Herbs and spices make our food more than just a bunch of ingredients thrown together in a pot. They give our food its flavor, its soul. Take a simple parboiled potato: it is as bland as food can get. But cut it in wedges, throw it in a pan with sizzling olive oil, throw in a little salt and pepper and sauté it. We’re on the right track, aren’t we? When it is almost done, golden crispy, add a pinch of dried rosemary, or two pinches of fresh rosemary and sauté it one more minute. You just made yourself a feast for your palate. Don’t add the rosemary too soon, as it will burn. The following list is of herbs and spices that should be present in every kitchen.
1. Basil – the king of herbs
Fresh or dry, it goes best with tomatoes. In Italy, people grow it among the tomatoes and they say this makes the tomatoes taste better. The most simple tomato sauce can be made by sautéing two cloves of garlic in a little olive oil for 30 seconds (garlic burns very quickly), then adding either 3 – 4 medium skinned and chopped tomatoes or canned ones with a little bit of water. Add salt and pepper and let it simmer for 5 minutes. At the end, add the basil and you’re done!
2. India’s gift to the world – Curry powder
Curry powder is a divine mixture of spices that includes coriander, cumin, turmeric, fenugreek, red pepper, ginger, garlic, fennel seeds and even caraway, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and black pepper. The recipes vary from one manufacturer to the other, so be sure to try out different brands until you find the one you like. And when you do, your curries and rice will never be the same again.
3. A taste of old Italy – Oregano
Oregano on a pizza is like butter on toast, they go along so well together. It’s also great to flavor soups, especially Minestrone or even borsches. You can use it to flavor meat, such as mutton and lamb. Take a zip lock bag, add some olive oil and some herbs and spices: garlic, red pepper powder, oregano, a pinch of cinnamon, some lemon juice and ketchup (it sticks to the meat and tenderizes it). Add the meat in the bag, lock it and mush all the things together. Put the bag in the fridge for at least two hours.
4. Garam Masala – the basis for curries
Another Indian mixture of spices that includes black and white pepper, cloves, cinnamon, cumin seeds, cardamom, fennel and turmeric (as was the case for the Curry powder, different manufacturers have different recipes). Get a pan hot, add oil, then onions, garlic and when they’re nice and translucent add your dried herbs and spices and the garam masala powder and mix it around for 10 seconds (because it is a powder, this will burn if you put it in the beginning) then add whatever legume you prefer, but let me tell you that garam masala works wonders with lentils.
5. Tarragon, a fine herb
This one goes well with chicken, fish and eggs and also with white beans. Either fresh or dried, it adds body to your dishes. Slice a thin piece of chicken breast, put some tarragon leaves in the middle, then roll the slice and secure it with wet wooden skewers (if they’re wet, they won’t burn). Season it with some more herbs and spices of your choosing, or simply with salt and pepper and place the roll on the grill. Serve with tomato and avocado salad.
6. Amchur powder – who thought mangoes could be a spice?
Amchur is the powder made from unripe mangoes. It is sour and a bit tart and perfect to add at the end of dishes that may seem a bit heavy: meaty curries, lentils and even spicy rice. A simple herbs and spices rice: sauté onion, add garlic and then curry and garam masala. Stir for a few seconds, then in with the boiled rice. Fry until it reaches the desired consistency. At the end, throw in one spoon of amchur powder and it’s done.
7. Oldie, but goldie – Parsley
This is one of the most beloved herbs in the world. It goes great with almost everything; best used in the green variety but dry also works. When green, parsley is one of the few herbs that can actually make up the body of a salad. Tabouleh is made from tomatoes, onions, cucumbers and a good deal of parsley. Add a generous amount of olive oil, some salt and pepper and lemon juice to taste.
8. Asafoetida – the most bizarre spice
This spice comes from the dried latex that is oozed from the rhizome of some species of Ferula. Native to Afghanistan, it is very popular in India. They call it the devil’s dung because it has a foul smell that dissipates when the spice hits hot oil. It smells like rotten onions on its own, but when cooked, it leaves behind a flavor reminiscent of leeks and garlic. Jainists and Vaishnavists are not allowed to consume onion or garlic because they excite the body and spirit, so they use Asafoetida to flavor their food.
A summer salad with cucumber, garlic and dill can feel like a heavenly gift when accompanied by a steak. In the winter, enjoy pickles preserved in dill and in the spring, have a pea and dill curry to enchant your senses. This versatile herb can be used both as a spice (the plant’s dried seeds) and herb, fresh or dried.
10. Fennel – cumin’s cousin
It looks like cumin, it even takes like cumin, but it is more aromatic and somewhat mintier than cumin. From the fennel plant nothing gets lost: we use the leaves, the seeds and the bulb. Throw a teaspoon of fennel seeds in hot olive oil and fry them for 20 seconds or until they start popping and then add finely chopped onions and garlic and sauté for a few seconds. Add the rice and water and let it simmer until it is done. Serve with fresh coriander.