If you are a novice in the kitchen or just a “time challenged” parent trying to get a meal on the table after putting in a full day at work, you may not have given a lot of thought to which fresh herbs might kick up the flavor of one of your standby recipes or family favorites. Let’s face it. When time is limited, it’s easy to take the course of least resistance and serve what is fastest and easiest. Here’s the good news. Cooking with herbs doesn’t have to be a daunting challenge. With a little guidance and a healthy serving of inspiration you can get the hang of seasoning with herbs and jazz up the flavor of your meals.
Well-Being turned to award winning Chef Derek Emerson of Walker’s Drive-in and Local 463 Urban Kitchen for some “insider” tips and inspiring enthusiasm about how seasoning with herbs can bring flavor to life in everyday dishes and offer benefits that delight the senses and nourish the body.
“The first thing to learn about seasoning with herbs is to use a light touch to begin with,” notes Emerson. “You can always add more, but if you start out heavy-handed you can’t take it back. A good place to begin is with a familiar dish like spaghetti sauce. Nobody has time to make sauce from scratch any- more, but that doesn’t mean you can’t give a prepared sauce your own touch. Try experimenting with some basics like oregano, fresh basil and garlic, and see how you like the combinations of flavors. As you go along you will develop a feel for which herbs you prefer and how much to use.”
Herb tip: Try not to mix two very strong herbs together. Instead use one strong herb and one or more with milder flavors to complement both the stronger herb and the food.
“Remember fresh herbs, especially the leafy ones like parsley, basil and cilantro lose their potency when they are cooked over a long period of time, as in sauces, soups and stews. Dried herbs are more concentrated and can maintain their flavor longer during the cooking process. If you want to use fresh herbs in your longer-cooking dishes, start with dried herbs and add a little of their fresh counterparts a few minutes before the cooking is complete.”
Herb tip: If chopping fresh herbs, chop the leaves very finely because more of the oils and flavor will be released.
Well-Being asked Emerson about which herbs he uses most often in his restaurant kitchens, and we came to realize it was a little like asking a parent which of his children he loves the best.
Just to start Emerson mentioned basil, thyme, rosemary, cilantro, bay leaves, garlic, shallots, oregano, coriander and ginger. But as our conversation continued more of his favorites came to light, including sage, tarragon, mint, juniper berries, cumin…the list goes on and on. As we said…who can say which child they love the best, and you might say that this chef’s family of herbal favorites is a cup that runneth over. His passion for food and bringing out the best of each unique flavor is nothing less than contagious.
Herb tip: Usually, the weaker the flavor of the food (like eggs), the less added herbs are required to get a nice balance of flavor.
A few minutes into the interview we realized that no discussion about herbs was complete without touching on some of the other basics of the flavorful kitchen, like olive oil. Emerson explained how using olive oil, vinegars and sherry can help reduce the amount of salt that is needed for savory recipes. A good extra virgin olive oil is a must, but not all EVOOs are the same.
“We find that a really good extra virgin olive oil is a little strong for a lot of people’s tastes, especially in this country. We use a canola/olive oil blend which gives a balanced flavor, not too strong but flavorful,” adds Emerson.
Herb tip: Each herb is slightly different but a starting formula is: 1/4 teaspoon powdered herbs is equaled to 3/4 to 1 teaspoon crumbled or the equivalent of 2 to 4 teaspoons fresh.
Emerson’s restaurants are all about featuring fresh, local and seasonal foods. He shared that just as he chooses items for the menu by what is currently in season, he also chooses herbs to pair with the seasonal foods to enhance their fresh flavor.
“Some examples of what I think of as seasonal combinations are fresh basil and tomatoes in the summer, sage and sweet potatoes in the fall or juniper berries and game such as elk in fall and winter,” Emerson explains. “A huge part of learning to cook with herbs is knowing which foods and herbs are best paired together. Besides being great with tomatoes, basil works well with Mediterranean flavors, onions, lemon and other citrus flavors. Cilantro is excellent in salsas made with pineapple, mangos, corn, squash, tomatoes or in pico de gallo. Rosemary works well with braised foods, and thyme and bay leaves are great all the time in sauces. We use mint with pickled shrimp to brighten the flavor and give a good balance of sweet and savory, and opal basil with fish for a fresh, light flavor. Think of one of the classic food/herb pairings…lamb and mint jelly. Nobody knows exactly how and why it got started, but there’s no denying that the flavors are made for each other.”
Herb tip: For refrigerated foods such as dips, cheese, vegetables and dressings, fresh herbs should be added several hours or overnight before using. Note: Fresh Basil is an exception. If you add it to salad dressing overnight or longer, it becomes bitter.
If you are looking for a way to cut back on the amount of salt in your foods, besides using herbs to enhance natural flavors, Emerson recommends dehydrated vinegar. The highly concentrated dry version of this kitchen staple gives a salty flavor to food without adding salt.
“A lot of people think herbs are only for complicated gourmet dishes, and because of that perception they steer away from using them in everyday cooking,” concludes Emerson. “The truth is, herbs were an important part of the human diet for thousands of years, and rather than the exception they were the rule in kitchen’s throughout the ages. They add flavor and eye appeal, and they boost the nutritional value of your meal. If seasoning with herbs is new to you, start small and experiment with them in some of your basic recipes. Before you know it you’ll be creating and serving your own new favorite dishes that are brimming with natural flavor.”
Chef Derek Emerson and his wife Jennifer Emerson own and operate Walker’s Drive-in in Jackson, MS and Local 463 Urban Kitchen in Madison.