Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Case for Herbs

Fresh herbs can make a wonderful addition to any dish, but how do cooks know which herbs to use? 
Most characteristic 'flavors' that we recognize can be broken into 1 of 2 broad categories: taste and aroma.
The key difference between those 2 attributes is this: some flavors you recognize with your tongue, and some flavors you recognize with your nose. The range of flavors that humans recognize with our tongues is fairly limited ('salty', 'sweet', 'bitter', 'sour', 'savory'), but the receptors in our noses are capable of identifying literally thousands of unique aromas!  
Aromatic plants have been used for thousands of years by every culture since the beginning of time to transform the most basic foods into mouth-watering meals. Just as artists mix shades of color to achieve eye-pleasing masterpieces, cooks use herbs and spices to color their culinary creations. The right herbs can add excitement to even the most boring meals. Entire encyclopedias have been published on the subject of herbs and spices, so I will simply list some of my favorites here:

While thyme is a very powerful herb, it blends well with other flavors and is often used in stocks and herb mixes such as herbs de provence and buquet garni. It has also been widely used as a medicinal herb, containing antiseptic compounds as well as being extremely high in iron (10 times as much by volume compared to other green vegetables). It is often paired with meats such as beef and poultry.

This herb is closely related to oregano, but with a slightly sweeter taste and a hint of citrus. Containing such chemical compounds as camphor and pinene, this herb can have a cooling effect on dishes and add a bit of earthy zing. Marjoram pairs well with food containing spicy capsicum flavors, and is wonderful with fish. 

A member of the salvia genus, sage has a slightly peppery flavor and is found in many dishes involving fatty meats such as pork. It is not commonly used in French cuisine, but Middle Eastern and Italian dishes make wide use of this versatile herb. In the Middle Ages, sage was considered a holy herb and was thought to ward off the plague (hence the latin name salvia salvatrix: sage the savior). Some studies have even found various chemical compounds in sage to be an effective treatment for mild Alzheimer’s disease.  

The leaf of the bay laurel tree is often used to flavor soups and stews. They are sold dried as they do not reach their full flavor potential until several weeks after they are picked. The leaves are almost always removed from the dish that they are used to season because the leaf itself is bitter when eaten alone and can be abrasive to the digestive tract. 

The full chapter will probably include more, but I won't make everyone read it here. Just get out there and try using some herbs!

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