The world of herbs and spices is decidedly fascinating, because it offers every cook
the opportunity to express his or her own taste and fantasy while giving each dish
a personal touch that makes it unique and incomparable.
Spices, by which we mean aromatic substances of vegetal origin, have accompanied man throughout his history. Spices have been used since antiquity as medicines, to prepare cosmetics, as propitiatory elements in religious ceremonies and, above all, to season, enrich and conserve foods. It is certain that spices played an important role in ancient Roman cooking, for boiled vegetables and for the meat of rare animals such as ostriches, flamingos and, at times, to mask poor quality. In many cases, spices came from exotic places so bringing them to Roman tables was difficult and costly. This characteristic remained unchanged until the nineteenth century. Fortunately, then as now, gastronomes who did not wish to go bankrupt were assisted by a fundamental characteristic of spices: small quantities are sufficient to produce appreciable aromatic effects.
Herbs, like spices, also lend personality to foods that otherwise might be dull and monotonous by conferring flavour, colour and aromas to sauces and preparations of all types, making them lively, intriguing and delicious. How do they do it?
Herbs, or the “odours” as they are familiarly called in Italy, are rich carriers of essential oils, substances that have the capacity to modify and enrich the flavours of dishes. They are used individually or mixed, in which case it is important to be familiar with them to create a balanced bouquet of tastes. Some herbs are more intense and penetrating than others: thyme, rosemary, mint and dill should be used sparingly. It is also well to remember that almost all herbs should be added after cooking because the heat tends to dissipate essential oils, thus reducing the aromatic effect. If the herbs are fresh, they should be trimmed, washed and dried before use. They can be conserved in the refrigerator, but only for a few days.
Conservation of herbs
Herbs and spices can be consumed fresh, but, even more often, in a conserved form. There are various methods of conservation (such as freezing, immersion in salt water or oil), but the most common method is drying, often but not always followed by crushing. Keep in mind that dried spices maintain their aromas only for a few months and that they should be kept in airtight containers far from humidity and heat sources. For purchased spices, be sure to close the packets carefully again after opening.
A few suggestions
Some spices and herbs hold up during cooking better than others. Sage, bay, rosemary and hot peppers are more appropriate for dishes that call for long cooking. Parsley, black or white pepper, mint and basil should be added after cooking so they don’t disperse their thermolabile essential oils.
To avoid finding annoying little residues in our dishes such sharp rosemary needles or whole cloves, herbs and spices can be wrapped in a small sachet of clean cloth (best if of linen) closed with a little kitchen string. In this way, the aromatic substances are added to the dish and the sachet is easily removed before serving.
A mix for roasts
Here is an easy-to-make mix of Mediterranean herbs and spices to flavour roasts, meatballs, scrambled eggs and beef croquettes. Mix 1 tbs of chopped rosemary, 1 of thyme, 2 of sage, 1 of summer savory, 1 of sweet marjoram, 1 of oregano, 1 of mint, 1 of basil and 2 cloves of garlic, also chopped.
Essential oil: an oily vegetal substance full of essences, the aromatic chemical compounds produced by plants for many reasons, such as defence, as antibiotics or to attract the insects that pollinate their flowers.
Thyme: small, elongated leaves of a gray-green colour, covered with a dense down. Used in cooking for its organoleptic and digestive qualities. Very complementary with roasted and stewed meats, with fish, vegetables and mushrooms; it is also used to flavour oil and vinegar, as well as wines and liqueurs. An infusion of thyme is also an excellent alternative to tea or coffee, after a meal.
Dill: its aroma is similar to fennel and anise, but is more intense and spicy. It is used to flavour boiled vegetables, grilled meats, oily fish, eggs (excellent sprinkled on hard-boiled eggs), soups, salmon and shellfish. It also has a role in marinades and pickles.
Summer savory: the leaves are good either fresh or dried. It has a unique spicy aroma that goes well with strong flavours such as legumes, roasts, sausage, chicken and especially with eggs. It adds a special touch to sautéed vegetables and is also used in soups and savoury tortes.
Sweet marjoram: very rich in vitamin C, the plant has a bitter aroma. Its chemical components are similar to oregano and it is similar in use. The delicate and sophisticated aroma is perfect for flavourful, fat dishes such as cheeses, nuts and mushrooms. The aroma does not fade away during cooking, so it can be added to sauces for pasta and to exalt vegetable creams, the mixtures for croquettes, egg dishes and savoury torte fillings.
How Much Do You Know…?
Herbs are added after cooking because:
«The starting point for European expansion… had nothing to do with, say, religion or the rise of capitalism, but it had a great deal to do with pepper» (Kara Newman)