Down to Earth: Don't Mess With Herbs In Your Meal

Despite the popular belief that you can't really make a mistake with herbs in the kitchen, columnist Jim Long investigates how that's not necessarily true.

| October/November 1999

  • Origanum vulgara

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.

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