Herbs and spices are common-place in kitchens today. These flavor enhancers add dimension to any food or beverage with which they’re coupled. This month in the Restaurant Business Test Kitchen we experimented with spices and herbs, and discovered some exciting uses for these long-time flavor enhancers.
There are many spices and herbs available to aid you in a culinary excursion. Before we begin exploring their possibilities, it is important to understand the characteristics and proper storage of spices. Spices and herbs are usually joined together in definition. Even though they both come from vegetable products and are used to add flavor to foods, there are some differences. Spices generally come from tropical areas and consist of aromatic dried seeds, buds, fruits or flower parts, bark, or roots of plants. Herbs such as basil, parsley, and chives are dried or fresh plant leaves (sometimes dried flowers) coming from a more temperate climate. A blend–like curry or five spice powder–is usually a complementary combination of both herbs and spices. A condiment (teriyaki sauce, chutney, or any mustard) is a prepared mixture of seasonings, often used in liquid form.
Oils in spices are what give us the aromatic, distinctive flavors. When the oil evaporates, so does much of the taste. So it is important to store them in air-tight jars or containers, as far away from heat as possible. We recommend that you purchase specialty spices in smaller quantities more often rather than in bulk in order to preserve maximum flavor. We also advise that you purchase dried spices in whole form (if possible), then grind them when ready to use in your recipes. In this way, you get the most flavor from your herbs and spices. They can be ground in food processors or electric grinders. There are many high quality pre-ground spices, but be certain to use them as quickly as possible and store them correctly to avoid losing flavor. We find that spices have a shelf life of about eight months under normal kitchen conditions and, if kept in a cool place, they will last up to 12 months.
It is most important to remember that spieces are meant to enhance, not overpower, a dish. You should only be able to taste a hint of the spice used. Over-seasoning, like over-salting, can ruin the end result. Also, we strongly advise that you season your dishes close to the end of cooking time as spices, with few exceptions, tend to get stronger the longer they cook.
There are several remedies to over-seasoning that are helpful. Adding peeled and quartered potatoes to a soup or stew will usually soak up the excess seasonings. Just remove the potatoes before serving the dish. If pasta or rice can heighten the flavor, you may add either to help blot out an overly spiced recipe. Of course, you can always reinforce the dish with more of what’s already in it (except spices obviously), but the trick is to under-spice and adjust the seasoning before serving.
Another point to consider is that with today’s trend to low-sodium diets, herbs and spices can play an important role in salt substitution. In fact, herbs and spices can create a delicious dish, eliminating the need for salt altogether! But if you do add salt, it should be done ever so carefully–and there should be salt and pepper shakers on every table for your guests to season their food as they wish. A rule of thumb with spices is that one teaspoon of dried spice equals three teaspoons of its fresh counterpart. This ratio stays the same as a recipe is enlarged.
Poultry, one of the most versatile foods on a menu, offers a succulent yet relatively uncharacteristic taste–a taste that welcomes spices and seasonings. The simple addition of an herb or spice to a roast chicken can turn a mean into a feast. With a simple adjustment of seasonings, you can change the flavor, character, or ethnic accent of a dish. Pictured on page 223 is a roasted chicken with herbs. We’ve compiled a list of several flavor combinations which go particularly well with roasted or sauteed poultry:
- Herbed roasted chicken: rosemary, thyme, sage, or parsley. Use one teaspoon of seasoning for a three-pound chicken.
- Five-spice roasted chicken: ginger, cinnamon, allspice, cloves, and fennel. Use one part each, mix and store for later use. Use one tablespoon of the mixture per 3-1/2-pound roaster or add mixture to flour, coat boneless breast, and saute.
- Spicy fried chicken: add one teaspoon each of curry powder, oregano, dry mustard, and paprika to three cups of flour. Use this as the coating for fried chicken.
- Roasted chicken curry: add 1/2 teaspoon each of curry powder, dry mustard, and chopped garlic per three-pound chicken. Serve with peanut sauce.
- Oriental chicken: one tablespoon fresh ginger, 1/2 cup soy sauce, one tablespoon cilantro, and 1/4 cup scallions. Marinate chicken pieces in mixture. Broil or roast, basting with marinade.
Here’s a recipe for herbed chicken salad that we enjoyed in the Restaurant Business Test Kitchens:
Pasta makes a natural foil for a variety of seasonings (right), including garlic, oil, parsley, sweet and hot peppers, and cheese.
Breads, spreads, and butters can be enlivened with seasonings (following page). Try scallion cream cheese, herbed butters, flavored muffins and breads, and ever-popular garlic bread.
Herbed Chicken Salad
(Yield, 3 quarts)
2-1/2 qt. chicken, diced
2 cups celery, diced
1/2 cup parsley, chopped
2/3 cup scallions, chopped
1/2 cup watercress, chopped
1 cup mayonnaise
1 cup sour cream
Salt and pepper
- Combine chopped herbs and seasonings with mayonnaise and sour cream.
- Mix chicken with herbs and serve in pita, croissant, or on a bed of watercress or lettuce.
Vinegars and oils will take on the flavors of spices and herbs after several days of steeping. Simply add the desired spice to vinegar or oil and seal tightly. Usually one tablespoon of dried spice per quart of liquid or several whole sprigs of its fresh counterpart will create the desired flavor. These flavored vinegars and oils can best be used in salad dressings or as seasoning ingredients. Use garlic oil for Italian dishes, or tarragon vinegar in French sauces.
Breads and butters are natural hosts for flavorings of many combinations. Corn muffins will have extra appeal when you add chopped peppers and/or cheese to the batter. A basic muffin batter welcomes spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice as well as raisins and nuts. Garlic bread is an all-time favorite and basic bread doughs are even tastier with herbs added. Of course, chopped fresh herbs added to butter is a refreshing sight.
Butter and cream cheese used as spreads (or dips) take on a whole new dimension with a seasoning adjustment. Scallions or chieves added to cream cheese for bagels, fine herbs added to butter for dinner rolls or bread, and cheese spreads with cocktail crackers are a few examples of seasoned delights. Here are some recipes we enjoyed in the Restaurant Business Test Kitchen:
(Yield, 1 lb.)
1 lb. unsweetened butter
1-1/2 tsp. chervil
2 tbsp. parsley
1-1/2 tsp. tarragon
Blend all ingredients together well. Roll blended butter into a cylinder and wrap with foil. Refrigerate, slice, and serve.
(Yield, 24 slices)
2 cups water
2 cups flour
1/2 lb. butter
2 tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 tsp. salt
1-1/2 tbsp. tarragon
3-1/2 cups Swiss cheese, grated
- Heat butter and water together until boiling, and butter is melted. Remove from heat. Add flour and mix well until a smooth paste has formed.
- Return pot to heat and cook one to two minutes until a layer films the pot. Remove from heat and add seasonings.
- Add eggs, one at a time, waiting until each egg is completely incorporated before adding the next egg.
- Add two cups of grated cheese and form pizza-like loaves on buttered sheet pan. Sprinkle with cheese and bake in 400 [deg.] F. oven for 20 to 25 minutes until brown and bubby. Slice and serve.
Pasta (noodles) is another food category that can change entirely by making a seasoning adjustment in the accompanying sauce. For example, pasta becomes a succulent dish with the addition of garlic and oil or a spicy treat with an herbed tomato sauce. Jalapeno peppers add zing to simple macaroni and cheese.
Our favorite is an herbed tomato sauce which can be served either hot or cold with pasta or many other dishes.
Herbed Tomato Sauce
1-1/4 #10 cans tomatoes
3 large onions, diced
3/4 cup tomato paste
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 cup parsley, chopped
1/4 cup fresh dill weed, chopped
1/3 cup olive oil
- Saute chopped onion and garlic in oil until garlic starts to brown.
- Add tomatoes and paste. When sauce boils, turn heat to simmer and continue to cook 1-1/2 to two hours, stirring occasionally.
- Remove sauce from heat and add herbs. Let sauce cool. Use accordingly, hot or cold.
For a free collection of tasty seasoned recipes, write: Kathleen Kenny Sanderson, food editor, REstaurant Business Magazine, 633 Third Avenue.