself. You can adjust the “heat” to your taste by adjusting the amount of chili peppers. Use these spices in poultry, shellfish, meats, beans, whole grains, and vegetable dishes.
Herbal – basil, marjoram, rosemary, thyme and sage. These herbs are the basis for a great tomato sauce. Use these herbs for flavoring sauces, gravies, poultry, soups, herb breads and muffins.
Cuisines of Other Cultures
What better way to experiment with unfamiliar herbs and spices than to try a “cultural dish”. Using these spice combinations can turn a simple grain or bean dish into a culinary tour around the world.
Cajun – This cuisine is spicy and robust. Seafood is the entree of choice in Cajun cooking and only your imagination would limit the combinations. Some of the exciting seasonings used are: allspice, bay leaves, cayenne, chili, cloves, dill seed, garlic, lemon, onion, mustard seed, oregano, paprika, peppercorns, thyme and Tabasco sauce. Also cinnamon and nutmeg are used in desserts.
Italian – Italians use the aromatic herbs that grow in abundance in Italy. These are basil, fennel, garlic and rosemary. Southern Italian cooking enjoys using more oregano. Other spices used are bay leaf, chives, dill leaves, marjoram, tarragon and thyme. To add hotness to dishes, use cayenne, crushed red pepper, curry powder, Tabasco, ginger and dried mustard.
Mexican – Lively and full of spice, Mexican cooking is becoming increasingly popular throughout the world. As in Italian cooking, the dishes reflect the fresh and colorful produce found in local markets. The most common and popular herbs and spices are: basil, cayenne, chilies, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, fennel, mint, nutmeg, oregano, sage and thyme.
Indian – Indian cuisine is beautiful, delicious and healthful. A wide range of fruits, nuts, vegetables, legumes and spices contribute to the variety of traditional dish; many dishes are hot and spicy, while others are sweet. Curry is not a spice in of itself. It is a combination of anywhere from 7 to l6 spices. What makes the curry hot is the addition of cayenne. Some curries will be hotter depending on the cooks’ preference. Most curry mixes you find at your local grocer are mild. If you want a dish hotter without adding more curry, add ¼ tsp. or more of cayenne pepper.
Hot spices have a cooling affect on the body, that’s why they are always popular in hot climates and you will often find them used in cuisines of those countries.
Favorite flavors in Indian cooking are: allspice, anise seed, cardamom, chilies, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, curry, fenugreek, garam masala, garlic, ginger, mace, nutmeg, mustard seed, pepper, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, turmeric (gives curry the yellow color).
Oriental – Well balanced, high in nutrients and low in calories, Oriental cuisine emphasizes grains and vegetables, and is thought by some to represent the diet of the future. Oriental dishes are subtly or boldly spiced, depending on the regional cuisine. Some of the wonderful herbs and spices found in this cuisine are: anise, cilantro, chives, cinnamon, curry, five spice, garlic, ginger, ginseng, kelp, lemon grass, licorice root, mustard, parsley and sesame seeds.