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Herbs and Spices – the Essence of Flavor

Date:

In any number of cookbooks and recipes you will find advice on which herbs go with what. I’m not going to take that route.

While there certainly are marriages that are tried and tested,

such as tomatoes and basil or lamb and rosemary, the reality is

that the use of herbs is every bit as much a matter of personal

taste as any other aspect of cooking.

Consequently, what I want you to do is to sample as many herbs as you can and try to marry up the flavors with the foods you are familiar with. That’s not as difficult as it sounds. Just close your eyes and think about it.

You will find, after a while, that you will instinctively know

which flavoring to use, when to use it and how much of it you

need.

Do this with both fresh and dried herbs. Crush a little between

finger and thumb and smell it. This is much more important than

your sense of taste.

Something magical will happen. You will come to realize that

fresh herbs are not better than dried ones, they simply impart a

different flavor. There are two major exceptions to this.

One is mint, which has a strange musty flavor when dried, and

the other is chives, which are so delicate that the flavor rarely survives cooking. Using dried chives is therefore pretty

pointless.

One other point to watch out for is that some dried herbs can

remained inedible even after thorough cooking. Rosemary is a very good example of this and needs to be filtered out of any liquids in which it has been used as a flavoring.

In any case, fresh or dried, it is better to chop up herbs such

as this before using them.

Using herbs in cooking

Many herbs, such as basil and coriander (sometimes called

Chinese parsley and cilantro in the USA) are terrific simply torn up in salads. Note that I said torn up and not cut; only cut herbs if you intend to cook them.

It’s important to recognize that some herbs lose flavor with

extended cooking, even in their dried state. Fortunately it’s

fairly easy to spot which those are.

Tough leaved herbs such as bay can be safely added at the start

of cooking time and will maintain their flavor. In fact, they

may need to be in the food for as long as possible in order for

their flavor to fully develop.

Herbs with light and delicate leaves, however, will lose their

flavor very quickly once in contact with heat. To use basil in a soup, for example, you needed to add it, not to the hot liquid

as you might expect, but rather to the warm plate you intend to

serve the soup in. Then pour the soup on top of it.

Alternatively, simply sprinkle it on top of the soup and leave

it there. It will make an attractive decoration and impart a

wonderful aroma as you take the soup to the table.

What’s that? You want to use a tureen and server the soup at

the table? No problem. Sprinkle the herb in its raw state on top of the soup anyway. The effect, when you remove the lid, will be the same. Just stir it in as you serve.

The spices of life

Most people, including most professional chefs, use spices that

have already been prepared.

That is to say they have been ground up, ready to use. The main

exception to this is probably black pepper, which you should

always grind yourself. Not difficult. You can buy a pepper

grinder just about anywhere and the peppercorns are available in any supermarket.

Of course you can, if you wish, go to the trouble of buying a

pestle and mortar, tracking down the raw spices and then grind

them yourself.

If you do this, you will be richly rewarded with deep and

penetrating flavors. You may also find that you get tired of doing it very quickly. However I would highly recommend it for a special occasion, or a wet weekend in Bargo.

Generally speaking, though, the shop bought variety are fine,

providing you don’t keep them hanging around in a cupboard for too long. They will lose their flavor.

As with herbs, it’s very important that you learn the taste and

smell of each individual spice and, uniquely, its pungency. This

last item is one that is frequently overlooked, even by

experienced cooks.

Just about everybody is aware that chili needs to be used

carefully for obvious reasons. But for some reason they do not pay the same attention to turmeric – which is quite delicate – and, say, star anise which can strangle an incautious palate at a hundred paces.

Both give themselves away, however, if you simply take the lid

off the jar and sniff them.

Mixing spice

Generally speaking, it is a rare thing to add more than a couple

of spices to the same dish. The obvious exceptions to this are

Asian and Indian dishes, where the carefully blended mix of

flavors will be both traditional and subtle.

You have a choice with these. You either follow a recipe, or

you use one of the many excellent pre-prepared pastes that are now available. I tend towards the latter choice, although I do

still mix my own spices from time to time.

You should do the same. It’s fun and you learn a great deal

about which spices mix well and which are best kept as an

individual flavoring.

However you choose to cook with spice, treat it with respect and

always add it a little at a time, tasting as you go.

Remember also, that the flavor will change with the length of

cooking time. It may deepen, or it may lessen in its effect.

Only experience will teach you what each individual spice does and how quickly it does it.

One excellent way to test the effect of adding spice, is to cook

your rice with something like cardamom seeds. These come in

little pods that needed to be cracked open and the seeds extracted.

Do this by placing them on a stable surface, place the flat of a

cleaver blade over them and apply a bit of pressure. They will

open easily. Use about two pods for one dish of rice.

You could also add some turmeric to the same rice dish. This

will turn it yellow and also add a subtle flavor which complements the pungency of the cardamom. Call it saffron rice if you like, very few people will be able to tell the difference.

Rice is a good way to test any number of flavorings. Personally

I find it a bit boring on its own, and I frequently add

something to it to jazz it up a little. Experiment. You will be pleasantly surprised at what a difference a new flavor can make.

You will also be pleasantly surprised at your growing

reputation.


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