ell, the Curmudgeon Cook is at it again, fitting right in with the spirit of Scrooge this chilly holiday season.
So here I am, perusing recipes from just about everywhere to see what it is people eat in December for their many special gatherings. A disturbing number of these recipes contain variations on this line: “Add some herbs and spices.”
What does this mean — some herbs and spices? What herbs? What spices? Do you just toss any old cupboard item you happen to have lying around into your soup or stew or turkey stuffing or soufflé or Christmas pudding?
Things like this drive me batty. You go to extremes to find the right piece of tender, organically-raised meat, the lovely fresh salmon, the perfect plump chickie, only to follow a recipe that gives you the precise amount of olive oil, onions, carrots that should go into the main ingredient only to find “herbs and spices” casually mentioned half-way down. Or even worse, “sprinkle in a bit of garlic or onion salt.”
No, no, no: stop right there!
Here’s the thing. I’ve spent decades frying, sauteéing, basting, chopping, slicing, and folding. That my account for my strong views about what constitutes a memorable dish and what’s a mediocre facsimile of what might have been in more capable hands.
Herbs and spices, indeed! Are the herbs fresh or dried? Have they been gestating in a bottle that (probably) went stale in 1997? What spices do you keep in your larder? Are you in the habit of just throwing them in at the last minute with no thought as to their contribution?
Whether you’re making something delectable for gatherings or just for yourself, always remember your creation carries weight. Assuming your heart is in it and you’re trying the best you can to create a dish that looks and tastes delicious, one that others will savor and remember. If you don’t know exactly which herbs or spices constitute an integral part of your dish, or can improve it, how can you possibly play casual and throw some in on a whim? At that point you’re no longer cooking; you’re on someone else’s autopilot setting.
Here, then, are a few tips on the “herbs and spices” front:
— Use only fresh herbs and know their flavor and purpose. Keep bay leaves under lock and key and only let them out in infinitesimal pieces.
— Get rid of all dried herbs and premixed seasonings including garlic and, if possible, onion salts. Remember, bottled, dried herbs, though they might retain some smell, can go stale. Dried oregano, basil, parsley, even rosemary and thyme just don’t cut it. (It’s so easy to have a four- or five-pot little fresh herb garden in any sunny window all year long).
— Refresh your stash of spices (they come dried, no argument there) and when using those specified for curries and many exotic dishes, start by toasting them in a hot pan for a few seconds. If you’re reading a recipe that doesn’t specifically tell you which herbs or spices to use and their quantities, for goodness sake, find another recipe. The web is full of choices with fresh ingredients and specific amounts of each.
When, and only when you’ve mastered your recipe — acquiring a practiced eye and a proved palate — can you start adding “herbs and spices” ad hoc. By then you’ll know difference between fair to middling and great.
Okay, you can exempt Christmas pudding from my rigor. Its fragrant nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, ginger, and cardamom are a tasty must. Just be sure you don’t slip and toss in dried oregano.