Herbs and Spices

It’s National Nutrition Month and the theme is “Enjoy the Taste of Eating Right”.

One of the easiest ways to enjoy the taste of food while eating right is to replace salt with dried or fresh herbs and spices. There are so many choices and knowing how to use them can really make an impact on an otherwise same old dish.

So, what’s the difference between an herb and a spice?

In culinary uses, an herb is any of the aromatic plants whose leaves, stems or flower are used as flavoring, either dried of fresh. A spice is any of the aromatic plants whose bark, roots, seeds buds or berries are used for flavoring and is usually dried and can be whole or ground. (Both definitions are from the 5th edition of On Cooking: A Textbook of Culinary Fundamentals.)

Did you know that many herbs and spices have antioxidant benefits too? And as long as the the bottle, either in the name or ingredient, does not contain the word ‘salt’ (garlic salt, celery salt) consider it good for you!

My Favorites!

There are many many many herbs and spices and it would take a while to go through them all- and I haven’t even tried some of them! So, here are some of my favorite herbs and spices and how I like to use them.

Dill– This might be my most favorite herb. Probably most familiarly used in pickles, dill can also be used to flavor vegetables, fish, breads, potatoes and chicken salad. The seeds are also used in pickling and in fish dishes. One of our favorite ways to use side dishes is in dilly carrots- as you are cooking the carrots, add a little dried dill and a smidge of unsalted butter.

Basil– maybe the easiest to grow, basil comes in a variety of flavors- garlicky, lemony etc, but in my opinion, the best is sweet basil, followed by purple basil. Very popular in Mediterranean cooking, fresh basil is a wonderful addition to any tomato based dish- spaghetti, pizza, lasagna. My husband’s favorite though, is pesto on hot pasta.

Cilantro– whose seeds can be used and are known as coriander, is either beloved or hated. Cilantro has a citrus-y flavor is popular in Mexican cuisine. Some people say it has a soapy flavor. Fresh cilantro is superior and my favorite thing to use it in is homemade guacamole.

Rosemary– The stiff, pine-like needles can be used in a variety of ways. I like to chop fresh rosemary and add to any sort of meat dish. When dried, the needles can be difficult to chew, I will ground them up, if using dried. Whole stems may be added to stew type dishes and removed before serving or when there is enough flavor. Our favorite way to use rosemary is in softened whipped butter to top a quality grilled steak. Mouth. Watering.

Sage– In my opinion, sage is best used dried, as the leaves are kind of… fuzzy. I prefer this herb with poultry- especially turkey. It has a very strong flavor, and doesn’t always play well with others, but I love cooking up some ground turkey and seasoning it with dried sage and a little dried ginger.

Thyme– I think of thyme as a grandfather- strong, steady and dignified. Hints of sage make this the perfect addition to any meat when you want a . I prefer to use this in an herb marinade for chicken or a little sprinkled on roast beef for an earthy feel.

Capers– these are the unopened buds that have been pickled- fresh buds are not used. Used in French cuisine, capers have a salty-sour flavor and remind me of green olives. But they are a great compliment in sauces on fish and game.

Paprika– known for its bright red appearance, its flavor runs from sweet to spicy. Used in Spanish dishes and sometimes as a garnish. I like to use it on chicken cordon bleu (recipe coming soon!)

Cumin– I used this when I want some spice but not necessarily heat. It’s popular in Mexican dishes and I like adding it to a variety of soups and chilies!

Ginger– Used fresh or dried, ginger has a sweet, peppery, lemony taste. Ginger is widely used in all types of dishes, but perhaps mostly in Asian cuisine. I like adding it to stir fries and homemade egg rolls.

What if a recipe calls for a fresh herb, but you only have dried?

No problem! Just use 1/3 of what is called for. If it calls for 1 tablespoon fresh, use 1 teaspoon dried. You may want to add them earlier in the cooking process, since dried herbs and spices can take a little while to release their flavor.

What herb goes with what type of dish?

Try one or a couple of these.

Asian– anise, ginger,
Beef– caraway, marjoram, rosemary, thyme
Poultry (Chicken and turkey)- basil, chives, cilantro, marjoram, rosemary, sage, tarragon, thyme
Fish– basil, chives, cilantro, dill and dill seed, tarragon, thyme
Fruit– allspice, cinnamon, cloves
Lamb– basil, fennel, rosemary
Mexican– cilantro
Pork– caraway, sage,
Vegetable– dill, fennel, marjoram

Herbs are easy to grow and I look forward to harvesting fresh leaves in the spring, summer and fall to flavor my family’s dishes. It’s one of the first things I tend to each spring- getting their little beds all ready for a wonderful, aromatic harvest!

What is YOUR favorite herbs and spices? How do you like to use them? Tell me in the comments below!

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