A study in flavor with Chef Joe George
“As for the garden of mint, the very smell of it alone recovers and refreshes our spirits, as the taste stirs up our appetite for meat.” —Pliny the Elder
If an empty plate can be compared to a blank canvas, then herbs and spices are the artist’s myriad of colors; just as subtle nuances in hue and shade can dramatically change the feel of a painting, so too can an herb create an entirely new dish.
The words herb and spice are often used interchangeably but their differences are distinct. Herbs are the leafy portions of a plant and are available fresh, dried, whole leaf, or ground. Spices, on the other hand, can be seeds, roots, or bark. These, too, are available whole or ground. Examples of herbs are basil, rosemary, and parsley; examples of spices are cinnamon (bark), cumin (seed), and ginger (root). But some plants yield both herb and spice. Good examples of these are dill and coriander—the leafy portions of the plants are herbs (dill weed and cilantro), and the seeds are spices (dill seed and coriander). And to make things a bit more complicated we also have to consider chilies; fresh, they are a vegetable (fruit, actually) but when dried and crushed they are a spice.
One of the truly beautiful things about herbs—besides, of course, their color, flavor, and aroma—is that they are exceedingly simple to grow, even in the short growing season of the northeast. Herbs, in fact, were my springboard into vegetable gardening. It was more than two decades ago that I first pushed a few plant sprigs into the ground and was surprised that they grew … and grew and grew. I am still amazed how many herbs and spices are perennials, which grow back every year, even after a harsh Buffalo winter.
There are no hard and fast rules to cooking with herbs, but there are a few general guidelines to follow, such as knowing when to add more and when not to, and which flavors pair well with one another. Much of this is learned through experience and tasting, not simply following a recipe.
Generally speaking, nearly any herb or spice can be paired with any food—within reason, of course—but some do lend themselves better to certain combinations than others. The pairing of flavors is generally a matter of common sense, but also trial and error. Dill, for example, would not taste very good if rubbed on a steak, but rosemary would, and so would chilies and cumin. Dill pairs much better with seafood or chicken. And to reverse the order, one wouldn’t usually apply rosemary or chilies to something as delicate as, say, oysters or sole. It’s best to match stronger, more pronounced flavors with foods that will stand up to them, and more delicate herbs and spices with foods that are subtle in flavor. The seasoning of any food is meant to complement, not mask or overpower.
There are also some things to consider when cooking with a dried herb as opposed to fresh. When dried, the flavor of an herb can change so drastically that it is sometimes barely recognizable. This is not to say that fresh is necessarily always better; both forms have their place. A few easy tips: The flavors of dried herbs hold up better under heat, whereas the flavors of fresh herbs dissipate rather quickly. For this reason it’s better to add dried herbs at the beginning of a recipe to draw out flavor, and add fresh herbs at the end to capture their freshness. Dried herbs are dehydrated, so their flavor is much more concentrated and stronger by equal measure of the fresh. Thus, if substituting dried for fresh, begin by using a third as much.
POULET AUX FINES HERBS À LA CRÈME
Yield: 4 servings
4 boneless skinless chicken breasts
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup white wine
2 ounces heavy cream
1 tablespoon parsley, minced
1 tablespoon chives, minced
1 teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon tarragon
flour for dusting
Heat a large skillet with a few tablespoons of butter. Dust the chicken breasts with flour and add them to the hot pan, allowing a small amount of flour into the pan to thicken the sauce. Cook the chicken on both sides but don’t allow it to brown. As the chicken cooks, add a minced onion and a clove or two of minced garlic to the pan. Then add white wine, chicken broth, heavy cream, and a pinch of salt. Cover the pan, lower the heat, and allow it to simmer for about 10 minutes. Stir in a tablespoon each of minced parsley and chives, and a teaspoon of thyme and tarragon; remove the pan from heat and allow to rest 5 minutes before serving.
SPAGHETTI IN BRODO WITH GARLIC, HOT PEPPER, AND PARSLEY
Yield: 4 servings
3/4 pound dried spaghetti
1/2 cup virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon crushed hot pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup chicken broth
1/4 cup flat leaf parsley, chopped
2 tablespoons grated
Pecorino Romano cheese
Cook the spaghetti and drain it. Heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet along with the garlic, hot pepper flakes, and salt. When the garlic just starts to change color add the chicken broth. Cook the broth for a couple of minutes or until it is reduced by half. Stir in the cooked spaghetti, parsley, and cheese. Toss the spaghetti until thoroughly coated.