I scooped up a forkful of my husband’s and my latest cooperative food effort, and looked at it for a minute.
“This wouldn’t be nearly as good without the herbs and spices,” I said. “Nothing is as good without herbs and spices.”
I’d been thinking about this after getting off the phone with a girlfriend who admitted that she didn’t use any of them. In fact, she had only recently purchased thyme for the very first time. I hope she didn’t sense my inward gasp at the thought of her being a stranger to an herb that’s been a long-standing friend of mine.
“My husband likes his food plain,” she said, by way of explanation.
To which I responded, “Start adding a few herbs and spices at a time–not enough to jolt him to awareness, but enough to make him say, ‘Hey, this is good!’ He doesn’t have to know why it’s good.”
She laughed, and for all I know, forgot all about that part of our conversation as soon as it ended. I didn’t.
So, while we ate our meatball-and-veggie combo, I thought about herbs and spices, and wondered aloud what the difference is. Some of them come from the leaves of plants, others from the nuts or roots. I finally decided that herbs are leafy
derivatives, and spices are everything else. I was half right.
Part of the difference has to do with geography. I googled the question and found this on the website of the University of Delaware Cooperative Extension: “Technically, herbs come from the aromatic plants grown in the temperate zone, while spices are the products of tropical plants. Usually the leaves of herbs are used; whereas spices may come from bark, berries, flower buds, roots or seeds.” Salt, evidently, is a category all its own.
People have asked me how I determine what spices and herbs to use with what foods. Sometimes I simply experiment, sometimes I go by smell. I’ve been known to open one jar after another, while standing over a piece of meat, inhale while thinking of the taste of that meat, and choose my spice according to that. That’s how I discovered that I love grilled pork chops seasoned with garlic salt and thyme.
I use garlic in just about anything, and if salt is called for–which it always is, as far as I’m concerned–I use garlic salt, and then sometimes add more garlic, either powdered or fresh. Then I pair it with another herb or spice. (Dried herbs are more potent than fresh ones, so I adjust the amounts accordingly.)
One of my favorites is garlic salt, dill and pepper on skinless chicken breasts. It’s good baked, but a little dry, so I put them in a crock-pot, add an undrained can of mushrooms, and let it cook. The mushroom juice, combined with the natural juice buildup from steam and the chicken itself, makes a wonderful gravy. And, despite what some people say, I don’t see gravy as the enemy, at least not when there’s no fat in it. In this instance, a little flour and water is all that’s needed to thicken the juice, and the calories are minimal.
Another of my favorite herbs is sweet basil, and I like it with beef. An inexpensive recipe that I often fixed for my kids was a version of scalloped potatoes. I sliced and parboiled the potatoes, then layered them with browned hamburger, to which I had added garlic salt and sweet basil–and I didn’t skimp on the basil. Then I made a white sauce that contained a bit of “liquid smoke,” and baked it until bubbly at 350°. It is SO yummy, and is popular at potlucks, especially with the guys.
George and I both like our foods on the spicy side. For that, I sometimes use Cajun seasoning, which contains salt. If I’ve already added garlic salt to whatever I’m making, I’ll use crushed red pepper flakes for the kick–in addition to whatever other herb I decide on. Those crushed red-pepper flakes add the zing that I always long for in a tuna salad or salmon patties–along with some mustard, of course, and maybe some thyme.
On this particular day, that forkful of food was a one-pan meal that we vary with the types of spices and sauces used. The basic elements today were chopped red, yellow and green sweet peppers, chopped zucchini, chopped onion and minced fresh garlic, sautéed in olive oil, to which I added chorizo meatballs, a little garlic salt, crushed red pepper and, because chorizo is a Mexican or Spanish meat, some cumin, which is often found in Mexican foods. I added a little water, thickened with corn starch, and served it over rice. But sometimes I add a white sauce, (especially if I’ve used chicken chunks) or barbecue sauce with seasoned hamburger meatballs.
Another version, with the chicken chunks, is to add pineapple with its juice, and thicken that with corn starch. But, I still add the crush red pepper!
Last but not least, I never make plain mashed potatoes any more. I always add garlic salt to them, just enough to make people wonder why they’re so much better than what they make at home.
Some people aren’t very adventurous about trying new spices until they’re more familiar with them. The University of Delaware web site had an idea about that. They suggested mixing a specific herb with butter, margarine or cream cheese, letting it sit for an hour, and then spreading it on a cracker.
Hmmm, I think I feel some hors d’oeuvres coming on.