Fresh herbs and spices are essential

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By Norm Harding, Reporter

As a general rule of thumb, herbs come from grassy plants and spices from barks or seeds. Herbs tend to grow in temperate climates, while most spices come primarily from tropical regions.
The term “spice” refers to the whole family of dried plant seasonings, including spices, herbs, blends and dehydrated vegetables.
Fresh herbs are increasingly accessible all year long in our local supermarkets and produce stores. Many of us grow herbs year-round in flowerpots set on sunny windowsills or in containers on decks or even planted in gardens. Nothing compares to the flavor and aroma of an herb snipped moments before use.

Preserving fresh herbs
Most fresh herbs can be dried or frozen and used later, with little loss of flavor or aroma. The best time to save herbs is usually late summer, when their aromatic oils are at a peak.
Bay, marjoram, mint, rosemary, sage, tarragon and thyme dry well if hung in a warm, dry, well-ventilated place, away from direct sunlight. Depending on the herb, they should dry in about 1-2 weeks.
Herbs can also be dried in a microwave oven. Just spread fresh herbs on a paper towel and microwave on high for 2-3 minutes until dry and crisp.
Basil, dill, parsley, chervil and fennel are excellent freezing candidates. Wash and dry them thoroughly, discarding large stems, and place in an airtight, rigid plastic container and then freeze them. They can be frozen up to one year.
Flavorful herbs like basil, thyme, tarragon and rosemary can be infused in bottles of oil or vinegar to be used in salad dressings and marinades when fresh herbs are not available.

Essential spices and seasonings
Keeping your spice cabinet well stocked is the key to easier cooking and baking. There are seven essential spices and seasonings, not counting salt and pepper, which every kitchen should have: garlic powder, cinnamon, parsley, oregano, chili powder, seasoned salt and minced onion.
I would also suggest having basil, bay leaves, sage, dill weed, ginger, paprika, rosemary, thyme and mustard powder on the shelf.
For Italian cooking, add fennel, crushed red pepper, Italian seasoning, oregano, garlic salt.
For Mexican cooking, add cumin and chili powder.
For Asian cooking, add curry powder, crushed red pepper, sesame seed and maybe Chinese five-spice powder.
For baking, you’ll need to add allspice, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg and poppy seeds.

This Mediterranean olive-pickers’ snack originated from the custom of tasting the newly pressed oil on chunks of bread. Topped with ripe tomatoes and even bits of cheese and ham, it makes a tasty light meal or first course.
4 thick slices of country bread
1 clove garlic, cut in half
2 medium tomatoes, thinly sliced
Olive oil
Selection of chopped fresh marjoram, parsley, oregano, chives and thyme
Toast bread on both sides. Rub cut side of garlic over toast. Top with sliced tomatoes, sprinkle with salt/pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Put under broiler for one minute, just until tomato starts to color. Sprinkle with chopped herbs and serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.

Italian-Style Stuffed Mushrooms
Mediterranean herbs and anchovies in mushroom caps make an excellent starter or accompaniment for plain grilled meat, fish or pasta.
12 large open mushrooms
Olive oil
1 cup fresh bread crumbs
3 Tbsp. finely chopped onion
1 Tbsp. minced garlic
2 medium tomatoes, peeled and chopped
6 anchovy fillets, drained and chopped
3 Tbsps. chopped parsley
1 Tbsp. chopped oregano leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Clean mushrooms and carefully remove stalks; chop stalks. Heat olive oil in a pan and sauté the stalks with bread crumbs, onion and garlic. Remove from heat and add remaining ingredients. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Heap stuffing into mushroom caps and place on greased baking dish. Drizzle with olive oil. Bake in oven about 20 minutes. Makes 4 servings.

Chickpea Salad with Yogurt and Herbs
This creamy chickpea salad is flavored with aromatic herbs and Indian spices, including mustard, cumin and fennel seeds.
Two 15-oz. cans chickpeas, rinsed, drained and patted dry
2 Tbsps. peanut oil
1 tsp. mustard seeds
3/4 tsp. cumin seeds
3/4 tsp. fennel seeds
1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper
3/4 cup plain Greek yogurt
1-1/2 Tbsps. fresh lemon juice
2 green onions, thinly sliced (white and green parts)
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1/4 cup chopped mint
1 tsp. salt
Pour the chickpeas into a large bowl. In a small skillet, heat the peanut oil. Add the mustard seeds, partially cover the skillet, and cook over medium-high heat until the mustard seeds stop popping, about one minute. Add the cumin and fennel seeds and the crushed red pepper and cook until the mixture is fragrant, about 30 seconds. Pour the hot oil and spices over the chickpeas. Stir in the yogurt, lemon juice, onions, chopped cilantro, mint and salt.
Serve this salad at room temperature. Makes 6 servings.

Herb and Bean Salad
Delicious and full of protein, this salad can be made in advance and travels well for picnics and outdoor entertainment.
8 oz. green beans, topped and tailed
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 can (14 1/2 oz.) red kidney beans, drained
5 Tbsps. olive oil
4 Tbsps. red wine vinegar
2 tsps. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1/2 cup finely chopped herbs: parsley, marjoram, thyme, tarragon, chives
1 small onion, thinly sliced for garnish
Cook the beans with the garlic in boiling water, until tender; drain. Combine while hot with remaining ingredients, except onion; mix thoroughly. Cover and allow to blend at least one hour. Garnish with onion slices. Makes 4 servings.
Norm Harding is a cooking columnist for the Beacon. To send him recipes, email him at nharding@brunswickbeacon.com.