Mint, Rosemary, Garlic Chives and Zinnias
Funny thing, some of the herbs that may be considered aggressive from a taste standpoint can also be quite aggressive in their growth habits; stuff we call herbs can spend a great deal of their time engaged in weed-like activity. Basil, Mint, Thyme, Rosemary, just to name a few; these guys will not only grace a nice dish, they’ll make serious inroads on your backyard if ya let ‘em.
Granted, of those, most can be killed if you really go after ‘em. Only mint has survived pretty much every attempt I made to off it: That circumstance came about not because I don’t like the mint, (I do and ours is exemplary), but because it had worked its way under the back door jam and walls and was growing through and out of the house as opposed to merely beside it. Mint, I have come to realize, like bamboo, is never to be trusted…
Point is, all this wonderful stuff will grow for you darn near wherever you live and probably grow well with minimal attention, and as such, you need to grow it. The bottom line here is taste, and when it comes to herbs, as with any seasoning we want to use regularly, the fresher and higher the quality, the better.
Do a little bit of research and find what you can grow yourself; granted, your gardeners up there have herbs, and you can get ‘em, and you should but, you should also grow your own. Even in a cold climate, herbs don’t take up much room and can even be grown indoors during winter months. There is nothing that I know in cooking quite so satisfying as deciding what herbs you need for a dish, and then simply heading out the back door with a paring knife.
This brings us to the not-so-delicate question; “What about stuff from the supermarket?” Answer; what about it? They’re doing a fine job of holding shelves down, so leave ‘em to it… Seriously, even ‘gourmet’ seasonings from a supermarket are suspect to me. At our house, we treat herbs like we do coffee, and frankly, we buy green beans from very well known and trusted sources and roast our own, so…
Granted, you cannot grow everything you want – Just look at this spice cabinet and you’ll see what I mean:
What you see there also tells a few important stories about storing herbs:
1. There are good places to buy herbs you need to check out. fact is, almost all our stuff comes from two sources: World Spice and Butcher & Packer. As far as I am concerned, you rarely need to go further to find dang near anything, and the quality is as good as it gets.
2. How you store your herbs matters a lot. Glass jars with a very good seal are a must: World Spice sells jars, (As you can see from our cabinet) that are a great size and sport a fine seal. For the stuff you grow and process, you’ll want more. If you have a bunch of spice from the store, you can still put it to good use; toss all the spice, wash the jars and re-use ‘em. 😉 If you’re OCD like me, you can buy new jars with tight fitting lids and various shaker tops for not much dough; I got a set of 16 from Amazon for about $12.
3. Herbs are indeed fun to look at, but sunlight ain’t their friend; keep yours in a cool, dry place out of direct sun and they’ll last longer and stay fresher.
Processing herbs is really pretty darn easy, as you’d expect. Drying them is the best trick, of course, so once again, a cheap dehydrator comes in real handy. The sooner you process after harvesting, the better the flavor and punch, of course. Many herbs can be air dried with great success as well, and a few stems of rosemary or whatnot will smell wonderful as they do their thing.
Inspect your stuff for critters and dirt after harvesting. Don’t strip leaves from stems if your herb is a leafy one; dry ’em with minimal stems attached and you;ll get more flavor. For berries, such as pepper, coriander and the like, keep and store ‘em whole; you can whack ‘em into whatever form you need with that spare coffee bean grinder right before you’re ready to use them. Same goes for ordering spices and herbs from World Spice or whomever: You’ll note that they offer to sell pure spices and blends whole or ground – Get ‘em whole and grind ‘em as you use ‘em and you’ll get longer lasting product and better flavor and intensity.
Some herbs lend themselves wonderfully to flavoring oils and vinegars, as I’m sure you know. Rather than buying Tarragon vinegar, grow and make your own; you’ll get much better flavor, quality and satisfaction, guaranteed. Be careful about sanitation when doing these infusions, of course; being sunk into oil or vinegar does not guarantee safe eating!
Oil in and of itself isn’t prone to growing bacteria, but the stuff we may want to infuse in it is, so proper caution is a must: Your greatest possible concern is Botulism, (Botulinum). With that in mind, blending your own stuff and leaving it out for any length of time is not a great idea. If you’re making oils to be used right away, there’s no concern, but again, if you’re planning on keeping it around, ya gotta be careful: The key is water, ‘cause that’s what the bad bug needs to do its thing. If you have your infusing herbs 100% dried out, you’re fine, but realistically, how likely are we to achieve that? The easy solution is to refrigerate, and by so doing, assuming you’ve kept everything clean, you can store your infusions for a week or two without a hitch. Make sure, of course, that you’re using high quality oil and vinegar! If you’re giving stuff away, include a little card to explain to the uninitiated how to store and when to discard.
Vinegar, on the other hand, is a purty fine preservative; if your herbs are clean and fresh, you should be fine making infusions. Again, drying your herbs is best, just to be super safe, if you plan on keeping them around for a while. Although I’ve never seen it said you should do so, I discard anything over a month old, just to be on the safe side, and besides, after a month things are bound to be getting a bit funky, right?
If you’re making mixes of oil and vinegar, then the caution signs go back up, and the more stringent storage and discard rules apply once again.
For my mind, infused oils and vinegars should be predominantly single note creatures, like rosemary or tarragon solo. Simple mixes, following the Rule Of Three, are just fine too. By this, I mean no more than three spice notes; garlic/lime/dill, lemon/sage/rosemary, tomato/oregano/dill, etc. In all flavoring/infusing considerations, a teaspoon of herb/spice to a cup of oil or vinegar is a good starting point, then adjust as you see fit.
And while we’re talking mixes and blends… Checking into World Spice and Butcher & Packer, you’ll find a bunch of blends from all over the world; I encourage you to try some and then extrapolate on your own from that starting point.
Using spices and herbs can be fraught with danger, mostly from the too-much-and-too-many camp! Granted, some things need myriad ingredients to be what they are, black mole, as a fer instance; but if you watch food TV at all, especially something like Chopped, you’ll notice a pervasive and recurrent theme, wherein a competitor loads 12 different spices and herbs and liquors and such into one dish; invariably, the savvy restaurant pro judges always say “WAY too many spices/herbs/flavors/ideas going on here,” and they’re right.
Here’s my basic philosophy on creating and cooking great food; keep these tenets in mind and I think you can’t really ever go wrong:
1. First and foremost, eat and serve the highest quality ingredients you can find and afford; that really is job #1.
2. That said, let the taste, smell, appearance and overall impact of a great food speak; we choose what we do because we want to taste that, not spice covering that or anything else that masks, detracts or otherwise diminishes the taste of great food.
3. Balance a meal sensibly; be it portions or courses, folks like a nice variety and balance to a meal. Think not only about what folks like to eat, but how much and when. It’s actually for my mind much easier to serve big, multi course meals to a lot of folks then a couple, so plan and execute accordingly.
So, when it comes to seasoning, I’ll refer back once again to The Rule of Three; no more than three major notes in any one dish is a great general rule of thumb. Yes, it can and sometimes must be broken, and yes, salt and pepper do count… Is this for real? Yeah, it is. Love the high-end steakhouse taste and wonder what they do differently than you do? Great quality meat, properly butchered, stored and aged, usually nothing more than salt and pepper on it for seasoning, and done quickly over super high heat. Blown away by that green bean amusé bouche; fresh beans, lightly roasted, with butter, lemon, and salt. Crudité radish to die for; salt and good butter. Guacamole got your tongue; salt, lemon, chile; that’s it…
Get the picture? there are classic combos of course; garlic, lime, dill; lemon, thyme, pepper; basil, parsley, pepper; salt, cumin, oregano, and on and on. Pick some favorite notes, try some blending and tasting, and see where it takes you!