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Herbs

Tarragon Leaves

As I mentioned in the page above, herbs are generally grown in temperate climates, while spices come from the tropics. Another general difference is that the leaves of the plants are usually used as herbs, whereas spice plant leaves are seldom used.

This page is intended to give you a general familiarity with herbs, how they are used, and in what kind of dishes. As you experiment and become more familiar with them, you will be able to tweak the taste of your food toward the flavor you want by choosing the proper herb.

Herbs usually are available dried, either in bottles or little cans. You can also frequently buy them fresh, or grow your own in your garden, as I do.

You can normally substitute dried for fresh, if you keep one thing in mind: Dried herbs have more intense flavor per teaspoon, so you need to adjust the quantity accordingly. If the recipe calls for fresh herbs, use less if you use dried, and vice versa.

A bouquet garni is a traditional combination of vegetables and herbs used to flavor sauces, soups, and stews. The ingredients are tied together with a string, or, better yet, put into a little pouch of cheesecloth. They can then be removed from the dish after flavoring it. To make a bouquet garni, use a small piece of celery, perhaps a piece or two of carrot, a bay leaf, some thyme, a few pieces of chopped onion, and some celery leaves, if you have them. You don't always need all of the ingredients, but the basic always includes the bay leaf, celery, and thyme. In the summer, when it's available, the French usually include chervil in the bouquet garni.

Basil

We frequently associate basil with Italian food, and rightly so. However, it is used all over the world, and is sacred to some Hindus. It's always available dried, and usually available fresh as well. It's one of the easiest to grow yourself, even indoors in a pot. Basil and tomatoes are made for each other, as you know from Italian tomato sauce. But it is also good with eggs and cheese. A delicious simple salad using fresh basil can be made from sliced tomato, onion, basil, and vinegar and oil. Basil is also used in many Mexican recipes.

Bay Leaf

Bay leaves are usually sold dried, and will have lost some of their original bright green color they had when fresh. The flavor is still intense, however, and you should be careful not to use too many. They are typically used to flavor soups, sauces, and stews. Generally they are removed from the dish before serving, sometimes as part of a bouquet garni, as described above.

Capers

Capers are the flower buds from a shrub grown mainly in France, Spain, and Italy. You usually buy them in small jars packed in vinegar. They are good in salads, and chopped into caper sauce for lamb dishes. They are generally also part of an Italian antipasto. Don't forget that the vinegar they are packed in also has great flavor and can be added to salad dressings. They are particularly good with tomatoes, and can also be added to potato salad. Lately I have also seen caper berries sold pickled in bottles, which you can use in salads, or as a snack or appetizer.

Caraway Seed

Caraway seeds are from a plant similar to anise, fennel, cumin, and dill, and if you need to make substitutions, you may. The flavor will not be quite the same, of course, but it won't wreck your dish. Caraway seeds get sprinkled over sauerkraut, boiled cabbage, and boiled potatoes. Sprinkle some over French fries when you are serving them with fish. Some of the most frequent uses for caraway seed is in baking, where you'll see them on top of dark breads, biscuits and pound cakes. As an appetizer, dip cubes of cheese into the seeds.

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Celery Seed

The celery seeds you buy for seasonings don't have much to do with the celery in the produce section. These seeds come from wild celery plants in France, and have much more flavor. If you're using tomatoes, broiled, stewed, in salads, or in a soup, celery seed is called for. Also use them in cole slaw and potato salad, omelets and scrambled eggs. Sprinkle them over the mustard or catsup on a hot dog, and use them in meat loaf, pot roast, and stew. They are also good added to tuna, ham, and egg salad sandwiches.

Chervil

Chervil has small feathery leaves a little like parsley, but does not taste the same. It has a delicate anise flavor similar to tarragon. It's not frequently available fresh, but dried will serve for use in a bouquet garni for flavoring soups, roasts, and stews. The French use it in omelets, and with grated lemon rind makes a great flavor to fried fish. Mix a little chervil with some butter and use it to flavor grilled chicken or fish.

Chives

Chives are easy to grow, even indoors in a small container. But they are also usually available fresh, and always in dehydrated form. They are the mildest of the onion family, and add a delicious flavor to baked potatoes, omelets and other egg dishes. Also sprinkle them on salads and soups, as well as dressings and dips for appetizers.

Cilantro

Cilantro is similar to parsley in appearance, but in taste and aroma there's nothing like it. Extensively used in both Mexican and Southeast Asian foods, it adds a special flavor either as an ingredient or as a garnish. It's easy to grow in your garden, and having it fresh on demand is a great benefit. It's usually available both fresh and dried in most markets, at least in the southwest part of the US.

Cumin

Cumin seeds are small light brown seeds with a distinctive taste. Cumin is an important ingredient in curry powder, and is sometimes considered a spice. But in the Southwest, it is known more for its use in chili and Mexican sauces and beans. You can buy both seeds and ground seeds (powder), but for the best flavor, toast the seeds in a dry skillet for a few minutes and grind them yourself with a mortar and pestle, a spice grinder, or a Magic Bullet. Cooking Dude's gourmet chili recipe uses this method for the cumin, and also grinds chile powders from dried chiles. Yum!

Dill

Both the seeds and leaves of dill plant are used as herbs. Of course the first thing that comes to most minds are dill pickles, and that's natural. But dill is more versatile than that, and you should try adding fresh dill leaves to eggs and soups. It has a lemony sharp flavor that really enhances many dishes, particularly those containing tomato. I planted some dill in the garden so I could make pickles out of my excess cucumbers. Add some dill seeds to boiled cabbage, and, surprise(!), to apple pie.

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Epazote

Pronounced ep-ah-Zoe-tay. A Mexican herb used in bean, soup, and meat dishes. Especially good in pinto and black beans. It is also reputed to be good for the digestive system, and supposedly relieves flatulence problems some people associate with beans. Grows wild over much of the southwest. Available in Mexican or Latino markets.

Fennel

Fennel leaves and/or seeds are frequently used in fish dishes. You can use the seeds during cooking, or sprinkle the leaves over the finished dish like parsley. It has an acidity like lemon, and in fact works great in combination with lemon or lemon zest (grated peel). You can also use fennel in pea and tomato soups, and is also good with lamb. I don't bake much, but I'm told that you should sprinkle some on top of your apple pie before you bake it.

Fines herbes

You can buy fines herbes already mixed in little bottles or cans, or you can make your own. Just mix a tablespoon or two of chopped parsley and chopped chives, and then add either 1/2 teaspoon minced chervil and 1/4 teaspoon minced tarragon, or, for a more Mediterranean flavor add 1/2 teaspoon minced basil and 1/4 teaspoon minced thyme. Fines herbes are used in many recipes, and is useful to keep on hand.

Garlic

If chives are the lady of the onion family, garlic is the tomboy. Used all over the world, this member of the onion (and lily) family not only makes food delicious, but is also reportedly very good for you. Each bulb, or head, of garlic contains about a dozen or so cloves. You will find that whole heads are roasted, and cloves are minced, pressed, or cooked whole. There must be a million uses, and a lot of the recipes on this web site use garlic, sometimes in great quantity (see Forty Garlic Clove Chicken)! When the cloves are separated from the head, they are easiest to peel if you smash them slightly first under the flat part of a knife -- the peels slip right off. Garlic is also available minced, dried as a powder, pre-mixed with salt, and in many special seasonings, a couple of which are shown in the photo.

Horseradish

Horseradish is a root, which is peeled and grated to make into a paste or a sauce. You can grow your own, or buy it as a root, but you will also need a hazmat suit or you will be gasping for breath and trying to see through your tears. Better to buy a bottle. It's most famous for flavoring the sauce served with roast beef, but it is also a good addition to sauces for fish, including tartar sauce. It's available two ways in bottles; straight and as a creamed sauce. Use it straight to clear out your sinuses or to add in small quantities to a sauce. It's also available in powdered form. In any case, it's delicious, and a great aid to digestion, they say.

Italian Seasoning

Of course you can buy it. But if you want to make it, or to modify the ingredients to suit your own taste, here's the basic recipe:

2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons dried basil
1/2 teaspoon ground sage
1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary
1/2 teaspoon dried savory
2 teaspoons dried grated lemon rind

If there's not already onion in the dish you are going to flavor, you should add a teaspoon or two of onion powder or dried onion.

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Juniper Berries

These are berries from the juniper tree, or maybe cypress. I have Italian Cypress trees in my yard, and they have juniper berries on them. The garden books seem confused about what's a juniper and what's a cypress, so I asked my PhD horticulturist, and he doesn't know either. But we all know that juniper berries are the primary flavor of gin, and after that what else do you need to know? You can start with vodka and make gin by soaking the berries in it. Juniper berries are also used in flavoring meat, especially beef and lamb stew. One of the recipes on Cooking Dude calls for juniper berries, and I didn't have any, so I added gin. Whatever.

Marjoram

Marjoram is part of the mint family, but doesn't taste much like mint. It's more like oregano, and in a pinch can substitute. It does have a slight sweet mint-like tang to it, which makes it one of the most adaptable herbs in cooking. Use it with veal and pork chops, with sausages and hot dogs, and with hamburgers, mushrooms, meat soups, and omelets. Make a simple tomato salad with marjoram, salt and pepper, sugar, green onion, cucumber, lettuce, and olive oil. It's always available dried, and it's also easy to grow. In mild climates it's a perennial, which you prune back a little each spring.

Mint

Mint represents a large family of flavors, including peppermint, spearmint, applemint, and orangemint. It's mainly used for flavoring drinks, jelly, tea, and candy. It's usually available fresh in the markets, but the dried leaves retain plenty of flavor. This is a plant I don't put in the garden because it grows like wildfire and is hard to contain. I may put it in as a container plant, but we don't use a lot, so I haven't bothered so far. It is traditional to serve mint jelly with roast lamb, but it's pretty easy to buy the jelly unless you've got a lot of mint to use up. If you like to experiment, try adding small amounts of crushed leaves to green peas, new potatoes, or to carrots. You can also use it in potato salad, tuna salad, and applesauce. Obviously, you will add it to your next mint julep to watch the Kentucky Derby.

 

Mustard

The mustard plant's leaves are used as a vegetable (although I prefer Swiss chard to mustard greens), and the seeds are used whole in pickling and ground for use as the mustard sauce we are all familiar with. You can also buy dry mustard, as shown in the photo, which is used in many dishes. You can make mustard out of dry mustard by adding water (called English mustard), but you probably won't like it until you also add other flavors, like onion, vinegar, wine, salt, oil, and honey. Easier to buy the mustard sauces you like, such as hot dog mustard, Dijon, German mustard, and so forth. As you know, it's made to go with sausages, cold cuts, ham, and, of course, hot dogs.

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Oregano

Wild marjoram; more pungent than sweet marjoram. We use oregano in nearly every Italian dish, and in many Mexican dishes as well. It's easy to grow, and is available both dried and fresh in most markets. Sprinkle it on pizza and put it in your spaghetti sauce. Some recipes call for sprigs of oregano to be put inside a chicken as it roasts, and added to gravies and other sauces. If you are using it in a sauce or gravy, however, use a little caution because it's pretty potent.

Parsley

There are two main types of parsley, flat and curly. The curly parsley looks nice, and is often used as a garnish. But the flat (Italian) parsley has more flavor, so use it when that's called for. It's probably the most-used of the herbs, because it's used both for flavor and decoration. It's also very easy to grow for yourself, either indoors or outdoors, which will keep a supply of fresh parsley always handy. It's used in soups and stews, and also for many shrimp and seafood dishes. It will help the appearance of nearly any dish, so if your boiled potatoes or carrots look kind of ordinary, sprinkle a little chopped parsley, both for appearance and flavor.

Poppy Seeds

Poppy seeds are usually found in or on various baked goods, but you can use them other ways as well. They have a delicious nutty flavor, and can be sprinkled over noodles and potatoes to add an interesting flavor and crunch. A quick dip for potato chips consists of some cream cheese and poppy seeds.

Sage

Sage is easy to grow in the garden, and one plant will take care of your needs forever. It's usually used in the form of ground up dried leaves, also called "rubbed sage" because of its texture. It's pretty powerful, so if you are experimenting, take it in small steps. Sage is familiar to most of us as the principal seasoning in stuffing for turkey, pork, and duck. But you should also try adding a pinch to braised meat, soups, and stews.

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Savory

Savory has a warm, spicy, peppery flavor similar to marjoram and thyme. In fact, they can usually be substituted for each other successfully in most dishes. A pinch of savory adds a nice flavor to pea soup, and you can also add it to green beans. In Germany, savory is called "bean herbs". In Denmark, a little savory is added to horseradish sauce, a practice I recommend that you try. A little savory added to the crumb coating for fried fish is also good.

Tarragon

This is one of my favorite herbs, probably because it is the principal flavor in béarnaise sauce, my favorite dressing for steak. I tried over and over to grow it in the garden from seed, and finally got some sprouts after the location was no longer labeled. Before I could stake it out, someone pulled them out thinking it was a weed. Now I read that it is very difficult to grow from seed and usually started from root cuttings. No kidding. Anyhow, it's always available dried and usually fresh. If you don't have time to make béarnaise, I've invented a shortcut. Tarragon is as good with salmon as it is with beef steak. Also, you can either buy tarragon vinegar or make your own by steeping some tarragon leaves in white or red vinegar. The older it gets the better. Also, for grilled fish or beef steaks, make tarragon butter by mixing 1 teaspoon crushed dried tarragon with 1/2 cup butter. Make the mixture into balls, roll the balls in parsley, and put in the freezer to firm up. The hot steak will melt the butter ball to provide a delicious flavor to the steak. Looks pretty elegant, too.

Thyme

Thyme is one of the oldest herbs, in continuous use since Egyptian, Greek, and Roman times. It flavors the Greek honey, because the hills are covered with wild thyme. It is also the main flavoring ingredient in Benedictine liqueur. It's easy to grow, so if you have room you can always have it fresh. But it is also always available dried, and is usually one of the standard herbs and spices that come with your pre-loaded spice rack. You'll find it in many Cooking Dude recipes, usually to flavor sauces and gravies. It's also adds an interesting kick to stews, roast beef, roast chicken, and corned beef hash. If you experiment with it, take it a little at a time, because it is fairly powerful.

As a quick tour of the supermarket spice aisle will tell you, these are not the only herbs available. I may add some now and then if they get used in some recipes, and if I remember to do so, but you will no doubt be adding constantly to your selection of herbs and spices over time. You'll discover how much little things can do. Scramble an egg, and then do another one with some chopped chives added. Sample a tomato slice, and then do another one with a little oregano and basil. Pretty soon enhancing your dishes will become second nature, and your mouth and tummy will thank you for it.

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