Rich spices, which are mainly aromatic and flavourful seeds and flowers, have always been integral to Indian cuisine from every region. But very rarely do we use herbs. With increasing exposure to Western culture and cuisine, it is not uncommon for women to try their hand at international food. This is where herbs come into play. Like our spices, most continental and western cuisine use fresh or dried herbs, which are basically aromatic leaves and plants, to evoke their signature tastes.
Adding fresh herbs is a quick way to transform ordinary dish into something exotic. Herbs not only add flavour to foods but also help in cutting down on salt, fat and sugar. Researchers have found that many culinary herbs both fresh and dried have antioxidants that may help protect against such diseases as cancer and heart diseases. The most flavourful culinary herbs are harvested from well-tended plants in their leaf making stage. All herbs have two phases of growth: the leaf stage and the flower stage. When the plant enters its flowering stage, leaf production slows or stops and the leaves on the plant may become bitter, grassy, woody, or yellowed. These leaves are not of optimum quality for cooking.
Learn the Flavours
There are many types of fresh or dried culinary herbs that are available in our supermarkets today. The best herbs to work with in the beginning include oregano, parsley, rosemary, tarragon, sage, cilantro, chives, basil, mint, dill and thyme. While they add their distinctive flavours to continental cooking, you can even experiment with fusion cooking by using herbs in your Indian recipes.
So how do you get started on using herbs in your recipes? It may seem daunting at first, but it is a good idea to learn about each herbs distinctive taste and flavour before you start cooking with them. To know about the flavour of each herb take a clean leaf of the herb and chew but don`t swallow. Let the leaf meet the tongue and chew thoughtfully. Experience your herbs like you would a fine wine, hold it in your tongue and inhale to check the fragrant bouquet. It is not necessary to swallow. Learning about the flavor of the herb this way will help you to decide if it will make the perfect pot roast or grill or salad.
To learn how the flavour will open up a dish start adding fresh chopped herbs to food that is familiar yet bland, like mashed potato, butter or cream or salads, grilled chicken or pasta. This allows you to understand the intensity of the herb to stand on its own and helps you to know how much of the herb to add. Keep notes of how much you added and what was pleasing and what flavours worked together. This will help when you decide to blend two or more herbs for more evolved cooking.
A general guideline when using fresh herbs in a recipe is to use 3 times as much as you would use of a dried herb. It is always better to substitute fresh herb for dried rather than the other way round. You need to add dried herbs while cooking the dish to let bring out the flavour, fresh herbs are usually added toward the end in cooked dishes to preserve their flavour. You can add the stronger herbs like oregano, tarragon, thyme or rosemary when the dish is half cooked. With the more delicate herbs like basil, chives, dill, parsley, marjoram and mint, add them a minute or two before the end of cooking or sprinkle them as a garnish before serving the food. Fresh herbs can be added to refrigerated cold foods several hours before serving. Allowing time at least a couple of hours, if possible for cold foods with herbs to chill helps the flavours to blend.
It is important to wash the herbs thoroughly like you would spinach or salad greens. Wash small bunch of herbs under running water, shake off excess water and pat them dry. Fresh herbs can be stored in an open or a perforated plastic bag in your refrigerator crisper drawer for a few days. If you don`t have access to commercial perforated bags, use a sharp object to make several small holes in a regular plastic bag.
Cooking with herbs is like icing a cake; it makes the dish complete. There are many herbs and recipes that use them. The fun factor is when you can know the unique flavour of each herb and create your own special dish with them.