Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Texture, Aroma and Flavor: A Note on Herbs and Spices

I thought that this post might compliment the 30-day recipe challenge well. In the previous post I talked about how adding news foods or recipes to your diet is a good idea. In this post, I will talk about herbs and spices, as well as cooking methods, and how they can make all the difference in a dish.

The preparation of certain foods can completely change the texture and flavor of the ingredients. The easiest example to come to mind is okra. If you boil okra, it becomes somewhat slimy and mushy, whereas if you fry or roast it the texture is crunchy and much less slimy. My favorite way to eat okra is after it has been pickled (and marinated for about a year in the jar). The vinegar makes the okra less slimy that regular boiling and softens the otherwise tough exterior of the pods. Most people I know won't eat okra unless it is cooked in gumbo, which softens the skin and takes the sliminess away since it is stew-like. Okra is definitely a food I would try many different ways before discounting. I'm not a fan of fried okra (too much grease), but today I tried roasted okra for the first time and I enjoyed it. (I am very proud to say the okra we ate today was grown organically in my garden this summer and frozen directly after being harvested.)

The main problems that I have noticed people have when trying new food relate to: flavor, texture, or aroma. All of these problems can be remedied with a different cooking method or the inclusion of different herbs and/or spices in the dish. Richard has never enjoyed vinegar or mustard. However, lately he has been eating quite a bit of Dijon mustard. He has also never enjoyed cabbage before. Imagine his surprise when I fed him blanched cabbage marinated in a Dijon mustard sauce. He has said, "my biggest problem with cabbage is that it feels like rubber." Blanching and marinating the cabbage allowed it to have a crisp texture. The Dijon mustard was mixed with garlic, vinegar, and oil, which apparently creates a flavor combination different enough from vinegar or mustard itself that Richard didn't mind it. He also ate cabbage in the Peanut Shrimp wraps we made for lunch one day last week. According to him the flavors and textures of the peanut butter and shrimp covered up the flavor and texture of the cabbage. Through these methods, I was able to convince Richard that cabbage isn't so bad after all.

When it comes to texture, the simplest way to change a food is to find a different way to prepare it. Brussels sprouts are another good example. Until recently I had only ever had Brussels Sprout from a can. Let me tell you, this is not a pleasant experience because of taste and texture (it's been too long for me to remember about aroma). However, at EcoFest two weekends ago, I had braised fresh Brussels sprouts, which were delicious. The lesson I learned was you cannot judge any vegetable from the canned version. Chef Robert suggests, "If you cannot get fresh, then go with frozen which will have a more similar texture to fresh than canned." The flavor of canned foods is just a little bit off, as well. Because you have to use salt as a preservative, canned vegetables tend to be a little salty and a little acidic, which is untrue of their fresh counterparts.

Now when it comes to flavor or aroma of any dish, you have to turn to the spices and herbs that you use. Different herbs and spices pair well with different foods as well as other herbs and spices. I have a lovely book, The Spice and Herb Bible by Ian Hemphill (2009 ed.). The author grew up on an herb farm which meant that throughout his life he was always comfortable using herbs and spices, which, as he points out, is not true for everyone. When I was growing up, my mother had only what she deemed the essential herbs and spices in our kitchen: salt/pepper (from shakers not grinders), lemon pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, bay leaves, basil, parsley, dill, red pepper, chili powder, italian seasoning, cinnamon, allspice, and pumpkin spice. Glancing at my spice rack I wonder how I ever survived on so little flavor options. I am never out of curry powder, garam masala, ginger, cloves, cilantro, turmeric, ground coriander or cumin, thyme, rosemary, mustard seed, nutmeg (whole), mint and various other selections. I have developed a love affair with spices and herbs, one that will last me a lifetime.

The Spice and Herb Bible happens to be an amazing tool which has opened my eyes to many new tastes as well (lemongrass, fenugreek, capers, cloves, etc.). The book gives a history/uses/names of each herb and spice listed, and advises on how to grow, dry, and store your own herbs and spices. It lists the main spices and herbs used in different cuisines (convenient if you have themed weeks for food). It lists complimentary flavors, the flavor group of individual herbs and spices, traditional uses and suggested quantity per pound to use on meats, veggies or grains. The book even includes recipes for some of the herbs and spices. It is an invaluable tool if you are trying to develop your flavor palette.

So, the next time you are trying to decide how to flavor a dish, maybe try looking up an herb or spice to decide whether it pairs well with the dish you are preparing and what other spices and herbs you can use in combination. I am sure wikipedia can be of help to you. Or you can splurge a little and get The Herb and Spice Bible, which is even more convenient. (Amazon has both the old and the new versions of this book: or ).

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