“Herb”ivore: Using Herbs for Flavor

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“You can’t kill this.  It’s a succulent.”

True Confessions:  I am a plant killer.  Since I have no malicious intent and do not deliberately intend to kill my plants, I am, however, only guilty of involuntary plant-slaughter at most and not actual murder or even voluntary plant-slaughter.

And since I know this about myself, I don’t ever buy plants to have in my house; and friends and family who know me well don’t buy plants for me as gifts.  One day, however, a friend arrived for brunch with a plant in hand called a succulent.  (If you’re not familiar with a succulent, as I was not, it’s what a cactus is, though there are other varieties of succulents which are not cacti.)

My friend, who is absolutely marvelous with plants, assured me that she had brought me a plant that even I could not kill.  As you can imagine, with my track record, I was skeptical.  But my friend was right.  It’s a year and a half later, and the little succulent is still going strong.

It’s probably because you can basically ignore it, and it will still thrive on its own. As long as I remember to water it at least once a month, it’s good to go. Essentially it’s my type of plant, and if my friend had not given me the succulent I would never had learned that I could be free of my identity as a plant killer.

Why use herbs

For some people, they feel similarly about herbs and spices.  They don’t know exactly what to do with them and haven’t used them a lot, so they don’t.  They stick with salt and pepper and bottles of Mrs. Dash which just combine many herbs and spices together for use with anything.

Herbs and spices, however, are wonderful to use in cooking, because they can bring nuanced flavors to your food and allow you to cut back on your sodium use. Today, the variety you can find at the grocery store is remarkable.  You can buy it dried, freeze-dried, frozen, packaged in refrigerator tubes, ground, pureed, as leaves, and of course, fresh.

Fortunately for me, my husband has a green thumb, and he grows wonderful herbs for me in small planters we keep on the back porch which I can just snip as I want. When I don’t have fresh herbs available, though, I freely use the dried, freeze-dried, and refrigerator tube versions as well.  And I always have a variety of ground spices in my pantry for my use.

Tips for using herbs and spices

There are a few things to always keep in mind when using herbs and spices.

1.  Fresh herbs are usually added near the end of your cooking time, because they lose their flavor if cooked for too long, while dried herbs and spices are added at the beginning because they need the heat to bring out their flavor.

2.  Dried herbs have a more concentrated flavor so you use less than you would  of fresh herbs.  1/2 to 1 tsp of a dried herb is usually equal to a tablespoon or two of a fresh herb.

3.  Since the oils in a dried herbs are essentially “trapped” inside, before you add dried herbs to your dish, you should “crush” them a bit between your fingers to release their flavor.

4. Spices such as cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger are usually associated with baking and fruit dishes, but they add wonderful flavor to meat and seafood dishes and even to soups, beans, and macaroni and cheese.

5. Most herbs go well with just about anything from meat to vegetables to even fruit.  Experiment to see what flavors you like with what.

6. When you really want to bring out the flavors in a recipe, creating a base aromatic is the best way to go.  Simply put a little bit of oil in your pot and add dried herbs or spices, along with chopped onions or peppers or garlic, and slowly cook them over low heat for a little while before adding your meat or vegetables or fish or soup or whatever.

7. If you’re making something like a soup or stew or roast which needs a long time to cook, dried herbs are really better to use than fresh.  If you want to use fresh herbs, you can add those at the end as a garnish.

8. If you buy fresh herbs in a package from the store and don’t use it all up immediately, wrap the leftover herbs in a slightly damp towel and put it in sandwich baggie to keep it fresh a little longer in the fridge.

9. If you buy dried herbs and spices, they will lose their potency after a while, but the length of time varies.  Essentially, the rule of thumb is that if you can’t smell anything when you gently rub the spice or herb and/or they’ve completely lost all their color, most likely they should be tossed.

10. When using dried herbs, you should shake the herbs into your hands and then add them carefully to your dish.  If you shake the container over the dish itself, the steam from the cooking gets into your container and can spoil your dried herbs more quickly.

11. Dried herbs should be kept in a dark, dry, cool place.  Those little spice racks we buy are actually not very good for storing the herbs and spices, because usually those are put on the wall, near the stove where the light, heat and moisture all work together to spoil the herbs and spices.

12. If you want to buy dried spices or herbs but get that “fresh” flavor, buy whole dried spices which you can grind in a spice grinder just before using.

Herbed Shrimp and Vegetables

Ingredients:

1 – 2 tbsp olive oil (depends on how much you prefer to use)

1 cup frozen chopped onions (can use fresh if you have)

1-2 tsp dried herbs of your choosing (depends on how you prefer to use)

1-2 tsp minced garlic (jarred, tube, freeze-dried, fresh, whatever in the amount you prefer)

4-6 zucchini, 5-6 inches long, cut into 1/2 inch half moons*

2 yellow peppers, diced into 1/2 inch squares

1 14.5 oz can no salt added petite diced tomatoes, drained

1 lb thawed frozen deveined cooked shrimp**

4 cups fresh herbs of your choosing, chopped (will reduce to about 2 cups when diced)***

1/2 tsp coarse sea salt (you can add more or just omit altogether)

1/2 tsp black pepper

Cooking Instructions:

1. In a large stovetop skillet combine the olive oil with the onions.  Saute over low heat, stirring occasionally, for ten to 15 minutes until the onions are caramelized, which essentially means they’ve turned darker in color and become a bit thicker in texture.

2.  Add the dried herbs and garlic and saute for another five minutes over low-medium heat, being careful to stir so the garlic doesn’t burn.

3. Add the zucchini and peppers and saute over medium heat for about 3-4 minutes until the colors become a bit darker and more vibrant.

4.  Add the tomatoes and saute another 3-4 minutes.

5. Add the cooked shrimp with the herbs, salt and pepper, and stir until well coated and shrimp becomes slightly warm, about 1-2 minutes.

6. Serve by itself or over pasta or rice or couscous or quinoa or whatever.

* I prefer to buy or grow and use smaller zucchini because the flavor is better and it’s not as seedy.  If you purchase a larger store zucchini, then you should adjust your amount accordingly and scrape out the seeds from the zucchini before slicing.

** I love frozen deveined cooked shrimp because it’s cheaper and always ready when I want to use it.  You can use fresh shrimp but you then need to add it after the vegetables with the tomatoes so they can cook during that 3-4 minutes.  If yo use the frozen shrimp and forget to take it out ahead of time like I always do, you can just put the shrimp in a bowl of cold water to defrost them.

*** I use a lot of herbs for this recipe because my family likes it that way, but you can use reduce the amount by half.  As for the types of herbs we use, we like to vary it every time, but we usually use some combination of oregano, basil, mint, ginger mint, cilantro, rosemary, thyme, dill, chives, and/or parsley.

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