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HERBS AND SPICES
KARAN DAVIS CUTLER
Generalizing about anything is dangerous. (To generalize, the poet William Blake observed, "is to be an idiot.") But attempting to write about herbs and spices and how they're used in different cuisines in fewer than 700 pages requires generalizing, just as defining the difference between herbs and spices does. Because herbs and spices are intertwined in most cuisines, many dishes and traditions include both.
In general, we grow herbs for their green parts, that's to say for their leaves and stalks; we cultivate spices for their flowers, fruits, seeds, bark, and roots. In general, we use herbs fresh, and spices dried. In general, we agree on which is which: basil and parsley are herbs; saffron, the stigmas of Crocus sativus, and cinnamon, the bark of Cinnamomum verum (C. zeylanicum), are spices. But there are plants that are both: used fresh, Coriandrum sativum is the herb cilantro, while the plant's dried seeds are the spice coriander. So take the generalizations that follow with a grain of salt—which, by the by, is a basic taste but neither an herb nor a spice. (Herbs and spices contain flavor, the combination of taste and aroma.)
A TASTE OF EUROPE
Many North Americans are most familiar with the herbs and spices popular in European kitchens. Thyme, tarragon, oregano, marjoram, parsley, sage, basil, bay, garlic, and rosemary are common inFrench and southern European cooking. A bouquet garni, which is nothing more than sprigs of thyme, bay, and parsley tied together, is de rigueur in countless French stews and other dishes. Fines herbes, equal amounts of fresh chopped chervil, chives, parsley, and tarragon, is used in soups, stews, meat dishes, and more, and so is herbes de Provence, a mix of equal parts dried basil, fennel seed, lavender, marjoram, rosemary, sage, summer savory, and thyme.
In Italy, oregano, basil, and garlic are a near-holy trinity, commonly used in both fresh and cooked dishes. Spain and Portugal use fewer herbs than most of their Mediterranean neighbors, but no one should take a trip to Spain without sampling paella, the traditional rice and seafood dish that is seasoned with saffron. Or leave Portugal or Madeira without having tasted espetada, beef kebabs flavored with bay, or laurel.
In Northern and Eastern Europe, dill, mint, parsley, caraway, thyme, horseradish, sorrel, fennel, and paprika are everyday ingredients—as well as garlic, that ubiquitous kitchen herb. Dilled horseradish-mustard sauce is popular in many regional cuisines in this area of the world, served with cold meats, fish, hard-boiled eggs, and sliced cucumbers and tomatoes. Garlic is the predominant flavor in tarator, a cold Bulgarian soup made from cucumbers, ground walnuts, and yogurt, while the Russian cucumber soup rassolnik is made with fennel. Beet soup, or borscht, is traditionally flavored with dill, parsley, and lovage; Romania's traditional clear-broth soup, known as chorbe, depends on lovage for its tang but may also contain dill, parsley, coriander, chives, and garlic. New potatoes dressed with dill are a popular dish in Finland. Dill is everyday fare in many Scandinavian dishes—in fact, the word dill comes from the Old Norse dilla, which means "to lull to sleep."
NORTH AFRICAN AND
Europe has lost some of its glamour as the culinary Mecca these days. With the shrinking of the globe through international travel and advances in communication, food lovers have developed a zest for the cuisines of other parts of the world, such as North Africa, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific. So, empty your bottles of herbes de Provence and refill them with dukka, an Egyptian spice blend of sesame seeds, roasted chickpeas, coriander, cumin, and mint, or with garam masala, a blend from northern India that includes cinnamon, bay, cumin, coriander, cardamom, peppercorns, cloves, and mace.
Middle Eastern kitchens use a wide variety of flavorings, perhaps a reflection of the many cultures that call the region home. The emphasis is on spices, aniseed, allspice, caraway, cardamom, cassia, coriander, dove, cumin, dill, fennel, fenugreek, ginger root, nutmeg, saffron, sumac, and more. Basil, cilantro, garlic, marjoram, mint, parsley, rosemary, sage, and thyme are commonly used fresh herbs. Hilbeh, a Yemeni sauce, derives its flavor from fenugreek and coriander; harissa, a tongue-searing sauce from Tunisia, contains garlic, caraway, cumin, coriander, and mint as well as chile peppers. Falafel, the popular Middle Eastern street food made of puréed chickpeas, is seasoned with garlic, parsley, coriander, and cumin, shaped into small patties, and fried in hot oil.
Garlic is probably the most common flavoring in Greek and Turkish foods, essential to the olive-based sauces skorthalia (Greece) and tarator (Turkey). Garlic and mint are used to flavor the familiar cucumber-yogurt dish, which is called tzatziki in Greece, and çaçik in Turkey. In the more moderate climate of Greece, dill, marjoram, oregano, and mint are widely grown and used; in Turkey, spices tend to predominate, especially allspice, cumin, and cinnamon.
In North Africa, saffron, cumin, paprika, turmeric, ginger, cardamom, cassia, mace, chiles, nutmeg, and garlic are standard fare. Moroccan cooks purée cilantro, parsley, garlic, cumin, paprika, and saffron with lemon juice and olive oil to make chermoula, a sauce well-matched with grilled chicken or fish; la kama, a mixture of ginger, cumin, nutmeg, turmeric, and black pepper, is used to flavor stews and soups. Couscous, the North African dish that is now a common offering at deli counters, is typically made with coriander, cumin, ginger, cinnamon, and turmeric.
Couscous looks like a grain but it's actually a type of pasta. Pasta and grain dishes are very common throughout the world. Rice is used in India to make pilau or pilaf, which is flavored with a five-spice mixture (cumin, black cumin, mustard, fennel, and fenugreek) called panch phora. Jollof, a pilaf-like dish from West Africa, can be made with cloves, cumin, garlic, ginger, mint, paprika, thyme, or other herbs and spices. In Indonesia, nasi kuning, a yellow-rice dish prepared to mark happy occasions, uses lemon grass, turmeric, and salam leaves.
In Iran, even simple rice dishes such as chelow are prepared with saffron, while in Mexico you may encounter green rice, arroz verde, made with chiles, parsley, epazote, and garlic.
Garlic is an essential ingredient in many Thai recipes, as are chile peppers (prik nam som, or chiles in rice vinegar, is a well-known condiment); tamarind, zedoary, lemon grass, ginger, basil, cilantro, and mint are also common ingredients. Thai chefs often mix a half-dozen herbs and spices with coconut milk to produce complex flavors in curry dishes. Vietnamese cuisine is distinguished by the very large amounts of herbs used, especially dill, lemon grass, cilantro, mint, and basil. Pho bo, a beef-and-noodle soup that is eaten any time of day, is served with lime wedges and generous bowls of fresh herbs, including chiles, cilantro, mint, and basil. Com hung giang, a spicy Vietnamese rice dish containing shrimp, is flavored with lemon grass, garlic, chile peppers, scallions, onions, Vietnamese fish sauce, and shallots, and garnished with cilantro.
Even an abridged list of spices and herbs used everyday in Indonesian cooking is impressive: Cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, curry leaf (Murraya koenigii), chiles, garlic, ginger, lemon grass, nutmeg, and turmeric are the names most of us know. Less familiar—or completely unfamiliar—are kenchur root, laos root, and tamarind. A typical dish is a vegetable soup made with coconut milk and flavored with garlic, ginger, chiles, lemon grass, and turmeric. Tamarind, which has a sour, fruity flavor, is also used in the Philippines, as are garlic, chiles, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, nutmeg, rosemary, and dill.
A TASTE OF INDIA, CHINA, AND JAPAN
Indians use almost as many herbs and spices as languages (15 major and more than 1,000 minor languages). Tradition has it that to be a good cook in India, one must first be a good masalchi, or blender of spices. Basic curry blends, most characteristic of southern Indian cooking, are likely to include chiles, coriander, cumin, curry leaf, mustard, peppercorns, fenugreek, ginger, and turmeric. Garam masala, one of the primary spice blends used in the north, contains cinnamon, bay, cumin, coriander, cardamom, peppercorns, cloves, and mace. In eastern India, cooks blend cumin, fennel, mustard, nigella, and fenugreek to form a mixture called panch phora. Which flavorings are used most often throughout India? Probably garlic, mint, cilantro, and ginger.
Two of the world's most popular cuisines—those of China and Japan—are nearly herb-free zones. In Chinese cooking, ginger, chiles, cloves, star anise, and garlic are used sparingly; herbs are even rarer in Japanese kitchens, where the emphasis is on unadorned flavors. Korean cooks add herbs with a heavier hand, especially garlic, ginger, and chiles, which are combined with fermented soybeans to make kochujang, a popular flavoring.
THE FLAVORS OF SOUTH AND CENTRAL AMERICA
AND THE CARIBBEAN
In the Caribbean and South America, the chile is king, with cilantro, parsley, annatto, allspice, and garlic playing secondary roles. In Mexico, annatto, avocado leaves, bay, cinnamon, cilantro and coriander, epazote, garlic, hoja santa, onions, and Mexican oregano (Spanish thyme) are used often, but none as often as chiles. Serranos are the favored pepper for guacamole and salsa de tomate verde cruda, which is made with green tomatoes. Jalapeños are used for stuffing and smoked to become chiles chipotles. Poblanos are typically charred and peeled before they're stuffed with meat or cheese for chiles rellenos or added to salads and soups. When ripe and dried, the poblano is called a chile ancho; it is the most common chile in Mexican kitchens. Güeros are used for pickling and to flavor stews; and habaneros are used to produce sauces hot enough to make a gringo cry for mercy.
A final generalization: few things have traveled the globe more widely than herbs and spices. Basil, cilantro, dill, garlic, parsley, and mint, to mention only a haft dozen, are common culinary commodities everywhere. No surprise, perhaps, for the spice trade began at least 5,000 years ago. So it's only a matter of time until American garden centers offer tamarind trees and we're all tucking epazote and zedoary between the rosemary and the thyme in our gardens.
THE AMERICAS: ARROZ VERDE
Arroz verde, or green rice, is a visual treat from the Puebla region of Mexico. This recipe comes from Karen Hursh Graber, a native New Yorker who maintains a web site crammed with recipes and information about Mexican cuisine (www.mexconnect.com), as well as a great guide to the herbs and spices used south of the border.
1 cup raw rice
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
3 small or 2 large poblano chiles, roasted, seeded, and peeled
1/2 medium onion, chopped
2-3 sprigs fresh parsley
2-3 sprigs fresh epazote
2-3 cloves garlic
21/2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1/2 cup fresh or thawed frozen peas (optional)
Soak the rice in hot water for 15 minutes, then rinse in a strainer under running water. Drain rice and let dry.
Purée the chiles, onion, garlic, parsley, epazote with 1/2 cup of the broth in a blender or food processor.
Heat the oil in a large skillet. Add rice and sauté it, stirring frequently, until golden. Add the purée, mixing well; add the remaining 2 cups of broth. Cover and simmer over low heat until all the liquid has been absorbed. Remove from heat and add peas. Salt to taste.
|Introduction GROWING HERBS FOR EVERY OCCASION Beth Hanson||4|
|What's Cooking? HERBS AND SPICES AROUND THE WORLD Karan|
|Colors, Scents, Contours, and Contrasts DESIGNING AN HERB|
|GARDEN Gwen Barclay and Madalene Hill||19|
|A Moveable Feast GROWING HERBS IN CONTAINERS Barbara Perry|
|Sprouts Galore STARTING HERBS FROM SEED Holly Shimizu||38|
|Preserving Herbs THE TASTE OF SUMMER YEAR-ROUND Susan|
|ENCYCLOPEDIA OF GOURMET HERBS Susan Belsinger and Kathleen|
|USDA Hardiness Zone Map||103|
|Seed and Plant Sources||104|
|For More Information||105|