Cooking with herbs is a fine art. It’s too bad that some cooks consider it painting by number.
My friends accuse me of being an herbal evangelist. “You’re always preaching to people to use herbs, add herbs, taste herbs, grow herbs,” one says. And it’s true. For twenty-five years, I’ve encouraged people to try fresh or freshly dried culinary herbs in their food. “Put herbs in eggs or cream cheese first,” I tell them. “Get to know the flavors, get acquainted with how they taste in bland foods, then go wild trying them in other things. You can’t really make a mistake with herbs; if a particular combination doesn’t work, try something different next time.”
Well, I was just plain wrong about that. People can—and do—make mistakes with herbs.
I’m on the road about fifty days a year, primarily during the winter, lecturing and giving programs. I eat a lot of restaurant meals. After one busy day in a northern state recently, I walked into a Cajun seafood restaurant, anticipating dining on that cuisine’s wonderful combinations of fish and good spices. When I read the menu’s claim that the clam chowder was “better than anything in New England,” I went for it.
The chowder was yellowish (from turmeric?) and thick enough to stand a spoon upright in. It did not smell of clams, nor of garlic, onion, celery, and potatoes, but reeked of oregano—the pretty, decorative kind that smells like pencil shavings mixed with kerosene. So did the Mixed Spring Greens salad, the homemade rolls, and even the butter plate. In short, everything I ordered came peppered with what the waitress called “herb dust,” which seemed to be a mixture of parsley and that disgusting oregano.
It was as if the chef and the restaurant owner had gotten together one evening and said, “Gee, I think we’ve gotta get more herbs into our dishes.” They picked a couple of green-looking ones, ground them to dust, and shook that blend on every meal.
The herbs should be the seasoning, the color, but not the overpowering main ingredient.
As I gazed at the herb dust littering the plates, it hit me: every chef who wants to serve food with herbs should be required to taste it first—and grow some herbs, as well. (I’m certain that nobody would smother food in herb dust if they grew—and tasted—their own herbs.)
Adding herbs to food isn’t like ordering a built-in CD player or an extra beverage holder for your new car. No, cooking with herbs is like painting. You start with a dish as a canvas, add background flavors such as onion, garlic, and potato, color in the lines with marjoram, rosemary or thyme, and finish off the painting with chives, parsley, or a fresh pesto. The herbs should be the seasoning, the color, but not the overpowering main ingredient.
Some dinners sponsored by herb groups seem to inspire each cook to try to outdo the rest. The results can twist the taste buds. Too often, there’s rosemary flavored with chicken, pesto on a bed of sweet potatoes, oregano with a few meatballs thrown in. The food tastes like an afterthought.
I’m no longer confident that everyone can easily teach him- or herself to cook with herbs. But still I suggest that people spend some time becoming acquainted with them. Scramble some eggs with an unfamiliar herb. Then eat them. Or mix the chopped herb with softened cream cheese and spread it on a cracker. Taste the result and imagine how it would combine with another food. Strawberries and lemon verbena? You bet. Rosemary on chicken? Absolutely! But no matter how much oregano you pile on—even if it’s the fresh, good kind—it still won’t improve a bad recipe.
Jim Long, an herbalist and the owner of Long Creek Herb Farm in Oak Grove, Arkansas, has demonstrated the art of herbal cooking on the Home Matters television show.