The Past Revisited.
In Part I of this article The Spice is Right I set out the background of spices in the culinary world.
Cooking with herbs has once again become fashionable. This is based in part because they add a zest to the generally bland undertones of processed foods, and partly because the chef’s back story of dishes is no longer confined to regional or national recipes, but embraces different tastes encountered on travels and holidays or introduced by multinational cultures. A simple trip around #ParlezPantry shows you that.
Flavouring with herbs, though, is less of a transient fashion than a past age revisited for knowledge of their properties. Today we use herbs for the subtle flavours they add to particular dishes, but their value goes way beyond that. For a start they stimulate the appetite, improve the digestion and aid the preservation of foods. Herbs themselves contain volatile oils with antibacterial properties, as well as essential vitamins, minerals and trace elements important for a healthy diet and a healthy gut. Parsley, for example, is rich in calcium, and garlic is purported to reduce the blood cholesterol level as well as to combat colds and flu to name just a few benefits.
Spices are the dried leaves, flowers, seeds, bark and roots of aromatics plants not commonly grown in Europe. Once they were more precious than gold – the Queen of Sheba brought spices as gifts to King Solomon – and the trade in spices along the dangerous caravan routes from the Far East to the Mediterranean brought wars and the collapse of whole empires in its wake. In the East, spices performed the same role as herbs in the West – that of flavouring indigenous foods. In Europe, the original use of spices may have been primarily to disguise the flavour of meat and fish long past their best, but their continuing popularity is indicative of an appreciation of their flavour and potency.
Today, all the world’s spices are available in cheap, neat little packages on supermarket shelves, and many, such as pepper, are so common that they are regarded as ordinary condiments.
Powdered Spices are convenient to use, but their flavour is vastly inferior to whole spices, ground or pounded as and when required in the kitchen. Once reduced to a powder, they begin to lose their pungency immediately, more rapidly so when packaged in clear little glass bottles, or plastic bags – spices should always be stored in a dark, cool and dry place. To release their full aroma, whole spices should ideally be roasted or toasted in a dry pan over a gentle heat before being ground. Small coffee grinders, hand or electrically operated, are suitable for pulverising spices, or they can be powdered in a pestle and mortar.
Fresh herbs are far superior to dried or frozen ones. Attractive as garnishes, the volatile oils are most pronounced in newly gathered herbs, that are picked before the plants reach the flowering stage and snipped in the morning as soon as the dew has departed. If you have a garden, you can devote a small plot to a selection of your most desired herbs, or plan a decorative herb garden on the lines of an Elizabethan geometric design, or, you could, just plant as you see fit.
You can also grow herbs in pots on a patio or balcony or on a sunny windowsill. With good natural light, parsley and chervil, basil and chives, rosemary, bay and thyme, among others, can be grown indoors.
For freezing or drying, pick the leaves just before the plants come into flower, when the volatile oils are strongest. Freezing preserves the flavour far better than drying, especially of delicately flavoured herbs such as parsley, chives, basil, fennel and dill. Strip the leaves from the stems or leave them in small sprigs, rinse them well and shake them dry before enclosing them in plastic bags for freezing. Small-leaved herbs such as chervil can also be chopped and frozen in ice-cube trays. Frozen herbs are, obviously, not suitable for garnishing.
For drying, cut long-stemmed herbs – sage, mint, marjoram – and tie them in small bunches before hanging them upside-down to dry indoors or under a covered way. After a fortnight the leaves should have dried and can be stripped from the stems and stored in airtight, non-transparent containers. Dry herbs grown for their seeds – dill, caraway, coriander – in paper bags and discard the chaff before storing the seeds.
Dried herbs should be stored in a cool, dry place. Their contribution is more concentrated than fresh or frozen herbs: half a teaspoon of a dried herb is equivalent to one and a half to two teaspoons of freshly chopped leaves. Dried herbs lose most of their flavour within about six months.