The pungent aroma of herbs and spices add a tantalising taste bud sensation to most dishes. Even some sweet foods are improved with the addition of a complementary spice. Herbs and spices may be added to almost any savoury dishes, from the basic addition of chopped chives in creamy scrambled eggs, to a selection of spices in a tasty curry.
While most spices are purchased ready ground or suited to a pestle and mortar, nothing beats the flavour of fresh herbs over dried. A useful tip is to freeze favourite herbs to retain their freshness out of season, rather than relying on the less tasty dried versions. Many herbs are easy to cultivate on a window sill or outdoors. They may be grown from seed or purchased as plants. The most popular herbs used for cooking include basil, mint, sage, lemon sage, oregano, bay leaves, rosemary and thyme.
Basil may be used in a variety of ways and does not always need cooking. Fresh basil leaves soaked in olive oil enhance the flavour of fresh tomatoes and mozzarella cheese, while chopped basil added to a fresh salad is a wonderful touch. Fresh leaves, added last thing to a pan of freshly cooked homemade tomato soup, add a touch of colour and delicacy to the soup. Basil also marries well with most Italian style sauces.
Sage can be used for far more than a traditional stuffing. It goes particularly well with pork dishes. Oregano is a traditional staple of Greek cooking and is found in many dishes. It tops grilled meats, cheese, and fries, as well as being included in many oven based dishes containing meat or vegetables. Bay leaves enhance a hearty stew. Rosemary marries extremely well with lamb dishes as well as adding flavour to shepherd’s pie. Thyme rubbed bread drizzled with olive oil and toasted is a great side-dish. Mint can be used in many ways. Add the leaves to a pan of new potatoes, sorbets, and dips.
Where would the cook be without garlic? The wonderfully pungent bulb can be used in so many dishes but the sheer delight of garlic roasted in the oven until it turns into a delicious puree cannot be surpassed. Many meals benefit from the addition of garlic: add it to fried prawn, creamy chicken; pan fried steak; sauces; and oven cooked meats.Garlic, along with oregano and chillies, is a great pizza topping.
Spices add a touch of the Orient to ones cooking. Popular spices include curry powder and curry leaves; chillies; mustard seeds: cayenne pepper; paprika; peppercorns; cumin; juniper; ginger; and coriander. The important thing to remember when cooking with spices is to taste frequently as one cooks to ensure the dish is not too hot to eat. Palates vary enormously in their tolerance to spice. Recipes for Indian and Thai curries will indicate how much spice should be added to a dish.
The addition of crushed juniper berries to a simple cabbage dish provides a delicious taste. Mustard seeds can be fried alongside meat to spice up the taste. Whole peppercorns can be added to a stew, while crushed peppercorns really bring out the flavour of strawberries. Ginger goes well in Chinese stir fries and curries but can also be added to marmalade to give a real tang.
The adventurous cook keeps the kitchen well stocked with a variety of herb and spices which offer a taste sensation far superior to bland and basic dishes. Experimenting pays dividends and is sure to bring compliments to the chef.