One of my favorite things to do is shop for spices and herbs. There is something about the colors, scents and inherent possibility of flavors that attract me. The deep red hues of paprika and the golden yellows of turmeric, as well as the feathery texture of dill and the bold scent of rosemary all draw me in. But this is just a drop in the bucket in the multitude of spices and herbs.
This time of year is a treat because farmers markets are filled with freshly picked herbs. If you can't make it to one of the markets, Walmart, Dierbergs and Schnucks in Manchester sell fresh herbs. Walmart also sells potted herbs so you can start your own herb garden. Whole Foods Market and Schnucks in Town and Country also offer fresh herbs.
Spices and herbs create additional layers of flavor and complexity that enhance the profile of any dish. They also reduce the dependency on salt and fat for flavor.
Spices come from the bark, root, buds, seeds and berries of plants and trees, such as cinnamon, ginger, saffron, mustard and pepper, respectively. Historically, in addition to flavor, spices were used as preservatives and for color.
Herbs are the fragrant, fresh leafy parts of trees or plants. Each herb has a distinct flavor. Even the stem in an herb differs in flavor from the leaf of the same plant. Herbs are often dried and sold in the spice section.
Spices and herbs can define the ethnicity of a dish. Basil and oregano (with a little garlic and olive oil, of course) turn tomatoes into something Italian, while cilantro (with some chilies and lime) make a dish Mexican.
Spices and dried herbs have a more intense and rigid flavor. Lightly crush them with your hands or a mortar and pestle. Heat the spices in the beginning of cooking along with the fat (oil, butter, etc.) in the dish. This invigorates the natural oils in the spice and allows them to infuse the cooking oil and other ingredients. Store them in a dark, cool and dry place--away from air, heat and sunlight.
Spices are available at all of your local Town and Country and Manchester grocery stores. Whole Foods in particular sells some spices, such as cinnamon sticks and vanilla beans and dried herbs such as bay leaves, rosemary and lavender in bulk, which make them more economical. Just be sure to smell them for freshness. La Morena (Mexican) and Seema Enterprises (Indian) in Manchester sell spices as well.
Alternately, fresh herbs add a crispness and brightness to a dish. Choose herbs with aromatic, bright green and spunky leaves. Store them at home in wrapped in a damp paper towel and sealed in an airtight plastic bag. Stored in this fashion, fresh herbs usually last five to seven days in the refrigerator.
Basil is an herb in the mint family. Fresh, it has a strong sweet scent with hints of flowers and licorice. Most often it is used in Italian and some Asian cuisines (Thailand, Vietnam, etc.). The dry herb is slightly sweet with a more muted licorice flavor. In the winter time the dried version is satisfactory for tomato sauce, but in the summer time, the fresh basil is spectacular and may even be transformed into pesto sauce. Basil is frequently sold fresh this time of year. Store in a short vase or glass, in water and on the counter. Refrigeration will turn the leaves black.
Garlic is a member of the lily family, along with leeks, chives, onions and shallots. The edible bulb grows beneath the ground. Garlic has a unique flavor, spicy when raw and sweet when roasted. Lightly chopped garlic is less spicy than finely chopped garlic because there is less surface area. Roasted garlic is sweet, soft and spreadable (great for bread). Store the bulb in a dry, cool place.
Here is an easy but tasty recipe using some of the above herbs and spices.
8 tomatoes (Plum, Campari, or any tangy Heirloom variety), chopped
10 leaves fresh basil, chopped*
2 cloves minced garlic
pinch crushed red pepper (optional)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 loaf French bread, cut into diagonal slices
Salt and pepper to taste
*To chop the basil, stack a few leaves, roll like a taco, and slice thinly in ribbons. This is called chiffonade.
Preheat broiler or grill (this recipe is great for an outdoor barbecue).
On a baking sheet, arrange the slices of bread in a single layer and brown both sides slightly in the oven or grill directly on the grill.
For a formal setting, prepare the bruschetta for your guests by topping the warm bread with the bruschetta and serve. For an informal barbecue, serve the warm bread on a platter with the bruschetta in a decorative bowl on the side and allow your guests to indulge on their own.
There are so many spices and herbs to taste. Smell, taste and try them all!