What does your spice cabinet look like? If you’re like the majority of Americans who say they cook at least three meals a week at home, you probably have the top 10: salt, pepper, garlic, oregano, parsley, cinnamon, sage, some kind of Italian blend, an onion salt or powder, and, to round out the list, something like Accent. (These are listed in the order of preference.)
If you ask a chef — someone who prepares food for wages — the top 10 might look like this: garlic, chives, thyme, rosemary, savory, chervil, nutmeg, basil, sage, margarum and so on.
Of course, the list also will include salt and pepper, but onion flavor — not so much. Well, you get the point.
The more people prepare food and live food, the more wide-ranging their choices of flavoring.
If you find your cabinet lacking in variety, try adding just one herb to your repertoire. If you have some of the basic herbs, but only use them once a year — let’s say sage for your Thanksgiving turkey and dressing — try experimenting with that herb during the rest of the year. Sage goes great with a pork roast, green beans or bean soup, for example.
Cutting back or eliminating salt becomes much easier when you have other choices available to you.
Certain herbs do better than others with specific foods:
Sage--chicken, turkey, pork
Fresh or dried
You’ve heard the saying, “fresh is best,” but in my opinion, dried is fine, and here’s why: You set yourself up for failure if you think you’re always going to have fresh around. Although, it is possible to keep fresh herbs growing on the kitchen window sill year-round, that’s a level of dedication most people don’t have time for. The thing you need to remember is that dried herbs are stronger in flavor than fresh leaf herbs, so, if the recipe calls for fresh and you have dried, substitute one-third dried for the amount called for.
Getting the most out of your herbs
Some herbs, such as basil, do not hold up to drying. These need to be used fresh or, in some cases, frozen.
Before adding dried herbs, crush them between your fingers to release the flavors.
Add herbs to your recipe at the beginning of the cooking process to allow their flavors to develop. Check the flavor and adjust seasonings before serving.
To store dried herbs, keep them away from heat and light. Put them in a cupboard or someplace other than right next to the stove.
Herbs lose much of their flavor within a year of opening the package or of drying them, so put an expiration date on them for best results.
When more is too much
When doubling a recipe, don’t double the herbs and spices. Instead increase them by 1-1/2 times the amount, and then taste, adding more if necessary.
Strongly flavored herbs like oregano can easily overpower milder herbs, such as thyme or basil. When you are constructing a dish, decide which flavor will be the central taste and build the others around it.
Herbs should be used to flavor food, not overpower it. I use the example of someone who claims not to like sage, but the real reason is the dressing always had too much sage, so they learned to equate the herb with the overpowering taste.
For the adventurous who have a limited amount of time, try mixing up a couple of blends. Almost all the grocery stores have herbs in bulk, and they often have spice shakers as well. Pick up one or two bottles and create some flavorful blends. Then experiment.
Don’t be afraid to use what many refer to as baking spices in your herb mixes. Used in a gentle fashion, they add depth to a variety of meat dishes, particularly roasts and stews.
A classic spice and herb blend is this Julia Child mixture of 2 teaspoons each ground bay leaves, cloves, mace, nutmeg, paprika and thyme; and 1 teaspoon each of allspice, cinnamon and savory; and 1 tablespoon ground white pepper. This makes about 1/2 cup. Store covered and away from light. Use a teaspoon to season a chicken, a roast, bean soup, cream soups and roasts.
If you like Mexican food, make a mix out of 1 tablespoon each chili powder, cayenne pepper, cumin, oregano, garlic powder, black pepper; and 1 teaspoon coriander and crushed red pepper flakes.
A classic French seasoning mix called Fines Herbes is equal amounts of chopped, dried tarragon, chervil, chives and parsley. This blend is good in herb biscuits or for roasting a chicken or Cornish hens.
2 cups flour
2 tsps. baking powder
1/4 cup butter
1/4 tsp. salt
3/4 cup buttermilk
1 Tbsp. Fines Herbes mix (see above)
Sift together flour and baking powder. Cut the butter in with pastry cutter or fork to form small crumbles. Add the buttermilk a little at a time until you have a workable dough. Turn out onto a floured counter and knead lightly, incorporating the Fines Herbes until workable enough to roll out into a rectangle 1/2-inch thick. Using a glass or a circular 2-inch cutter, cut out 12 biscuits. Place on paper-lined cookie sheet and bake at 375 F for about 10 to 12 minutes until lightly browned.
Do not overbeat the biscuits or they will become tough.
You also can use an ice cream scoop to drop these onto a cookie sheet.
Variation: Add 1/2 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese.