Using Herbs and Spices–Outside the Comfort Zone

Taking the Plunge into a New, Spicy-Herbalish Adventure

I was throwing together a new stew recipe this morning. As I added the paprika and coriander I wondered why I used those two spices so rarely.

No doubt it has to do with we humans being creatures of habit. And when it comes to getting stuck in a rut, cooking is one of the easiest ones to get stuck in. Racing into the kitchen each night, who has time to flip through a cookbook for new inspiration? So we fall back on our same old standbys that use the same few herbs and spices.

As a kitchen coach, a request I hear a lot is, “Can you help me learn to use herbs and spices?” It seems there are a fair number of people use herbs and spices only rarely or are uncomfortable venturing beyond a few basics like basil, cinnamon and oregano.

That of course, is a misfortune that borders on tragic! Herbs and spices are one of the quickest, cheapest and most effective ways to take a meal from ordinary and ho hum to extraordinary and extremely enjoyable. What’s more, they are practically calorie-less! Could you ask for more?

So how do we get ourselves to take that sometimes uncomfortable step into a more interesting herb and spice zone? Begin by just being open to an spicy-herbalish experience. I get inspired most by fresh herbs, especially those in my garden and at the farmer’s market. This year, for instance, my garden boasts some lemon balm that I planted on a lark. I recently dared myself to try a nibble—and thank goodness. Now I am motivated to use its pungently rich lemon flavor in something.  (I’ll share a recipe later.)

I also get inspired by recipes that call for a new or rarely used flavorings—as with this morning’s stew recipe. I would normally default to my usual parsley and thyme combo. But Julee Rosso’s recipe for Beef Stew with Eggplant* had me combining coriander and paprika with cinnamon, allspice and cayenne pepper! Who wudda thunk that such a wild combination would make such an intriguingly delicious stew?

Other ways to instigate an herbalish, spicey experience:

  • Treat yourself to a small adventure in the bulk section of a health foods store or an actual spice store. Look at the colors and textures of the herbs and spices. For any that look interesting, open the canister and take a whiff of the fragrance (but stay back and avoid breathing into or near the contents!) See if a couple options don’t call out for experimentation.
  • Is there a friend or family member whose cooking you like? No doubt they would be honored and delighted to recommend a favorite or two. If they make a particular dish you love, be sure to ask what herbs and spices it features—and get the recipe while you’re at it.
  • Check out the herbs and spices of a cuisine you like. Greek, Moroccan, Italian and Indian, for instance, each use a unique set of spices and herbs.
  • Finally, pay attention at restaurants. For any meal you particularly like, don’t be bashful about querying the chef on the herbs and spices that make it so good.

Once you’ve settled on one or two options that deserve experimentation, what’s next? You’ve likely seen charts that list all the herbs and spices, along with the kinds of foods they go best with. There’s a good one in the 1997 edition of Joy of Cooking. Here is another good online version that includes some interesting history:  

While these charts can be a helpful way to get started, I find it more useful to actually find a recipe or two from a cookbook or other source that I trust. Actually making recipes with an herb or spice is how I learn what foods they work with and how they taste when combined and cooked in a dish.

Finding recipes that utilize a particular herb or spice is not hard with the Internet. You’ll get dozens if not hundreds of search results. The hard part lies in plucking the right recipe for your circumstances out of the plethora of possibilities.

Tomorrow’s post will share a number of tricks and tips to help winnow your search results. Until then, here is the takeaway thought for today: At some point you just gotta take the plunge. That’s what it means to get out of a comfort zone—you take a little risk, but gain a whole lot in the way of fun, interest and excitement.

And for goodness’ sake, what’s the worst that can happen? You make a dish that you absolutely hate. So you pitch it and order takeout. Not exactly the kind of downside that qualifies for “end of the world” status!

To further put things in perspective, consider that there’s maybe a five percent chance of this risk occurring. That means there’s a 95 percent chance that you’ll be rewarded with a meal that is delightfully and tantalizingly different! So even though it can be unnerving to step out on a limb and try something new and different, I think you’ll agree that it’s a completely reasonable—and worthwhile—risk to take.

Tomorrow:  Six Tricks and Tips for a Successful Spice Adventure

Want a little more encouragement and help to brighten your food life? I provide kitchen coaching via phone and email. Helping busy people put pizzazz back into their daily mealtime routines is one of the services I offer. Check it out.

*Beef Stew with Eggplant, recipe from Julee Rosso’s Great Good Food, p. 487.


3 Responses

  1. Hi, what a great article! Excellent tips. I created my Jane Spice food and spice blog as a way to help folks combat their anxiety in the kitchen around how to use spices in everyday cooking.


  2. […] and Spices: More on Flavor Families Posted on May 11, 2009 by Mary Collette Rogers This multiple-entry post on herbs and spices was sparked by Julee Rosso’s recipe for Beef Stew with Eggplant (Great Good Food, p. 487).  Its unusual […]


  3. […] always created custom spice combinations for my vegetable sides, and even wrote a series on how to become an herb and spice adventurer.  This summer, however, I discovered an equally fun (and much less intimidating) approach in […]


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