Here’s a little exercise…walk over to the spice cabinet next to the stove and pull out some dried herb tins. If the tins could win a spot on a public television antique show then it is time to go shopping. Their average shelf life is approximately six months and when cooking with dried herbs remember to add them early in the cooking process so that they can be adequately re-hydrated releasing all of their flavor.
What is an herb? Typically, an herb comes from the leafy part of a plant while a spice comes from the seed, bark or fruit. Herbs are available in dried and fresh forms and include basil, mint, chervil, oregano and thyme. When cooking with fresh herbs, it is best to add them towards the end of the cook time to maximize their color and flavor.
Below are some ideas of how to use some readily available herbs in home cooking:
Rosemary – There are over 20 different varieties including Salem, Tuscan Blue and Golden Grain. It has small, slender, silvery green leaves with a wonderfully piney, slightly sweet and strong scent. Mince up fresh rosemary stripped from the woody stems and add it to potatoes, lamb chops, roasted chicken or summer pasta salad. Soak the thicker stems in water and use them as flavorful skewers for scallops or shrimp on the grill.
Parsley – It has a fresh, vibrant and slightly warm flavor and is the go to herb for just about anything. Flat leaf (Italian) and curly are two popular varieties found in virtually every grocery store across Dallas. Add minced parsley leaves (no stems if they are too thick or firm) to salads, sauces, stews, rice, eggs or pasta. For a gourmet finishing touch sprinkle it on as a garnish for a nice punch of bright green color.
Cilantro – It is also referred to as Chinese parsley or coriander leaves and people tend to fall in one of two categories – love it or hate it. It is quite popular in Mexican, Thai and Indonesian cooking and has a tangy, slightly citrusy, verdant and fresh flavor. It can be used similarly to parsley by adding it to sauces, salads or curries and pairs well with fish and seafood, especially ceviches.
Basil – This garden king has a sweet, pungent smell and comes in over 30 varieties including mammoth, Genovese, purple, sweet and Thai basil. When it is cut fresh, there are powerful notes of anise, lemon and clove as well. Use the leaves whole, shredded or minced in salads, red sauces, pestos, pasta dishes and pizza.
Another great idea for fresh herb is to finely mince up whatever is hanging out in the refrigerator and stir it into soft, room temperature, unsalted butter. Spoon it into a large freezer bag and roll it into a tight log shape. Remove all the air and seal the bag. You now have what’s known as compound butter and can be kept in the freezer for several months. The next time pasta or a grilled steak is on the menu, add a slice or two of the herb butter for a special treat!
Stop by the Dallas Farmer's Market or check out Tom Spicer's place in Dallas for a wide variety of fresh herbs and check out these recipes for some additional ways to use herbs and spices.