For those of you who are now, or have been cutting calories and fat from your diets… herbs and spices are a wonderful way to bypass unwanted salt, butter or oil in foods.
To get the freshest herbs possible, nothing beats planting your own herb garden. It’s also convenient and more cost effective.
I like to plant parsley, cilantro, thyme, basil, and rosemary but many more are available at most garden centers during the growing seasons. Thyme and rosemary are great plants for growing in pots instead of the ground. They will also last through the winter on your sunny windowsill for a year long supply.
Spices are aromatic seasonings that come from the bark, (cinnamon), buds, (cloves), fruit, (paprika), roots, (ginger), or seeds, (nutmeg), of plants. Herbs are the leafy parts of plants such as basil, mint, or oregano.
For storage, spices should be kept in a cool dark cabinet. Heat and light will facilitate deterioration. It is generally recommended to discard any spices more than six months old. Herbs should be wrapped in a damp paper towel or cloth and then placed in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Or, you can trim the stems of some herbs like parsley and cilantro and place them in a glass of water in the fridge. The sooner you use fresh herbs the better as they rapidly lose their potency once harvested.
Fresh herbs are usually best when added to a dish near the end of cooking or even after it has been removed from the heat. Overcooking will dissolve their fragrance. The exception is preparations that are not cooked such as salsa, dips, and marinades. Adding the herbs at the beginning and allowing the food item to rest will give the herbs time to infiltrate the base ingredients.
Many spices, since they are dried, can be added at the beginning of cooking since heat and moisture is needed to release their essential oils.
Never bought and used fresh herbs? Believe me, the small amount of effort involved in washing and chopping fresh herbs will be repaid magnanimously. It gives your food an amazing, fresh taste. Much better than using dried!
Most spices on the other hand, do not necessitate the same degree of freshness as herbs and are perfectly suitable dried. Many for that matter only come in dried form. There are some, however, nutmeg being the quintessential example, that are best whole and not ground. Do not be tempted to buy the large jars of spices to save money unless you will use them within six months. An abundance of insipid spices is not a bargain!
There are many cookbooks that publish helpful lists for perfect pairings. Classic pairings include rosemary or thyme with lamb, dill with salmon, basil with tomato products, etc. But combining knowledge of standard gustatory pairings with creativity and your own taste works best.
Here’s a few: Steam your asparagus and then add lemon juice and chopped chervil. Braise your carrots in low fat chicken broth and then sprinkle them with fresh mint, parsley or cinnamon. Chicken breasts go great with rosemary, paprika, or sage.
My favorite way of employing spices is in rubs for meat. A rub is basically a dry marinade. For example, brush both sides of a steak or pork chop with olive oil. Then liberally apply a mixture of salt, black pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, thyme, paprika, and cayenne powder. Push in the rub with your fingers or a fork, allow it to rest for 10 minutes, and then sauté, broil, or grill the meat. Yum!
Adding fresh herbs and spices make up a more colorful, cheerful plate, and the more colorful, the healthier it is.
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