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Herbs and Spices – The Nose of Your Food
Now that we are familiar with taste, its complexities, and the basics of our other senses, we need to talk a little more in depth about smell. Herbs and spices are what I call “the nose of your food.” You can make many fantastic dishes with very basic ingredients like kosher salt, MSG, black pepper, red wine vinegar, and granulated sugar. But, what we want to do is give our food some character and maybe add a few aromatic qualities to give our food even more appeal. To do this, we are going to add herbs and spices. Many times people get confused as to what the differences are between the two. It’s very simple.
Spices tend to be derived from the roots, bark, flowers, or seeds of a flavorful plant.
Herbs are dried or fresh leaves of edible plants that impart an aromatic flavor.
To make it easier:
black pepper (seed)
cilantro (leafy vegetation of the coriander plant)
As you’ll learn in your cooking journey, eastern cooking styles favor spices and western styles favor herbs. This simply has to do with the local availability of products as the different cultures and cooking techniques developed.
A fantastic way to remember the difference between herbs and spices is:
“Roses are red. Violets are blue. Herbs are green and freshest too!”
The Age of Herbs and Spices is Important
I want to take some time to talk about the age of herbs and spices and how it effects the potency of its flavor. Time changes the flavor of everything regardless of whether it is fresh fruit, a fresh steak, or dried foods such as dried spices.
With dried herbs and spices, it is really important that:
1. They stay dry.
2. They are not too old, because they will loose their potency.
Just because something is dried or preserved does not mean that it will keep its strength when it comes to flavor. Simply remember to keep in mind that time can not only diminish the flavor but also alter or change the flavor of your foods. Think about yogurt. Yogurt starts as milk. Then bacterial cultures are added. Time passes and changes the flavor, structure, and consistency of the product resulting in something completely different in the end.
Potency of Herbs and Spices
Potency of spices is very important to take into consideration, because measurements used will vary based on the strength of the spice. Oregano that is five years old is not going to be nearly as strong as oregano that was just recently dried. You will have to use a lot more of the five-year-old oregano to compensate for the loss of flavor. Also, certain spices and herbs will actually change flavor and smell over time. This is especially true for herbs like thyme and sage. They get musty and stinky. Cinnamon is an example of a spice that will lose its potency too. You need to know this because recipes will call for a certain amount of an ingredient. And if your seasonings are stale, the recipe will not turn out right. The flavor profile will end up being completely off.
When Cooking for Chemo, the strength of a spice is extremely important to take into consideration because of the side effect: nausea. Some spices can induce nausea in certain people and different spices can induce nausea in other people. Cumin is an example of a spice that quite often, but not always, induces nausea. Remember how I told you everyone is different? This is a perfect example of that.
More to Know About Herbs and Spices
Many times you will blend both herbs and spices to bring out the flavor of whatever food you are preparing. A great rule of thumb is to remember not to over-season, but to start out by under-seasoning. We always want to under-season our food while cooking. We do this because you can always add more seasonings, but not necessarily take away. So when you are seasoning a dish, season with about half the amount of seasoning that the recipe calls for. As the dish gets closer to finishing, taste the dish. Then, using the Roundness of Flavor technique, slowly add the additional seasonings that the recipe will require. Make certain that you are adding these ingredients in small increments. If you follow this method, you will never end up with a meal that is over-seasoned.
This is also important to remember when Cooking for Chemo, because sensitivity to different seasonings, herbs, and spices can change as medication concentrations and side effects change. Go slow in your seasoning and have the cancer patient try the recipe as you season it. You are not cooking for your preferences, but the cancer patient’s preferences.
Intensity of Herbs and Spices
You should also keep in mind that you may become more or less sensitive to different seasonings in different recipes depending on the ingredients in the recipe. This is especially true with spicy. Because spicy flavors can vary in strength from brand to brand and even within the product itself, always add just a little bit of spicy at a time. A great example of this is a container of red pepper that I have. One dash of this red pepper is equivalent to 4 or 5 dashes from other bottles from the same manufacturer.
This same fact is true for everything that we eat. This is because no two of the same item are identical. Two plum tomatoes, even from the same plant, will not be identical in every way. The same is true for humans, dogs, cats, cabbages, and everything else that is or was ever living. This is simply the nature of life in the universe. Because it was living and growing, it is therefore always unique.
The other thing you need to remember when cooking is that you are not trying to change the flavor of the ingredients, but compliment what you are already cooking. The goal is to bring out the naturally occurring flavors of the ingredients. This is one of the areas of cooking where Chinese and Italian cooking styles agree: always season to emphasize and celebrate how delicious your ingredients are! A good rule of thumb is if both the Chinese and the Italians are doing it, it must be good!
Let’s look at an example of seasonings in practice and what they are being used for.
Herbs and Spices Used in a Recipe
Roasted Chicken with Bouquet Garni
1 family-sized roasting chicken, defrosted
3 bay leaves
1 sprig rosemary
2 sprigs thyme
1 sprig parsley
kosher salt (or any course salt)
black pepper, fine ground
1 tbsp. butter
Place the chicken in a roasting pan. Fill the bottom of the pan with 1 inch of water. Melt the butter and apply to the outside of the chicken’s skin. Generously apply salt, pepper, and garlic to the outside of the chicken. To make your bouquet garni, tie the following herbs together with cooking twine to make a bundle: 1 sprig rosemary, 2 sprigs thyme, 1 sprig parsley, and 3 bay leaves. Place the bouquet garni in the water. Cover chicken with aluminum foil making certain to keep the edges tight around the roasting pan. Roast at 350° F until breast meat reaches an internal temperature of 165° F (about two to three hours). Baste chicken frequently during cooking to make sure all the flavors get mixed thoroughly.
Dissecting The Recipe
In this recipe, we have the following seasonings to consider: rosemary, thyme, parsley, bay leaves, salt, and black pepper. For ease of discussion, we won’t consider garlic a seasoning. We will consider it an aromatic ingredient.
Salt serves several functions in this dish:
1. to help tenderize the meat
2. to bond with the glutamate and nucleotides in the meat, creating a more savory flavor
3. to add saltiness to the dish, helping to establish our Roundness of Flavor
4. acting as a flavor amplifier to the rest of the dish
Black pepper acts as an aromatic agent as well as lighting up those spicy receptors!
Rosemary gives the chicken an aromatic and fragrant richness, emboldening the flavors.
Thyme acts as a lighter version of rosemary adding fragrance to the dish.
Parsley helps to lighten the flavor of the dish by adding freshness.
Bay leaves add aromatic richness as well as increasing the savory flavor of the chicken.
So what we end up with is a rich, savory, and fragrant chicken! These flavors, or tastes, are the basic fundamentals of flavor. They are the beginning of the road to not only cooking, but cooking like a great chef!
Food For Thought
Think about what you just learned and how it applies to your situation. Ask yourself these questions.
1. Do you have any expired herbs or spices in your spice cabinet? If so, pitch them.
2. When seasoning, do you use a minimal amount of seasoning and taste as you go? Or, do you throw all the seasonings in at once and hope for the best?
3. Did you realize the function of aromatic seasonings and ingredients in cooking?