NATURAL HERBS AND SPICES
We add herbs, spices and condiments to our food primarily for the flavor they impart. They add an extra something that changes dull food into interesting, mouth-watering dishes. Herbs, spices and condiments are all important in our daily enjoyment of food. The gourmet in of us requires gourmet herbs and spices.
AROMATIC AND HEALTHY
Using aromatic herbs and spices not only means new interesting flavors, but also taking advantage of their many good qualities to prepare healthier meals.
- Good for the digestion – Herbs and spices are rich in essential oils ant other phyto chemicals that facilitate digestion of food. Some of them prevent unpleasant fermentation’s.
- “Kill” dangerous bacteria – Most herbs and spices have a strong antiseptic, disinfectant and anti bacterial action. Not only inside of our organism, but directly over food as well, as it is in the case of marinades. Spices help to preserve cooked food, a blessing in hot climates before fridges. were in the picture.
- Less salt and fat – Thanks to the intense flavor herbs and spices impart, there is no need to add so much salt and you can use cooking techniques that require less fat, like broiling or baking food wrapped in foil or an oven bag.
- A natural pharmacy – From the beginning, herbs and spices were used for their health enhancing quality as for their flavor. Many herbs are attributed therapeutic properties and using them help to prevent several medical conditions.
- Life giving nutrients – Although only small quantities of herbs and spices are used at a time -ranging from a pinch to a few tablespoons- they add useful vitamins, mainly A and C, minerals and other interesting phyto chemicals: essential oils, carotids, flavonoids and antocyanyns.
ALL ABOUT SPICES AND FLAVORINGS
This is a brief guide to some of the most popular herbs, spices and natural flavorings. As the interest in herbs and spices is growing, and their use in cooking is becoming more popular every day, due to the increasing internationalization of cooking methods and techniques, this guide proves to be very useful.
SPICES AND HOW THEY GET TO THE MARKET
Spices are usually the dried, aromatic parts of plants; either seeds, berries, roots, pods, buds, bark, and, sometimes, leaves and flesh.
No long ago, most spices had to be bought at ethnic stores, since most of them came from tropical countries and require processing before they can be used. Today, most grocery stores carry a wide selection of spices.
Always buy dry spices in small quantities; preferably from a store with a big turnover. Label with the date of purchase and keep for no longer than six to eight months.
HOW TO USE AND STORE SPICES
As a general rule, the final dish always benefits if berries and seeds are freshly ground before being added to the pot. This will produce superior results. It is easily done with a mortar and pestle, a coffee or spice grinder reserved only for this use. Spice grinders are useful for peppercorns or coriander seeds. A liquidizer can be used if adding some liquid beforehand, like cooking stock. All this tools can be used for the purees and pastes so popular in India and South East Asia.
Spices lose flavor and aroma with age. Discard them if they have been sitting in the pantry for longer than six to eight months. Keep them in tightly closed containers, away from light.
HOW TO GROW SPICES
Although few spices can be grown in a herb garden, there are some comments about how they are cultivated. Some of the plants included as flavorings, onions or garlic, for instance, can be grown in a kitchen garden.
ESSENTIAL HERBS & SPICES
The red powder found in the stores under the name of cayenne pepper is a blend of several ground tropical dried chilies. The cayenne chilies probably originated in the French Guyana; now are grown in many other countries. There is not much difference between cayenne and other chili powders; all are extremely hot and equally fiery. Cayenne powder is more finely ground because it is used as a table condiment, in the same way as salt and pepper. However, any fine chili powder can replace cayenne.
Cayenne was a key hot spice in Western countries, widely used to cheer sauces and fish or to enliven many Anglo-Indian dishes, such as kedgeree; it was added to devilled kidneys and other popular offers in Victorian and Edwardian breakfast menus. Its use diminished as new fresh and dried chilies became available.
Cayenne is an interesting spice, though, lending its spiciness and light orange color to soups, sauces, and fish dishes, in particular those from North America southern states, many of which are a combination of Spanish, French and West African cooking. Read more about Cayenne here.
CINNAMON AND CASSIA
The familiar spice cinnamon is prepared from the aromatic bark of the tree of that name. Cassia, also known as Chinese cinnamon, is a different plant but with a very similar flavor. Both cinnamon and cassia are used in the same way; sometimes they are treated as if they were the same spice.
Cinnamon was once a rare and expensive. Moses used it to anoint the Ark of the Covenant. It was also one of the gifts the Queen of Sheba presented to King Solomon who valued it as a treasure. Nero burnt a whole year’s supply of cinnamon at the funeral of his wife, Poppaea, a fact deeply deplored by Plinii.
Although it was not cheap, cinnamon, together with ginger, became a household staple in medieval times. It was used in the one-pot meals and fruit dishes popular at that time.
Cinnamon is still employed extensively in Asian cuisine for both, sweet and savory dishes. In Western cuisine, it has been limited to sweet dishes and desserts, like custards, creams, cakes, cookies and other baked goods. Read more about the health benefits of cinnamon here.
Ginger was first cultivated in China and India. It was one of the first spices to travel west, leading to the opening of the spice trade routes. It became popular and as valued as medicinal and cooking spice. Ginger’s hot, spicy flavor is familiar to many from cookies and gingerbread.
Ginger has been present in western cuisines for centuries always dried or powdered; green or fresh ginger is a modern addition, its popularity increasing in direct proportion to the fascination with oriental cooking.
The origin of the name ginger is in the Sanskrit word “sinabera” meaning “in the shape of a horn.” Ginger truly resembles an antler.English pubs in the 19th century used to keep a shaker with ginger on the counter so the customers could sprinkle some into their drinks. Ginger beer and ginger ale derive from this tradition. Read more about ginger here.
The condiment we usually call fennel are the small, dried, greenish to light-brown seeds of the common fennel, a robust perennial often grown as annual. The plant can reach up to 8 ft (2.5 m) and it has a short, solid stem with fine, feathery leaves; in mid to late summer, petite yellow flowers emerge in large umbrella-like clusters.
Fennel is a perennial European herb, common in the Mediterranean, where leaves and seeds have been employed since distant past. The fragrant, feathery leaves are used as an aromatic herb. The seeds are used as a seasoning, imparting their delicate aniseed flavor whenever fresh leaves are unavailable. The bulbous stem of Florence fennel (finochia) is a vegetable and the stalks are used as celery stalks.
Fennel goes well with fish. A sweet aniseed aroma permeates the air when fennel leaves and stalks are used to enhance the flavor of mullet, or sardines, cooked outdoors, on an open fire. The leaves are also used to lighten the richness of fatty meats, like pork. The seeds improve the flavor of sausages and salamis.
The use of fennel is limited in eastern cuisine, where only the seeds find their way into some curries, the Chinese five-spice powder, or the Indian pa’an, a digestive aid. The used of fennel stalks in Thai vegetable curries is very recent and not yet extended.
The seeds are used as a condiment, the leaves as an aromatic herb, and the dried stalks as a flavoring. Native to the Mediterranean, fennel is now cultivated worldwide.
Horseradish is a hot and spicy condiment obtained from a plant in the mustard family. The plan originated in Eastern Europe and has been know since antiquity.
Horseradish was widely used in the Middle Ages to treat a variety of complaints ranging from digestive problems, to gout, swellings and arthritis. It became a popular flavoring in Northern Europe where it was used very much like mustard to accompany oily fish. It has been used to spice pickles and ketchups and its role as traditional garnish for roast beef is relatively recent. Horseradish is one of the five bitter herbs used in the Jewish Passover.
The leaves can be used in salads, but it is the large white root what the part employed the most.
The Japanese horseradish, also known as wasabi, is a completely different species. An imitation wasabi is prepared using horseradish, mustard seed and green food coloring.
Capsicum peppers were one of the presents Columbus brought to the Spanish Queen and King when he met them at Guadalupe Monastery on return from his second trip to the American Continent. The monks took it from there, and the sunlight, warmth and perfect weather conditions in Exremadura did the rest. Thanks to the monks, peppers became popular very quickly in Spain and Europe, mainly around the Mediterranean because of the temperate climate peppers need to thrive.
There are many kinds of peppers; only two of them are used to make paprika. Those are smaller, thinner, and longer, and they have less flesh that the varieties used as a vegetable. Once picked from the plant, the fruits are dried, and milled afterwards. The name paprika comes from Hungary, where it is very popular and an essential ingredient for their goulash, regarded as national dish.
We very much prefer the Spanish varieties. In Spain, it is know as pimentón and it is used in many dishes; indispensable in the Spanish sausage, chorizo, a product my family is completely hooked on. Paprika can range from mild and sweet to hot and pungent depending on the amount of seeds included when milling the peppers. In Murcia, the peppers are opened, de-seeded and left to dry on racks, under the sun.
The resultant powder is very sweet. In the Tietar River valley, where Pimenton de la Vera originates, the fruits are harvested and classified; some will be employed to make sweet paprika and others will render it hot. The peppers dry under the sun for two weeks; then finish drying over the smoke of oak fires, getting a very characteristic flavor.
From the health point of view, paprika aids digestion by stimulating production of saliva and digestive juices. Peppers have a surprisingly high amount of vitamin C, still present in the powder, and other phyto chemicals; liberally sprinkling your food with paprika may have unexpected benefits. Since the sweet variety doesn’t irritate the stomach and the recommended daily amount has no limit, it could be a great addition to any diet.
Cumin dates back to the Old Testament and it is mentioned Several times in the Bible. It was as widely used in ancient times as it is today. Old legends say the plant has the power of keeping lovers from straying.
Whole or ground, cumin flavor, which is aromatically spicy rather than hot, is an essential ingredient in most North African, Middle Eastern and Indian cooking. It is also used in Spanish and Portuguese cuisine, to flavor sausages, rice, and stuffed vegetables.
Cumin is the most prominent aroma in a Moroccan bazaar, flavoring most of the kebabs roasted outdoors. It is strongly associated with most of Middle East bean soups or couscous. In India cumin is used in most curry powders and innumerable dishes, as well as in a refreshing drink made with tamarind water.
Remember that lightly roasting the seeds in a dry frying pan before using brings out cumin’s interesting flavor and aroma.
Aniseed is probably one of the oldest cultivated spices. The early Egyptians were already using it, as did Greeks and Romans, who used it to flavor chicken, pork, vegetables, and some small spicy cakes, served at the end of a copious meal as a digestive.
From the middle ages to the 19th century, aniseed “comfits” —sugar coated seeds— were served after banquets for the same purpose. Nowadays, we enjoy aniseed flavor liquor after a heavy meal. Aniseed aids digestion. Babies and young children can benefit of aniseed in tea form. Do not mistake anise or fennel tea with star anise tea.
Coriander is one of the most used and versatile of all the spices and herbs. It is considered both, spice –coriander seeds- and aromatic herb –coriander leaves, cilantro. The flavor of the leaves and the seeds are completely different.
The seeds have been well known and treasured from the Mediterranean to the Middle East, Indian and China since early history. Indeed, there are references to coriander seeds in old Sanskrit writings and they have been one of the treasures retrieved from early Egyptian tombs.
Be brazen when using coriander seeds, as its mildness will prevent it from overpowering the dish. It blends well with garlic and chili, flavoring lamb, sausages and other cooked pork products in Western cuisine, spice meat dishes in the Caribbean and curries in Asian cuisine. It is also used with vegetables. Crushed coriander seeds are favorite Greek flavoring for olives. The seeds are used whole for pickling and in drinks, ground for baking, spice mixes and soups, imparting a flavor between sage, caraway, and lemon.
Coriander leaves are pungent, bitter, and one the most widely used aromatic herbs in the world, from Mexican cuisine to south Eastern Asia. They are not so much used in Western cuisine those whose palate is used only to European and North American cooking find that fresh coriander leaves require some adjusting of taste.
Chopped and minced like parsley, the leaves can be added to salads and other cooked food. Nevertheless, it is preferable to add them to those Mexican, Caribbean, Indian or Thai dishes where they bring authenticity.
Caraway seeds are the fragrant seeds of an herb in the parsley family. They have a sharp, delicate anise flavor and are used extensively in German and Austria; they are important in Eastern Europe cuisine.
The use of this aromatic seed in Europe can be traced back to prehistoric times. In present times, caraway flavors all kind of vegetables, meats like pork, goose, goulash and other stews, cheese, breads, cakes, dumplings, and the liqueurs kummel and aquavit.
The Greeks believed mint could clear the voice and cure hiccups and mint still helps with hiccups, watery eyes, and headaches in children.
Peppermint and spearmint arrived to the New World with the early settlers, who would use them for medicinal purposes and to help them sleep. Colonists also drank mint tea for pleasure -iit wasn’t taxed- and mint became a sign of hospitality with time. Ladies and gentlemen in the South would sit on the veranda sipping mint juleps.
Peppermint is the most common today; you’ll find it as a flavoring for candy, gum, and sweets, as well as toothpaste, cough drops, and other medicines. It is also used in beauty and health products, especially for oily skin and hair.
Mint is an extremely versatile herb, complements dishes both sweet and savory from a wide array of cuisines, ethnic or else. It has the ability to bring freshness to any dish and not a subtle flavor at all.
Mint can be an ingredient in a main course or a dessert, sprinkled on a snack, used to enliven leftovers, or to bring the gourmet touch to a fancy dinner. You can enjoy mint at breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Rosemary is one of the more popular shrubby herbs, with its narrow evergreen leaves and bright blue flowers that bloom from April to June. Its used to flavor sweets like jellies and jams as well as being soaked for a tea. Breads and meats also benefit from its use, and the flowers can be sprinkled onto salads.
Traditionally, rosemary was thought to ward off evil spirits, and anyone that has ever passed by a rosemary bush and inhaled its wonderful fragrance can attest to its head clearing effect.
Lemon balm is a plant from the mint family. It has a pleasant lemony scent, that’s why it got this name. The flowers attract bees, for this reason its scientific name is melissa -hint: “mel” means honey in Latin and melissa comes from the ancient Greek word for bee. Well known in aromatherapy for its soothing properties, its extract is one of the essential oils, often mixed with citronella, it is considered digestive as an infusion.
Dill belongs to the parsley family and it is related to fennel, but with a caraway flavor and a lemony aroma on top the light anise.
Dill is one of those plants used as spice -dill seed, a rather bitter taste, similar to caraway seed- and an aromatic herb -the leaves, fresh and dried, with their subtle hint of anise flavor are more widely use and more versatile.
Dill has a long history, as it already was one of the medicinal herbs Egyptian doctors used about 5,000 years ago. Greeks and Romans also used dill to treat their ailments, and so it was passed to Northern Europe, where in the middle ages people drank dill water to cure hiccups while seeds and leaves were added to sauces and pickles.
Ever heard of dill pickles, those small sweet and sour pickled cucumbers? Dill seeds are still flavoring pickles, specially cucumbers and also fish, grilled lamb, pork stews, sauerkraut, cabbage, and cauliflower in Northern and Central Europe. Apart from pickles, they are used worldwide with smoked or salt fish and cold meats.
Dill seeds can be spread on bread as they work as a substitute for caraway seeds in rye bread and pumpernickel.
Dill leaves are an essential flavoring in gravadlax, a Scandinavian dish based on smoked salmon, and in tzatziki, a yogurt and cucumber sauce. In fact, dill leaves wonderfully enhance fish, cucumber sauces, as well as yogurt and sour cream based dishes.
NOW IT IS YOUR TURN
Herbs, spices and flavorings give an incomparable aroma to simple meals, transforming common dishes into something special. Once one have mastered how to use them in their time-honored, traditional way, any creative cook can become innovative. Spices are incredibly versatile.
Usually, only small quantities of any herb are used at a time –ranging from a pinch to a few tablespoons, depending on the recipe. How much to use is a matter of personal preference. Try adding a little more, or a little less, than the recipe indicates and see if this way it is more to your taste. Experiment by combining your favorite flavors with different foods. Create your own mixes.
For more information on a variety of popular herbs, and their use as herbal remedies for a variety of common medical conditions, check out our directory of herbs for alternative medicine.