The Art of Seasoning With Herbs

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We use herbs and seasonings of all kinds in practically every dish we prepare every day and are always trying to come up with new combinations of herbs to create delicious recipes. The aim of making a blend of herbs is to produce a balanced, complex flavor that makes the diner want to take another bite, not analyze it. The final taste that emerges in a well-seasoned dish transcends the individual flavorings, and its success is judged by reactions at the dinner table, not arbitrary principles.

An old rule says a recipe should contain just one or two herbs, and a meal should include only one herb-seasoned dish. Rules like these inspire us to see how quickly we can break them. We seldom add just one herb to a dish. We are more likely to use three or four, including parsley, plus an herbal seed and a spice or two, which can give great depth to the finished dish. Each seasoning and food ingredient makes its own contribution to the complexity of flavor, some tasted on the tip of the tongue, others at the back of the throat.

The first step in learning to blend herbs is to know how each one tastes separately. We encourage beginning cooks and gardeners to taste each herb carefully, again and again, either by itself or added to a bland food such as cottage cheese, and fix that flavor in their mind and memory. Is that sharp and peppery flavor winter savory or oregano or thyme? Does it have a warm, buttery flavor like sweet marjoram? If it’s clean and lemony, is it lemon verbena or lemon balm or lemon thyme? If the taste and aroma make you think of chewing gum, is it Spearmint or Doublemint?

This exercise is particularly im­portant in selecting from the dizzying array of mints, oreganos, and thymes, as well as other plants with related tastes. There are worlds of difference among the varieties of these three herbs.

Sampling herbs individually will help you decide which tastes and aromas you especially like. When the distinctive taste of each herb is on the tip of your tongue, so to speak, start grouping the herbs into general categories in your mind according to their flavor and strength.

The taste of food lies largely in its scent. We detect sweet, sour, salty, bitter, alkaline, and metallic tastes in the mouth, but others are experienced through the nose. We can describe the tastes of seasonings only vaguely and from personal experience, and our ­descriptions may not match what you detect with your nose.

The art of seasoning is far too often relegated to rigid, uncompromising mea­surements or the parsimonious school of “A pinch will do.” Once you learn to taste carefully and thoughtfully, you’ll find that the remarkable discrimination and memory of the nose leaves little necessity for measurement. Seasoning is not arithmetic; it is creative adventure and cultivated skill.

Some Guidelines

In our kitchen, we group herbs according to their strength. Through many years of growing and using them, our mental catalog of herbs ranges from the most delicate, fleeting fragrance to the full, hearty flavor that speaks with authority.

We like to pair herbs of different strengths in varying proportions so that we are unable to pick out any single flavor in the final dish. The mild flavor of parsley helps to moderate the sharpness of the piny rosemary or the peppery bite of English thyme. Using one or two mild herbs along with the stronger flavors benefits both. The proportions are important; equal parts of both strong and mild herbs, or of two strong herbs, would result in flavors canceling each other out or in masking the milder ones. The master recipes on page 50 suggest suitable amounts of each herb category to start with.

Also basic to our seasoning technique are what we call “liaison herbs”. Certain herbs–among them bay leaf, parsley (especially the flat-leaved Italian variety), chives, and sweet marjoram or one of the mild oreganos such as Origanum majoricum, also sold as Italian oregano–seem to help other flavors mingle together without screaming at one another. We find ourselves using these herbs over and over and adding in other flavors, either mild ones such as lemon thyme or cilantro, or robust ones like sage and savory. The liaison herbs, some of which have assertive flavors themselves, nonetheless don’t seem to overpower other herbs or the other ingredients in the dish.

We believe that any herbs can be used with any foods, but the way in which they’re used may determine how successful the result is. When trying to achieve the right flavor, consider the foundation flavors of the basic food as well as how a given herb stands up to cooking. Herbs such as Mexican mint marigold and basil, which volatilize their essential oils at low temperatures, must be added at the end of the cooking time or enjoyed in uncooked dishes. Cilantro is wasted if it’s cooked too long, but rosemary, thyme, and sage can cook for several hours in a soup or stew and taste wonderful. Cooked quickly, as with vegetables, they impart a lighter flavor.

Tiptoe Boldly

Despite our penchant for multiple herbs, we recommend a light touch. You can add a little more seasoning more easily than you can remove an excess, so go easy until you’re familiar with a new herb or until you make a dish the second time. The flavor of strong Mexican or Greek oregano never mellows or fades away; use it sparingly or be sure you really like it before you put it into the soup pot. Add too much lemon verbena and your guests will swear that a bottle of perfume was dropped into the sauce for the carrots.

Having said that, we encourage you to be brave and expand your taste pantry. No herb chart should be considered the final word on what works well with which foods. The classic blends, often associated with an area or type of cuisine, certainly are good, but there are many other unexpected and unorthodox combinations to discover. A fruity basil and tarragon (or Mexican mint marigold in hot climates) make wonderful salad dressing or can gild sautéed squash, steamed asparagus, or pasta; a good spearmint or apple mint would further bolster the flavor. Dill and cilantro are probably the two most unlikely candidates for a merger but are delicious in salads, particularly with cucumbers, tomatoes, or steamed green beans.

When experimenting in the kitchen, include some seasonings from around the world, some of which are just now becoming available here. The workhorse herbs of the Mediterranean can combine with favorites of Southeast Asia or Mexico for delightful cross-cultural flavors.

Herbs For Another Day

A handful of lemon thyme trimmings might be just enough to sprinkle on sliced fresh tomatoes anointed with a drizzle of oil and a splash of herbal vinegar from the pantry. But we harvest often–most culinary herbs respond well to regular pruning–and we often end up with far more than we can use immediately. Although our preference is always to use herbs at their freshest, that’s not always possible. Convenience weighs in heavily with today’s busy cooks; it is easier to harvest and process herbs when the cook has the time and the plants need cutting, not when ten guests are coming for lunch and it’s raining.

Any blend made from herbs grown in your garden will be far superior to those typically found at the supermarket. Take special care in storing these blends to preserve as much of the flavor as possible. The subtle nuances of flavor are the first to be lost when fresh herbs are carelessly processed.

We find that the best way to store herbs to protect the volatile essential oils is in the freezer, after either coating them with vegetable oil or drying. We use airtight plastic, glass, or metal containers; if using plastic bags, double-­bag them for protection against the drying air of the freezer, which can cause a loss of flavor.

Herbs should be dried as quickly as possible in a cool, dark place, not the microwave or the oven. Break up the leaves only when you need them in a recipe. When drying basils, we cover the leaves with a paper towel to deter the oxidizing of the oils; the finished dried leaf is a lovely green or purple rather than khaki.

We use a liberal hand with fresh herbs, but we exercise more restraint with dried herbs because it is easy to get too much. The rule of thumb for substituting is two to three times as much fresh as dried. Most people tend to use too little fresh and too much dried herb.

When you’re experimenting to create your own blends, you may find that weighing the ingredients is more accurate than measuring, particularly if you want to duplicate the blend later.

A Serious Cook’s Garden

The quality of the herbs you grow is a top priority; they must have the finest oils to produce their best taste in the kitchen. Some culinary herbs can be started from seed, but many are best grown from plants and propagated vegetatively.

The flavors of oreganos grown from seed will vary from none at all to very harsh menthol. Mints are incestuous; don’t let them bloom because they’ll cross with all your other mints and even those in the next block, and the seedlings will often have a muddy or dull fragrance. Look for clean, sharp flavors in the mints. Spearmint should smell like Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum, and peppermint should smell like Wrigley’s Doublemint Gum. Basils will cross-pollinate, but the offspring will still have good-quality oils.

When purchasing plants, insist on named varieties, not just a generic mint, oregano, or rosemary. Great variance among the plants of one variety may suggest that they are seed-grown. When selecting a plant, brush or rub a leaf slightly; smell the plant, not your hand. The essential oils are located in the hairs on the stem and leaves.

The following garden plan is designed for the serious cook. Planted in a sunny 12-by-16-foot plot, the garden will provide ample herbs for a family of four and friends. It includes the herbs that we use most often in our blends, and the number of plants represents roughly the proportions in which we use these herbs.

The same garden can easily be planted on a smaller scale in containers; we often use whiskey barrels, 12-inch clay pots, and chimney flues. Good potting soil, ample watering, and regular feeding will permit close planting in containers. A grouping of containers can give you substantial herbal harvests, and the regular pruning will, in turn, limit the plants to a manageable size.

Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay blend the arts of cooking, gardening, and music in Round Top, Texas.

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