Herbs And Spices

By Ginny Frizzi

August 3, 2011 5 min read

Sugar and spice and everything nice.

That's all that some cooks, especially new ones, know about herbs and spices. But with some basic knowledge and experience, they can create more interesting-tasting food or discover new ways to cook old favorites.

The first step in learning about herbs and spices is to know what they are and the differences between them. According to InDepthInfo.com, herbs are the flavorful and edible parts of plants generally grown in temperate regions while spices are generally grown in tropical regions. Herbs, which are also medicinal plants, are used either fresh or dry and well-known examples are sage and rosemary. Spices are aromatic plants, such as nutmeg and ginger, are used primarily for flavoring cooking. Herbs can be easily grown by the average gardener or cook while most spices are imported.

Barbara Pleasant, a garden editor with Mother Earth News, suggests that an easy way to learn about herbs and spices is to purchase the bubble packs of herbs and spices available in many groceries. "If I were a new cook, that is what I would do. There are about three to five different ones per pack, and it's an easy way to learn about herbs and spices and try them," she says.

Herbs and spices are essential to vegan cuisine, according to Daphne Cheng, self-described foodie-in-chief and executive bean counter with V?rit? Catering. "Our mission is to seduce the conscious epicure within through honestly delicious plant-based food," she says. "One of our most popular dishes that use a common herb in an intriguing way is our drunken torta di risotto with baby spinach and basil chiffonade.

"We use herbs and spices, sometimes in unexpected ways, in our dishes, and you can, too. Here are a few that every kitchen should have and why.

"Rosemary is a delicious staple in Italian cooking. It may help to prevent gene mutations and raised risk of heart attack. Rosemary is also great for your immune system.

"Cumin is an easy addition to Middle Eastern, Spanish and Latin American food and is also a great spice to use in soups. Cumin contains iron and manganese and boosts immunity."

"Black pepper is probably the most common spice found in American kitchens, but did you know that it contains antioxidants and has antibacterial properties?"

Marissa Vicario, holistic health coach and founder of Marissa's Well-being and Health, has some recommendations for useful herbs and spices that shouldn't overwhelm a novice cook. "Cardamom is uniquely sweet and savory, which lends to its versatility in any type of dish, from soups and sauces to fish and poultry and even baked goods. The spice, which is native to India, has a warming and spicy yet floral taste and can be purchased whole in its pod, as seeds or ground," she says. "Cayenne pepper is one of the most powerful herbs in the world. It is used to heat and unlock the flavor of food. Likewise, it unlocks blood flow in the body by encouraging circulation."

Vicario likes cloves, whose warm, aromatic flavor gives them multiple uses, including in soups, stews and sautes, added to warm drinks, such as apple cider and chai, and paired with fruit compote. She recommends buying cloves whole or ground and storing them in a tightly sealed container.

Oregano also has uses beyond the pizza and pasta it traditionally seasons. Oregano is best fresh, but dried oregano can be used to season salads and salad dressings, garlic bread and roasted root vegetables. Rosemary and oregano, according to tradition, stimulate memory. Another way to use rosemary is to add it fresh or dried to omelets or infuse olive oil with it, according to Vicario.

Yellowish orange in color, turmeric commonly is used in curry dishes but also can be used in sauces and with vegetables. It should be used sparingly because a little bit goes a long way.

Used in everything from hot chocolate to cookies, cinnamon remains one of the most popular spices of all time.

Pleasant recommends using fresh herbs in the summer and offers a final recommendation: "Don't forget to put a sprig or two in a bottle. They look and smell nice."

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