Herbs and spices to cooks are like diamonds to a jeweller or the patter of raindrops on a hot tin roof to a waiting farmer.
The huge variety of different leaves, stems and roots that make up the many wonderful culinary herbs and spices used in home kitchens all over the world, enable so many meals to reach their full potential. Without them, our fragrant curries, spicy laksas, seasonal soups, hearty broths, stews and micro-herb salads would not be the same.
Herbs and spices are the essence of a meal, the very little sprigs and pinches that culminate and combine to create a flavour packed mouthful of food with every single bite.
Often, people can get confused with the differences between herbs and spices. Typically herbs refer to the greener parts of the plant including the leaves and sometimes the stems while spices are usually found in the roots, seeds and bark of the plant.
Herbs can be easily grown at home regardless of where you live. In an ideal world everyone would have a backyard or mini orchard where they could grow their own produce and have pots overflowing with fresh mint, aromatic rosemary and spicy chilli plants.
But unfortunately that isn’t the case for everyone, however, even if you live in a small apartment or have limited space, growing your own herbs is potentially the easiest form of gardening that will give you great benefits.
Regardless of where you live you’ll be able to grow something either in the ground, in pots outside or on your windowsill easily enough.
If you don’t have the best track record with gardening and the only plants you’ve ever had to tender came part of a house sitting arrangement or a gift from an elderly aunt, I’d recommend starting your horticulturalist career with hearty herbs like mint and rosemary. These two herbs are nearly impossible to annihilate and grow effortlessly with very little encouragement.
Other easy to grow at home herbs include basil, coriander, sage and parsley. All of these are great addition to soups, curries, salads and stews.
You can find fresh herbs and spices at your local farmer’s market or grocer and buying herbs in season is best. If you know how to dehydrate there’s a great post here on my blog about it, and you’ll always have a backup with the dried versions stored in the cupboard.
When cooking with fresh herbs make sure you cut them finely or scrunch them in your hands or in a mortar and pestle to release their aromas, enabling them to fully immerse their flavours amongst the dish.
If the thought of herbs and spices gets you into a muddle and tarragon and oregano sound like American states, I’ve compiled a wonderful reference guide which includes all of the most common and some uncommon herbs and spices. I’ve detailed thirty-seven of my favourite herbs and spices to zest and flavour your meals and give them a whole new lease on life, here.
Spices are harder to grow at home as often they are derived from parts of plants rather than using the plant directly from the ground.
Having a well-stocked spice rack in the cupboard will take your home cooked meals to another level.
Spices are very strong in flavour so make sure you proceed with caution when adding them to your concoction as they may overpower the dish. Remember you can always add but it more difficult to can’t take a spice out!
When it comes to using herbs and spices in dishes, here are a few of my favourite flavour combinations:
Try: Dill, fennel, chilli + tamari & ginger, capers, saffron, anise, coconut, white wine/apple cider vinegar, lemon, lime, parsley, coriander, butter, olives & tomato, thyme.
Try: Almonds, asparagus, avocado, chilli, cumin, dill, garlic, ginger, lemon, lime, beetroot.
Try: Peas & mint, rosemary, yoghurt, onion, apricots, cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, coriander, lemon & garlic, thyme, sweet potato, pine nuts.
Try: Mushrooms, orange zest, lime & coriander, red wine, chilli, onions, cloves, bay leaf, ginger, celery & carrot, parsley, olives, broccoli.
Try: Lime & chilli, cashews, almonds, garlic, thyme, coconut, basil, lemon, mushrooms, avocado, saffron, sage, celery.
Expanding your repertoire and learning new preparation methods keeps cooking interesting and inspiring. So on that note I’m going to share with you a Jolly Good Butter Chicken recipe which is one of my favourites from my book Eat Yourself Beautiful.
Jolly Good Butter Chicken
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 kg (2 lb 4 oz) free-range chicken breast, thickly sliced
70 g (21/2 oz) unsalted butter
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 cinnamon stick
10 cardamon pods
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin (optional)
1 teaspoon ground chilli (optional)
400 g (14 oz) tinned diced tomatoes
1 tablespoon sugar and additive-free tomato paste (concentrated purée)
400 ml (14 oz) additive-free coconut milk
370 g (123/4 oz./2 cups) steamed brown rice
1 Lebanese cucumber, diced and chilled
1 ripe banana, sliced
1 teaspoon shredded coconut
1 dollop of mango chutney (optional)
1. Place a large, heavy-based saucepan over high heat and add the sesame oil.
2. Cook the chicken in 2 batches, turning regularly for about 5 minutes or till browned.
3. Remove from the pan and set aside while you cook the remaining chicken. Remove it from the pan.
4. Reduce the heat a little and add the butter.
5. When the butter has melted add the spices and cook, stirring, for 4–5 minutes until fragrant.
6. Return the chicken to the pan, along with the tomatoes and tomato paste. Stir and simmer for about 20 minutes.
7. Turn down the heat to low and stir in the coconut milk. Simmer for about 5 minutes.
8. Mix the banana and coconut together in a small bowl.
9. Serve this curry with brown or fragrant rice with saffron and turmeric, cucumber salad and banana with coconut flakes.
Let Lee know if you enjoyed this recipe, or ask her a question, here.