Using Herbs and Spices: Continue the Adventure

Previous posts talked about taking the plunge and using herbs and spices outside our comfort zones.  Lot’s of tips and tricks were given to make it more comfortable and less agonizing to take that plunge.

It may take a little time and effort to get going, but you’ll be hooked once you start using herbs and spices more regularly and adventurously. And talk about a cheap thrill. In tough economic times, what could be nicer than to enjoy the comforting salve of a meal brightened exquisitely with the simple addition of an herb, either purchased for pennies or grown for free in our gardens or kitchens?

The best way to keep your adventure going:  Keep an eye out for other recipes featuring whatever new herbs or spices you target. This will be easier than you think: I remember how, with each new car we got over the years, we suddenly “noticed” that everybody seemed to be driving the same kind of car! By our third car, we finally realized this phenomenon was an optical illusion. Vehicles like ours had always been out there; we just began to “see” them once we became an owner. Happily, the same will happen once your attention is focused on a particular herb or spice. Suddenly, you’ll begin running across all sorts of recipes that use it.

But don’t stop with your initial one or two new herbs. Continue working up the confidence to extend even further, trying ever more daring combinations and new and more interesting herbs and spices.

As you begin experimenting, watch for patterns that emerge: how do recipes combine herbs, spices and flavorings? What types of meats, vegetables, grains or beans are used as backdrops? Does an herb or spice taste best in small amounts or large?

Speaking of patterns, one things you’ll begin to notice are “Herb Families.” These are helpful because if you like one member of a family, you may well like (and you’ve probably already had) some of the others. Here are a couple examples, by no means scientific, just to get you started:

  • Italian: Basil, oregano, marjoram, thyme
  • Indian: Coriander, cumin seeds, mustard, chili peppers, turmeric
  • Simon and Garfunkel: Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme (like the song, if you can remember back that far)
  • Sweet: cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cardamom
  • Savory: Rosemary, thyme, sage, bay leaves
  • A little more unique—the “fines herbes:” parsley, chervil, tarragon and chives
  • Mexican: Chili peppers, oregano, cumin

As an example of a pattern, you’ll see dishes with chili powder are often complemented nicely with a sprinkling of fresh cilantro and lime juice. Basil, mint and cilantro are very often combined in Thai food–an unlikely but nevertheless superb flavor trio.

Once you begin noticing these patterns, you’re set to take an exciting step: Getting creative and seasoning dishes on your own, without a recipe to follow. That’s how the fun continues without end!  Check out how I transferred the flavor family from Julee Rosso’s Beef and Eggplant Stew to a vegetarian version.

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4 Responses

  1. […] Tomorrow:  Using Herbs and Spices–Continue the Adventure […]

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  2. Love this way of thinking about herbs, families. Probably makes sense as specific regions favor flavors that are available and thrive.
    Hey, what about storage? Do you reuse those little round jars or some sort of other system? Temperature an issue? Not above the range, for instance?
    Love learning about foods.
    LuluMom

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  3. […] the subject of creativity, an earlier post talked about “flavor families”and how paying attention to them paves the way to more creative use of herbs and spices.  […]

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  4. […] Now keep an eye out for more recipes with your new ingredient.  This will happen with surprising frequency.  Looking for particular recipes has a way of drawing them out of the woodwork, as I explained in the post on recipes with targeted spices. […]

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