Monday, May 12, 2008

Cooking with herbs

Herbs In The Kitchen
The tradition of using herbs to flavour foods is nothing new. It is, in fact, almost as old as the human species itself. Archaeologists have found evidence which suggests that the earliest cooks used parts of certain plants to season and improve the flavour of particular foods. Mustard seed was chewed with meat, it seems, and the seeds of wild wheat and barley were sprinkled on other foods to add a nutty taste.

These herbs would, of course, have been found growing wild, and the cultivation of herbs for culinary and medicinal use came much later. In grand old gardens, a special section would be set aside for the growing of herbs, while in humbler plots herbs might be grown among other food plants. This delightful tradition is well worth continuing: what could be more satisfying than being able to pick fresh herbs from your own garden to add to the dishes for a summer lunch, or the evening meal? The aroma alone as you pick the herbs is the perfect appetizer.

The range of herbs, even for culinary purposes, is huge; and few of us nowadays will have either the space, time or inclination to grow all the varieties found in the traditional herb garden. Nevertheless, a small bed of the more common herbs -or just a selection of pots by the kitchen door, on a balcony or window sill will give your cooking a fresh and distinctive flavour.

Cooking with herbs
Herbs used in cooking may be fresh, dried, or frozen. Fresh herbs do not have the concentrated flavour of the dried variety but make up for this by being more aromatic - just try crushing a fresh leaf between your fingers and breathing in its glorious scent.

Fresh herbs can be used in cooked dishes (in which case, add them towards the end of the cooking time to retain their freshness of flavour). However, the best way to preserve their 'straight-from-the-garden' quality is, in many cases, to use them in their natural state -raw. The traditional sprig of parsley or scattering of chives certainly looks attractive, but do consider using certain of the softer-leaved herbs as ingredients in their own right. Quantities of finely chopped mint combined with yogurt make the classic Greek tsatsiki -the perfect summer cooler -while whole basil leaves added to an ordinary green salad move this everyday accompaniment several rungs up the culinary ladder. Of course, there are certain herbs that are too tough in their raw state to be used in this way, such as rosemary or bay, and these are best added to cooked dishes.

The drying of herbs intensifies their flavour, and means that herbal flavourings can be made available throughout the year, and not just in the summer growing season. Dried herbs are used in cooked foods, and can transform the most basic of dishes into something delicious and memorable. Frozen herbs bridge the gap between the fresh and dried varieties, and make it possible for the cook to evoke memories of summer even in the depths of winter. Even after thawing, however, frozen herbs will not give the same results as fresh ones in such dishes as salads, where the herbs act as ingredients rather than just flavourings.

Whatever form of herb you are using -fresh, dried or frozen -it is important to know which herbs have an affinity with which foods. While the standard 'mixed herbs' product of the supermarket shelf is a good all-rounder in the kitchen and can do much to enliven an otherwise bland sauce or ,bake, the real trick for the creative cook is to choose the herb that will best complement and bring out the flavour of a particular food. Tarragon, for example, is superb with roast chicken, while fennel seems to have been made for fish. The aromas and tastes of certain herbs can also evoke the cuisine of a particular country or region. Coriander, for example, conjures up images of Greece and the Middle East; basil, with its affinity with, tomatoes and pasta, recalls Italy; while sage, often used to flavour fresh pork, pork sausages or earthy vegetables such as broad beans, brings echoes of the hearty farmhouse cooking of Northern Europe.