In an earlier post I mentioned that processed food is often sweetened with sugars such as high fructose corn syrup. We can get so used to this that food tastes bland when it is not sweetened. Why is this? Probably because it is bland. After all if the only thing done to add flavor is putting sugar in the food and you take the sugar out, it’s missing something. However, I think what’s gone was missing all along. Herbs and spices can make foods more enjoyable and tastier than they ever were before.
So, if you’re not used to cooking with these seasonings, where do you start? Dried herbs are the easiest place, after all they’re shelf stable and a wide variety of them are readily available. You could always start with mixes of dried herbs if that seems easier, personally I have yet to try a mix labeled Italian seasoning that I was happy with, but there are many other options out there. As far as a general Italian seasoning I prefer something along the lines of 2 parts basil, 1/2 to 1 parts each of oregano and thyme. If you’re unfamiliar with recipes listed in parts, that could look like 2 teaspoons basil, 1/2 to 1 teaspoon each of oregano and thyme, and if you wanted you could mix this up using any measurement: cups, tablespoons, or ounces for example.
If you’re new to using herbs and spices, first familiarize yourself with basil, oregano, garlic, and onions. Get used to cooking with fresh garlic; the dried powdered version will work in a pinch, but it just doesn’t compare. Other excellent basic herbs to become familiar with are sage, cumin, and rosemary (but, again I really prefer this fresh, so much so that I will often leave it out if the only option is the dried version). And that brings up one other point, even if you already cook with a lot of seasonings, if you use them in the dried form it will be well worth your while to branch out and use fresh herbs when they’re available. The amount called for changes when you switch to fresh herbs, for every teaspoon of dried herbs you substitute one tablespoon of the fresh.
Fresh herbs can be purchased at most grocery stores now. I’ve seen them, but I never buy them. I prefer to grow my own. The two exceptions to this are parsley and cilantro. They are common enough that it’s not hard to find a large fresh bunch at a perfectly reasonable price. When you get home with your herbs I recommend treating them in a manner similar to cut flowers. Cut off the bottom of the stems and place them in a small glass of water, then cover the whole thing with the produce bag they came home in (or something similar like a bread bag) and store them in the fridge. Check on them occasionally if you won’t be using them all at once, after about 5 days you will need to re-trim the stems, place them in fresh water and pull out any bits that have started to yellow. This should give you about a week and a half to use them before they become too unhappy to eat.
As far as growing your own, I have only had success doing this outside, or bringing plants grown outdoors in for the winter. I recommend buying starts at a nursery, since this is easier and more reliable than starting from seed. However, as gardening is not the point here, I’ll leave it at that.