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You may have to read between the lines a little, but you can tell a lot about a cook by looking at his herbs and spices. I peer at my own and see a cabinet full of flavor segues, dead ends and evolution.
The lemon pepper I used so much as a kid is barely touched these days. The cumin I reached for to over-season fall chili waits for tomatoes to ripen with summer salsa. The days after college when everything was Cajun and Creole still take up real estate as I am gifted many hits and misses with celebrity names on mixtures of cayenne, garlic, paprika and onion powder.
The subtle shallot and chive flavor of Penzeys Spices’ Fox Point turned a corner, and my cupboard steered away from these comfortable, familiar flavors (with a lot of help from my influential wife), welcoming the delicate additions of za’atar, French lavender and herbes de Provence next to harsh anchovy salt.
Dried herbs are like a roadmap. Their longevity carves a pantry path full of detours and exits. The consternation of it all is where some of these roadside attractions came from. Why am I holding four identical plastic containers of pumpkin pie spice as I shuffle through this mess in a search for white pepper? Why did I buy cream of tartar?
Dried herbs leave a semipermanent scar on your kitchen, oft worn as a badge of honor. Fresh herbs take up fridge space, but get replenished weekly. Without an indoor herb garden, no trip to the grocery is complete without the proper herb for tonight’s supper. Here are my most important.
This perennial herb is in almost every spice rack. It’s better in the icebox. When I think of oregano, tomatoes immediately come to mind. Find other uses for the fresh aromatic by seasoning chicken, shrimp or potatoes. It’ll break up the monotony. If you have an abundance, make oregano pesto.
I used to hate it. It tasted like soap. Now, I’m smitten. Don’t give me the dried. It’s all fresh or nothing for me. With cilantro you have Mexican. Without it you have Mexican’t. It’s a great addition to street tacos and soups when used sparingly.
For Asian dishes, I don’t use it sparingly at all. I want handfuls of it with tuna, barely kissed by dad’s cigarette lighter. That fresh flavor soothes a Sriracha bite and makes noodles less boring.
We put it in our dressing at Thanksgiving, but what else is this woodsy herb good for? The number two of the medieval melody can be an unsung hero. You’ll see it in sausage recipes and breads, but I recommend it for wild game. It’s my least used of this list, but when I have an application for it, it shines.
Look up basil varieties and you’ll get the phone book. We see lemon basil and Thai basil, but mostly sweet basil. Many a food processor has made authentic pesto with garlic and pine nuts, but basil, a friend to mozzarella, is best torn instead of chopped.
Its strong flavor is punchy enough to stand up to pork. A little goes a long way. It can find a home in breads, desserts, even ice cream. I think it pairs well with blueberries and has become popular with the modern mixologists in fancy drinks. Use it to spruce up a not-so-fancy gin and tonic. Try pronouncing the “a” a little differently to give it the ol’ razzle dazzle.
Rosemary seems to last the longest in my ever-changing drawer of herbs. Of course, we use it on lamb and potatoes. Right now, an oven with trays of vegetables roasting without rosemary would be a sin. It’s a grill man’s go-to, but only if you like your meat closer to rare. Save a sprig or two, soak them in water and throw them on the coals for added effect.
Even with lemon, fish or salads, rosemary brings out the red wine in me.
Another perennial, thyme bounces between the first and second spots on my list. When something is missing but you aren’t sure what it is, try thyme. Thyme and chicken need each other like Crockett needs Tubs. Tuck it under the skin before roasting. Whole sprigs in soups are a must, and I don’t mind if one gets in my teeth.
Strip the leaves fresh off the stem and add to eggs. I associate it with almost any comfort food, and admire how it can add a darker flavor when used with nutmeg or rely on its own slight minty tone for a bright kick in the springtime.
And the number 1 herb is … Parsley
Like my spice and dried herb cabinet, I change favorites from time to time, but parsley is holding strong at the moment. It plays well with others. Its flavor is unmistakable. Whatever you are eating, parsley enhances the flavor. Don’t believe me? Make a green salad and mix in some parsley. Chop it up and put it on a hot dog with all your other condiments.
Many a Saturday evening my grandparents took us to Bonanza, the premier steakhouse of Laurel, Mississippi, in the late ’70s and ’80s. Every steak came with a sprig of parsley. The kindergarten me would snatch the garnish from my family members’ plates.
Parsley follows the mood of the meal no matter where it is going. It accents the darkness of the winter and the brightness of the summer. It’s at home with root vegetables and stews or corn salad and seafood. It begs for red and white. I find parsley subtle and at the same time illuminating.
Today it is number one. Change my mind.
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