The use of herbs and spices almost coincides with human history. It certainly predates written history. The Chinese were said to be among the first to discover the many uses of herbs and spices, both for medicinal purposes and as flavor enhancers in cooking. Chrysanthemums were originally grown for their medicinal properties and were a valued ingredient in a Taoist elixir. Today in China, chrysanthemums are still used in soups, salads, and teas, as well as in beautiful floral displays.
A first-century cookbook, attributed to Apicus, a Roman epicurean, features the use of herb combinations as flavor enhancers. One recipe for cooking artichokes includes fresh fennel, cilantro, mint, and rue, pounded together, then reinforced with pepper, lovage, honey, oil, and liquamen (a strong fish-based sauce that Romans used in place of salt).
Spices have been highly prized throughout history; by the ninth century, they were considered as valuable as gold or silver. Cloves and mace sold for about $18 a pound, and pepper was sold by the individual peppercorn.
Around 1699, an Englishman named John Evelyn wrote a book listing seventy-three salad herbs with details for using each herb. The book's title, Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets, illustrates the traditional classification of herbs. "Sallets" were salad herbs, "pot herbs" were those cooked in large cooking pots, "sweet herbs" were flavorings, and "simplex" were medicinal herb compounds.
HERBS VS. SPICES
Herbs are often coupled with spices, yet there is a difference. Herbs are the leaves of fresh or dried plants. Spices are the aromatic parts of the plant ? buds, fruits, berries, roots, or bark, usually dried. An example of their relationship is coriander: The seeds of coriander are used in curries and chili powder. The leaves of the plant are known as cilantro, which is often used in Mexican cooking.
Herbs and spices define specific ethnic flavor preferences. In India, curry is created with as many as ten herbs and spices. In Thailand, curry is used in conjunction with fresh herbs to give it a more delicate flavor. The Chinese use their famous five-spice powder. along with ginger and garlic. to give their food its distinctive quality. In Indonesia, flavor preferences tend to sweet and sour, and they use lemon grass, tamarind, Kaffir lime, and various chilies.
In Europe, herbs are used sparingly with a focus on tarragon and the French 'fines herbes', a combination that includes parsley, chervil, and tarragon, among others. Greek and Italian cuisine emphasizes basil, thyme, sage, and oregano. In Mexico, cilantro is combined with various chili peppers and, more recently, epazote leaves to give a kick to refried beans.
In early America, almost every Colonial home featured an herb garden, but somewhere along the line we lost sight of the value of herbs in cooking. In 1939, Irma Goodrich Mazza wrote a best-selling cookbook, Herbs for the Kitchen, which reintroduced the use of fresh herbs to American cooking. Ms. Mazza reminded American cooks what fresh herbs, garlic, and premium olive oils could do to enhance the flavors of traditional American fare. She featured six herbs in her recipes: basil, marjoram, mint, rosemary, sage, and thyme.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Americans turned away from the kitchen and headed for fast foods. But now we have entered the 1990s, and we are back to cooking what we eat so we have more control over our health. We want to prepare healthful dishes, but we want to do it without much fuss. Interestingly, the herbs that are the most popular today are the six herbs Ms. Mazza featured. But we've also added parsley, cilantro, chives, and tarragon to the list.
Today, it is easy to have an herb garden. Fresh parsley can be grown in a pot on a windowsill, and mint does very well in the garden. (In my book "Cooking With Herbs & Spices", I describe these herbs and spices in detail, and give some information on growing them.) Check with your local nursery about the specific herbs that will grow well in your area. Remember, a kitchen garden today literally means a garden that will grow inside your kitchen. Have fun with herbs!
Some things you'll need to know, about caring for herbs, center on how to harvest them. Different parts of the herb are gathered at different times. Obviously if you are growing garlic, the entire plant will be taken at the time you're ready to use it. But annual leafy herbs, such as basil, should be carefully picked, never taking more than 10 percent of the growth at a time. The same is true with perennials like sage, thyme, and rosemary. Severe pruning or over-stripping of the leaves will weaken the plant. Careful pruning or harvesting, on the other hand, results in more vigorous leaf growth, giving you healthier plants.
As a general rule, pick herbs when they contain the highest amount of flavor essence. Leaves should be picked just before the plant is about to flower. Flowers, on the other hand, are picked just before they reach full bloom. Berries and fruits are picked at their peak ripeness. When you are using the aboveground portion of a plant, pick just before the plant begins to flower. Roots, like garlic, or rhizomes, like ginger and turmeric, are collected in the fall, just as the leaves begin to change color.
When storing your herbs, keep in mind that herbal properties may be destroyed by heat, bright light, exposure to air, or the activity of plant enzymes, bacteria, or fungi. So, herbs should be kept in a cool, dry place, with minimum exposure to air and sunlight. This doesn't mean you should hide your collection of kitchen herbs and spices away where you forget to use them. It simply means if you have a choice, put them in the cupboard instead of leaving them on the countertop.
One of the most popular methods of preserving herbs for use during winter months is drying. As a matter of fact, drying actually improves the flavor of some herbs, particularly bay leaves. Bay leaves should be cleaned using a pastry brush, but no water, and then laid out to dry in a warm place on an airy surface, like a screen. They dry in about a week and are ready for storage in airtight tinted-glass jars.
Other herbs may be dried in bundles. One easy method is to pinch together a small bunch and secure it with a rubber band or kitchen string. Hang the bunch upside down from a rack in a dry, somewhat cool location. The temperature of the drying area should not exceed 86?F because the essential oils of the herbs will evaporate at this temperature or higher. The kitchen is not really the best place to dry your herbs because of the added humidity from cooking. Try to find a spot that is relatively dry, or at least consistent in humidity.
There is yet another way to dry your herbs. Place fresh herbs in brown paper bags labeled for each herb type. Set the bags in a dry, dark, cool place until the herbs inside are dry and crunchy. Shake the bags occasionally so the herbs dry evenly. Remove any stems, and prepare herbs for storage by crushing the leaves or chopping them in your minichopper. Always store the dried herbs in airtight jars. Keep the jars away from light to protect the color and flavor of the herbs.
Remember, it doesn't take long for herbs to dry. Never let the leaves become so dry that they disintegrate into powder when they are touched. If there is no condensation in the jar by the next day, the herbs are ready to store.
Using the microwave oven to dry herbs is a quick and effective method. Remove the leaves from the stems after you have given the whole herb a quick rinse to remove any soil or dust. Be sure to pat the herbs dry before you strip the leaves. Then spread the leaves in a single layer between two paper towels, and microwave them on high for 2 to 21/2 minutes. Store the herbs in airtight tinted-glass jars.
Freezing is another effective means of storing herbs. Dill, fennel, basil, and parsley can all be frozen for future use. Clean the herbs and put about 2 or 3 tablespoons of each in separate freezer bags. You can freeze them alone, or you can make up bags of your favorite combinations. Be sure to label the bags so you can find the herb you want when you need it. Chopping the leaves, and freezing them with a bit of water in ice-cube trays, is another freezer-safe method of storing herbs. This is especially nice when you want to use the herbs in sauces and broths. Chop the herbs very fine and fill each cube, half with the herbs and half with water, then freeze.
I put the frozen ice cubes into plastic bags and then place the bags in plastic freezer-safe boxes. That way the ice-cube trays are available for making ice cubes, and the extra packaging helps to retain the freshness of the herbs. I also like to store my bags of freezer-dried herbs in a plastic freezer-safe box to protect them from freezer burn or other damage and to make them easily accessible when I need them. Try to use frozen herbs within about six months.
The most important herb to have on hand always is fresh chopped parsley. Buy it in bunches, wash it, and dry it well. Put the parsley in your food processor with a steel blade, and run it until all the parsley is chopped. Then put the chopped parsley in an airtight container, and freeze it. You can easily take the amount you need as you need it.
It is very helpful to keep a variety of infused oils for quick cooking. I like to keep infused flavored oils in a spray bottle to lightly spray items for added flavor and better end results in roasting. The ones I use in the recipes in this book are garlic and chili pepper oils. However there are many on the market, so experiment to find the ones you like most.
THE FRESHNESS TEST
In most cases, fresh herbs are really your best bet, but it's not always possible to get them or grow them. So when you use dried herbs, give them the freshness test by crushing them, using a mortar and pestle (a good mortar and pestle, by the way, is an essential kitchen item!). Crushing releases the flavor, enabling you to get the freshest taste out of the herbs when you add them to food. For the most part, you can expect herbs you have grown and dried yourself to last at least two years. Herbs you buy in the store may have been on the shelf for a while already, so test them for freshness when you use them. Herbs from your grocer will usually remain fresh only about a year in your cupboard.
Cooking with Herbs & Spices: Easy, Low-Fat Flavor
by Judy Gilliard.
About The Author
Judy Gilliard hosts the healthy living radio spot Judy a la Carte on radio stations nationally and has spoken and taught on the topic for Royal Cruise Lines, The College of the Desert, and others. She has written numerous cookbooks focusing on healthy eating. Excerpted with permission from her book Cooking with Herbs & Spices, published by Adams Media Corporation, Holbrook, Massachusetts.