And it isn’t complete without herbs and spices. Herbs have been used for centuries for culinary and medicinal uses. Chervil is famously associated with French cuisine, garlic is best known for its use in Italian foods, and curry powder means Indian (or Thai) flavor.
But herbs and spices are showing up in every kitchen, no matter where they started out — and for good reason. They provide exciting and powerful flavor to foods. They can make a bland dish into something exciting, and make it a special event you won’t forget.
So, what are herbs and spices? An herb is a leaf. A spice is usually a berry, seed, root, flower, stem or pod. Sometimes we use a leaf from Chinese parsley (which is called cilantro) and the seed from the same plant (which is called coriander). They are wonderful together or apart, in the same dish or in separate dishes!
Fresh herbs are usually added at the end of cooking or as a garnish. Choose fresh herbs with a bright color and firm stems and leaves. They should be washed in cold water and blotted dry.
To store herbs, cut away one-half to one inch from the bottom of the stems and place them in a tall container filled with water in the fridge. You can also store the leaves in a sealed bag in the vegetable compartment of your refrigerator. They should stay fresh for about one week. We hope you’ll be using them frequently in your RealAge kitchen; any leftovers can be quickly chopped and frozen.
Herbs can also be dried for later use, and used for decoration. Just tie small bunches together and place them upside down in a paper bag that has been punctured with holes.
The top of the bag should be tied tight and hung in a warm, airy place. The bag is needed to catch the leaves that drop and to prevent light from ruining the leaves. Dried herbs are more potent than fresh ones and generally (but not always) should be added at the beginning of cooking.
Store dried spices and herbs in glass, airtight containers in a dry, cool place. They should last about six months. To substitute fresh herbs for dried herbs, the general rule is to use 1/2 teaspoon of ground herbs or one teaspoon of dried leaves for every tablespoon of finely chopped fresh herbs.
Buy just enough dried for a six-month supply — usually a small jar in the supermarket. (The bigger containers look like they are a better value, but the herbs and spices inside end up going stale if you don’t use them.)
We have created three rules of thumb for herbs, spices and food. Use any of the rules. You do not have to use all of them. Pick one rule to try one week, and next week, try another.
The rules are:
1. Herbs are best fresh; spices are best dried.
2. Fresh quick fresh; dried slow dried.
3. More of the same color is better.
This is what the rules mean:
1. If you can find an herb fresh, use it. If you can find spices dried, use them.
2. If your food is fresh and briefly cooked, use fresh herbs. If your food started out as dried (i.e., beans, legumes, soybeans) or is to be cooked for more than a few minutes, use dried herbs and spices.
3. If you have more than one herb or spice of the same color and want to use them, go ahead.
That’s it. You can’t go wrong with herbs, spices and food.
Herbs and spices are also easy to grow.
Many started out as weeds, were tasted, no one died, and they worked their way into cooking. They are some of the first plants to come up in the spring and many survive the winter beautifully, without the gardener or cook taking any special precaution.
Just sprinkling a few seeds or dropping a seedling on to nearly any soil will result in a crop of welcoming, flavorful additions to your garden — and to your kitchen. Nearly all herbs freeze well; just cut whole sprigs, and wrap tightly in a double layer of plastic wrap.