While there certainly are marriages that are tried and tested, such as tomatoes and basil or lamb and rosemary, the reality is that the use of herbs is every bit as much a matter of personal taste as any other aspect of cooking.
Consequently, what I want you to do is to sample as many herbs as you can and try to marry up the flavors with the foods you are familiar with. That’s not as difficult as it sounds. Just close your eyes and think about it.
You will find, after a while, that you will instinctively know which flavoring to use, when to use it and how much of it you need.
Do this with both fresh and dried herbs. Crush a little between finger and thumb and smell it. This is much more important than your sense of taste.
Something magical will happen. You will come to realize that fresh herbs are not better than dried ones, they simply impart a different flavor. There are two major exceptions to this.
One is mint, which has a strange musty flavor when dried, and the other is chives, which are so delicate that the flavor rarely survives cooking. Using dried chives is therefore pretty pointless.
One other point to watch out for is that some dried herbs can remained inedible even after thorough cooking. Rosemary is a very good example of this and needs to be filtered out of any liquids in which it has been used as a flavoring.
In any case, fresh or dried, it is better to chop up herbs such as this before using them.
Using herbs in cooking
Many herbs, such as basil and coriander (sometimes called Chinese parsley and cilantro in the USA) are terrific simply torn up in salads. Note that I said torn up and not cut; only cut herbs if you intend to cook them.
It’s important to recognize that some herbs lose flavor with extended cooking, even in their dried state. Fortunately it’s fairly easy to spot which those are.
Tough leaved herbs such as bay can be safely added at the start of cooking time and will maintain their flavor. In fact, they may need to be in the food for as long as possible in order for their flavor to fully develop.
Herbs with light and delicate leaves, however, will lose their flavor very quickly once in contact with heat. To use basil in a soup, for example, you needed to add it, not to the hot liquid as you might expect, but rather to the warm plate you intend to serve the soup in. Then pour the soup on top of it.
Alternatively, simply sprinkle it on top of the soup and leave it there. It will make an attractive decoration and impart a wonderful aroma as you take the soup to the table.
What’s that? You want to use a tureen and server the soup at the table? No problem. Sprinkle the herb in its raw state on top of the soup anyway. The effect, when you remove the lid, will be the same. Just stir it in as you serve.
The spices of life
Most people, including most professional chefs, use spices that have already been prepared.
That is to say they have been ground up, ready to use. The main exception to this is probably black pepper, which you should always grind yourself. Not difficult. You can buy a pepper grinder just about anywhere and the peppercorns are available in any supermarket.
Of course you can, if you wish, go to the trouble of buying a pestle and mortar, tracking down the raw spices and then grind them yourself.
If you do this, you will be richly rewarded with deep and penetrating flavors. You may also find that you get tired of doing it very quickly. However I would highly recommend it for a special occasion, or a wet weekend in Bargo.
Generally speaking, though, the shop bought variety are fine, providing you don’t keep them hanging around in a cupboard for too long. They will lose their flavor.
As with herbs, it’s very important that you learn the taste and smell of each individual spice and, uniquely, its pungency. This last item is one that is frequently overlooked, even by experienced cooks.
Just about everybody is aware that chili needs to be used carefully for obvious reasons. But for some reason they do not pay the same attention to turmeric,– which is quite delicate,– and, say, star anise which can strangle an incautious palate at a hundred paces.
Both give themselves away, however, if you simply take the lid off the jar and sniff them.
Generally speaking, it is a rare thing to add more than a couple of spices to the same dish. The obvious exceptions to this are Asian and Indian dishes, where the carefully blended mix of flavors will be both traditional and subtle.
You have a choice with these. You either follow a recipe, or you use one of the many excellent pre-prepared pastes that are now available. I tend towards the latter choice, although I do still mix my own spices from time to time.
You should do the same. It’s fun and you learn a great deal about which spices mix well and which are best kept as an individual flavoring.
However you choose to cook with spice, treat it with respect and always add it a little at a time, tasting as you go.
Remember also, that the flavor will change with the length of cooking time. It may deepen, or it may lessen in its effect. Only experience will teach you what each individual spice does and how quickly it does it.
One excellent way to test the effect of adding spice, is to cook your rice with something like cardamom seeds. These come in little pods that needed to be cracked open and the seeds extracted.
Do this by placing them on a stable surface, place the flat of a cleaver blade over them and apply a bit of pressure. They will open easily. Use about two pods for one dish of rice.
You could also add some turmeric to the same rice dish. This will turn it yellow and also add a subtle flavor which complements the pungency of the cardamom. Call it saffron rice if you like, very few people will be able to tell the difference.
Rice is a good way to test any number of flavorings. Personally I find it a bit boring on its own, and I frequently add something to it to jazz it up a little. Experiment. You will be pleasantly surprised at what a difference a new flavor can make.
You will also be pleasantly surprised at your growing reputation.
Michael Sheridan is a former head chef at the Pierre Victoire restaurant in London’s West End, specializing in French cuisine. An Australian, he is a published author on cooking matters, and runs a free membership club and cooking course for busy home cooks at http://thecoolcook.com