HERBS AND SPICES
Within the category of plants that we commonly call herbs, are herbs and evergreens.
Herbs are annual, biennial, or perennial plants in which the stems die down to the ground after flowering. An annual plant lives only one season or year. A biennial plant lives for two years. And a perennial plant lives more than two years. Examples of herbs are basil, dill, tarragon, oregano, marjoram and thyme.
Evergreens, on the other hand, are shrubs or trees having green needles or leaves throughout the entire year, that is, the needles or leaves of the past season do not fall off the tree until the new foliage has been completely formed. Examples of these are rosemary and bay leaf. Since the needles and leaves of evergreens do not accept moisture readily, the needles and leaves of these plants must be pulverized or crushed before using them or in the case of bay leaf, used whole, then removed after cooking. Herbs and evergreens can be used fresh or dried.
Although fresh herbs are fragrant and delicious, I prefer to use dried herbs in cooked dishes. Fresh herbs lose their gentle flavors more quickly in the cooking process, whereas dried, which are more flavor potent, stand up better under cooking conditions. Making cold sauces, marinated antipastos, salads, or when I can add the herb near the end of cooking time, I’ll prefer fresh.
When chopping fresh herbs for measurement, make sure that they are not wet. Wet herbs, when chopped compact together and measure inaccurately.
Since fresh herbs are expensive, we want to utilize them fully. Wash thoroughly removing any rotted leaves. Cut off bottom 1/2 inch of all stems. Place the stems in a glass of water, stems only; don’t submerge the leaves. Use a glass that fits the herbs, just as you would do with a bouquet of flowers. Now, take the plastic bag you brought the herbs home in, or a similar bag, and slip it over the leaves, bringing it down over the top part of the glass. Fluff it up a little bit, then secure bag around the top part of the glass with a rubber band. Refrigerate. Your herbs will stay fresh for days this way. As you use them, discard and replace the water periodically–just as you do with flowers.
Use only fresh herbs to garnish. Never garnish with dried herbs, that is, sprinkle them over a prepared dish. Their hardness will add an offensive texture to the dish, ruining it. You can, however, grind dried herbs to a powder and use them to garnish. Spice is different, of course, since it is already ground to a powder, and will garnish many dishes nicely.
Spices are parts or products of vegetable plants, such as pods or fruits, roots, bark, berries, seeds etc., which are always dried, and, unless they are used whole in a recipe, then removed, they are ground for ease in using them. A few examples of these are: ground nutmeg seed (which actually looks more like a nut), ground cinnamon from the inner bark of the cinnamon tree, ground paprika from the pods of sweet red pepper plants (in other words, sweet red peppers), ground ginger from the ginger root, and ground pepper from peppercorns, which are the berries of the plant.
In case you’ve ever wondered where white pepper comes from, it is obtained by taking the black or brown berry and removing the outer coating or cover by friction. What remains is a gray-white berry which is then ground into white pepper. White pepper is less potent than black, and is used in dishes where black would interfere with the color achievement. Black pepper is the worlds most common spice. Throughout the world there exists a multitude of spices, some unique to only particular cultures of the earth.
For best results in any dish, you must begin with a fine grade of herb or spice. An old pepper, a bitter paprika, or highly pungent bay leaf can turn an otherwise perfect dish to ruin. Due to variations in potency between herbs and spices of different brands or different harvests, adjustments may have to be made in measurements from one time to the next.
When shopping for dried herbs and spices, shop where you get the freshest product. An herb that sets too long on a retailer’s shelf is no fresher than if it sets too long on yours. Although spice shops offer a wide variety of herbs and spices, many too exotic to be stocked by most supermarkets, they vary in quality, reliability and consistency. If you find one that suits your needs, then tell your friends. Good shops need business to turn their product. On the other hand, large companies which sell prepackaged herbs and spices to large supermarket chains are now air-sealing their jars and cans, so that freshness is guaranteed (up to a point). If the quality is good and you like it, then it’s just as easy to purchase these.
Poultry seasoning isn’t only for poultry. It just so happened that poultry is what most home cooks used the this combination of seasonings to season. Some vegetarians won’t use it because of its connection to the bird. I still use it in some recipes where I don’t want the stronger taste of just the sage. There is a difference between sage and poultry seasoning. A combination of several herbs is always different from just one of those herbs. The flavors are muted and simultaneously enhanced by each other, creating a more complex flavor achievement. This complexity is valuable in cooking plant-based dishes.
Frugalliving.about.com makes her homemade poultry seasoning out of marjoram, savory, parsley, sage, thyme, rosemary and onion powder. I suppose that a homemade poultry seasoning in America would be much like the homemade curries in India, according to one’s preferences.
The picture above shows fresh picked mint hanging in the kitchen to dry. Mint can grow just about anywhere and multiplies quickly from year to year. When thoroughly dried, as in the picture below, remove leaves, crush and pack into jars. They make a nice gift for the holidays or when you want to bring your dinner host something special to thank them in advance of the meal.
My window herb garden receives no sun, only light, which proves these herbs don’t need direct sunlight to grow. The way our building is set up, one side gets the sun, the other doesn’t. My herbs grow anyway!