Every now and then I find myself looking through cookbooks or online for recipes to change up otherwise ordinary meals. You probably do the same. Most people have a meal repertoire of ten or so standby meals that they create every other week because they are simple, fast, and comfortable. But once in a while we find ourselves looking for something exotic or global or just simply different from the meat and potatoes syndrome. Even if you are not the chef in your home, the time will come when you long for something creatively new for dinner.
Living in the upper Midwest U.S. we do not have direct access to fresh fish or seafood, and of course that immediately makes us long for shrimp creole or fresh lobster boil. Although we have to settle for the pre-frozen version of these sea creatures, I have found that the addition of fresh herbs and spices can intensify and brighten up the flavor of foods and change everyday meals into more creative and appealing treats for our family.
Herbs Versus Spices Herbs are the leaves and stems from a variety of edible plants while spices include the flavorful bark, seeds, and flowers of the plants. Most often spices are ground into fine powder, and herbs are muddled, chopped, or crushed.
Three of the Most Loved Herbs include thyme, rosemary, and basil.
Thyme This is a mild herb with pepper and citrus tones. Flavor is at its peak when used fresh and becomes milder when cooked. When it is dried, thyme is more concentrated (as are all herbs) and can be used at approximately one-third the amount of its fresh counterpart. This herb is particularly delicious on zucchini, artichoke, sweet potato, and tomato. It is perfect with clams, halibut, shrimp, scallops, pork, chicken, and steak. Take your fruits and desserts up a notch by adding thyme to melon, pear, and apricot.
Rosemary sprigs remind me of a pine-leaf needle shape and have a lovely fresh herbal aroma. Long used in making bread, the distinctive and appealing aroma of rosemary brings joy to meats, poultry, grilled fish, and roasted veggies. This herb is associated with Mediterranean cuisines and is a good source of vitamin B6, calcium, and iron. The sprig of this plant adds dramatic flavor to a dish by simply inserting it under the skin of the chicken, fish, and turkey. Remember to remove it before serving. Add crushed rosemary to eggs, potatoes, white fish, focaccia bread, green beans, and risotto.
Basil a strong, pungent-smelling herb is well known in Italian cuisine. It complements tomatoes, onions, garlic, and olives. Because prolonged heat reduces its distinctive flavor by dissipating its oils, fresh basil should be added at the very end of preparing cooked dishes. With its antioxidant and antiviral properties, it has been used to treat both stress and asthma. Basil is especially delicious when served with asparagus, spinach, onion, tomato, salmon, tuna, lamb, corn chowder, bleu cheese, watermelon, pasta, cantaloupe, and peaches.
Not until we grew our own herbs in the garden did I realize what a difference there is in fresh versus store-purchased herbs. After harvesting and drying the herbs, their concentration of flavor increases. By growing them in our own garden, we also have control over the health of the plants and can create our own organic herbs by omitting pesticides and fertilizers.
An added bonus with growing herbs in your own garden—most of them are very hardy, thyme and rosemary particularly. Even I cannot kill these herbs. And when it comes to harvest season and you don’t have time to dry and store them, just wash the herbs, pop the stems into a Ziploc bag, and put them in your freezer. This trick works for all the hard-leaved herbs like rosemary, sage, thyme, and savory. The soft herbs like basil, parsley, oregano, and mint require a little extra attention of chopping in a food processor and coating lightly with olive oil which prevents browning in the freezer.
Health wise, cooking with herbs will enhance the food flavors without adding sugar, calories, salt, or fat. Avoid using too many seasonings in a dish however, especially if they are very strong. They should complement but not overwhelm the dish. By chopping fresh leaves finely, you are exposing a greater number of surface cuts that will let the food absorb more of the herb’s flavor.
Going beyond the usual condiments used in cooking will add a burst of flavor to your dish and allow you to experience a new dish without changing your entire recipe. Experimenting will help you find which herbs you and your family enjoy.