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Frankly you’d have to be a dummy not to cook with herbs. Having said that, I pity the fools who think the only thing required to liven up food is salt but I can not blame them. They may never have been taught the pleasure found in actually eating something with taste. Don’t get me wrong I love salt but it’s not the only thing out there. Get ready for a crash course, Herbs-101.
Each culture has its own favorite herb. Being born in the Dominican Republic I can’t live without Cilantro. Italians revere Oregano. Indians must have curry. The French love parsley. And almost universally the garlic and onion tops the list though some might not consider them herbs. That’s a debate for another time. It is a matter of taste derived from what you’re used to and what you’re willing to allow your taste bud to experience.
I learned from my mother as all good cooks should. I watched her toss in handfuls of Cilantro, also known and Chinese Parsley, into a pot of black beans. The scent is so distinctive, so tantalizing, it draws you to the pot begging for a taste. Oh, yeah, it’s that good. She used it in almost every dish. Meat, chicken, pork, heck, she even sprinkled some into a baked ziti. I often kidded her that she could turn such a thoroughly Italian dish into a Caribbean wonder just by adding Cilantro. She took my kidding in stride and we ate it all up.
Cilantro can be used in Mexican, Caribbean and Chinese dishes but can be easily tucked into ordinary standards such as baked chicken or burgers. If you are not used to it, use it sparingly at first chopping it finely. This is a very easy herb to grow on a sunny windowsill or in the herb garden. Once you try it you’ll wonder how you ever got along without it. The spice Coriander also comes from the Cilantro plant. It is the seed that is called coriander while the leaves are the cilantro. Just thought you’d like to know.
Cumin is another herb used primarily in Mexican dishes. It give a distinctive taste to beans, chili and enchilada sauce. I add a little to ground beef for tacos to give it extra authenticity.
Garlic is an essential for everything I make. It adds spark to all it touches, from pasta to meat dishes. Garlic whether chopped coarsely and sauteed in butter or olive oil, smashed with the end of a cleaver and tossed into a stir-fry, sprinkled onto pizza and casseroles or whole cloves stuffed into the cavity of a roasting chicken it brings out flavors you never knew existed. Please, don’t fret about garlic breath. Chew on a nip of parsley and you’ll be kissable in no time.
The onion is in the same reverent category as garlic. What’s a burger without caramelized onions? Blah, that’s what. Liver, for those who like it, wouldn’t even be tolerable without onions. And who doesn’t like Onion soup? Chives and shallots are both in the onion family and can be used almost interchangeably according to your taste preference. I bow down to the onion as that which has given me my culinary power to bring my kids to the table without my having to call them.
I suppose like most people you bypass the lowly Black pepper shaker but have you ever cooked with it? Toss in a quarter teaspoon into braised beef, sprinkle it on chicken before dredging it in flour and frying it up or stirred into soups or stews black pepper can give a tiny kick to your taste buds. For those more adventurous among us crushed or powered red pepper will really wake you up. Of course, if you’re like my husband and my youngest boy you might not feel a thing. Only the burning hot peppers found in General Tao’s Chicken can get their attention, often by making tears leak out of their eyes. Some people really crave a thrill while they eat. I prefer things more sedate, but that’s just me.
I mentioned Oregano before and I cannot praise this enough. This isn’t as some might think only for Italian dishes but also is excellent in anything with meat, chicken, pork or lamb. Greek, Mexican and other cultures along with Italians use it generously. The combination of Onion, garlic, oregano and black pepper is so essential to me that I make my own season-all by mixing these in their crushed, powdered or granulated forms and placing them in a shaker jar to use willy-nilly on almost everything. No, I don’t add salt to my season-all. I use far less salt that way.
Dill is a feathery plant in my herb garden with a scent which brings to mind pickles. Yes, I’ve used dill for pickled cucumbers but it can also add a nice touch to baked salmon, squash and pumpkin dishes, braised chicken and salad dressings. I, at times, mix a bit of dill into ground beef to make dilly flavored burgers. Different, yes, but who wants to be bored with food?
Lemon thyme is a sweet-scented herb I love just to smell in my garden but it can be added to baked cod and snapper for a good zing. The regular Thyme can be used almost exactly like oregano if you prefer a milder taste. The same goes for Marjoram, or as some call it, the poor man’s or wild oregano.
Basil is a pungent plant which goes together with tomatoes so well I don’t think they are allowed any other way. Well, that’s what it seems like, anyway. The combo is so exquisite I often times make a salad of only garden fresh tomatoes, sliced fresh mozzarella cheese and freshly picked Basil leaves chopped and generously sprinkled over top. I drizzle on Spanish olive oil which has a distinctively different taste to other olive oils, and that with some crusty Italian bread is a light yet scrumptious meal. Basil is the main ingredient for the favorite Pesto. There are many kinds of basil from cinnamon flavored to spicy Thai all of which can find some use in your cooking if you have a bit of daring and adventure in you.
Spearmint is one of those herbs that is so common one might forget to think of it. But it now comes in so many varieties, lemon, pineapple, chocolate just to name a few, that you can find all sorts of things to use it on. My all-time favorite is simply to stick a sprig into my iced tea but I’ve also tossed chopped leaves into summer fresh fruit salads for an even fresher taste thrill. Chewing on a few mint leaves will counter any onion breath and leave your tongue tingling. I also make extremely soothing hot teas with mint by steeping them in hot water. Crystalized mint leaves make pretty additions to decorative cakes. Versatile herb to say the least.
Sage and its cousin Savory are used mostly for bread stuffing for turkey but they can be used for so many other dishes I couldn’t begin to name them all. Lamb, chicken, gravies and sauces all can benefit from their flavor.
Rosemary is a very pretty plant growing in temperate places like a shrub. It can get rather big so clipping it consistently for use in the kitchen does it good. It is easily dried and looks a bit like tiny pine needles. It is a favorite amongst French and Italian cooking enthusiasts but be forewarned. It is strong. A little goes a long way and some, like me, don’t take well to it in large quantities. Go easy until you get the swing of it.
Parsley is an essential for some cooks but I never liked the flavor myself. Doesn’t mean I shouldn’t mention it though. I know it has wide appeal used in many Italian, French and American dishes and possibly others. I just never got a taste for it. Sorry.
There are also my favorite spices cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg and ginger which I prize for baking. I realize they don’t count as herbs but ginger is often used in vegetable stir-fries, cinnamon in savory meat dishes and allspice in Chili. That might be just me but it tastes funky, new and makes you say “Mmm” and isn’t that the point?
I hope this crash course will at the very least start you well on your way to a culinary adventure which may continue throughout your life. There are many other herbs I haven’t mentioned but these might spur you on to try others on your own. After all, what’s life if not taken with a bit of spice, or herb for that matter? Eat well!
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