Meet Herb

This month's offering is the beginning of a series of columns dedicated to flavourings, marinades and the like. While herbs and spices are widely used to enhance and enrich the flavours of the foods we prepare and eat, there are other ingredients which are widely used as well. Over the next few months we'll cover some of these with descriptions, uses and some selected recipes. I hope you find them useful and as always, please feel free to contact me if there's anything we don't cover that you would like to see us look into.

Capers -- Capparis spinosa

Capers are tiny unopened flower buds of the nasturtium plant, a spiny shrub most often found in the drier climates of southern Europe and North Africa. They are hand picked and packed into jars of salted wine vinegar. The finest are called non-pareilles, are about 3mm long and are round and hard. The larger ones are less expensive. Capers are aromatic and pungent, their pungency deriving from the capric acid which develops through pickling. As long as they are submerged in their pickling liquid, they will keep for long periods of time, though they never seem to last long in my house.

My favourite way to use capers is to sprinkle them over a platter of thinly sliced smoked salmon with finely chopped red onion, freshly ground black pepper and a drizzling of extra virgin olive oil. Quite often, I add capers to salads as well, especially a fresh tomato cucumber salad. However, they do have many other uses. They help reduce oiliness in foods and go exceptionally well with garlic and lemon. They are an integral part of the Sauce Grenobloise which is mixture of caper, lemon and anchovy. They can also be added to classic sauces such as Remoulade, Tartare and Tapenade. In Italy, they are used in Vitello Tonnato, Salsa Verde and as part of pizza toppings. In northern Europe, capers are used in German and Scandinavian savoury sauces and a traditional caper sauce is often found in Britain as an accompaniment to mutton and lamb. Dried Mushrooms

In many parts of the world, dried mushrooms are an important part of the cuisine. There are many different types but they can be loosely divided into those which are cultivated and those which grow and are harvested in the wild. Dried mushrooms have a higher concentration of flavour and since they keep well for over a year, are a useful addition to any kitchen staple cupboard. Before they can be used, they need to be soaked for at least thirty minutes in warm water, stock or wine. The soaking liquid can be used as part of the liquid called for in the recipe.

Shiitake and Matsutake, also known as Japanese tree mushrooms, are cultivated in the Orient on logs, then sun dried. They have a delicate flavour and are most widely used in Oriental dishes such as Steamed Chicken and Tori Mushiyaki.
Wood or Cloud Ear is a cultivated Chinese mushroom either grown on wood or gathered in the wild. It adds a nice earthy flavour to Chinese soups, chiken and fish dishes.
Morels are small wrinkled mushrooms that grow wild and are very flavourful. They grow throughout the world, although there are now several varieties being cultivated. The finest Morels are said to come from the Jura region of France. They have a delicate flavour that blends well with the simple basic flavours of French cooking. They are delicious with eggs.
Chanterelles or Girollesare elegant, golden and spindly with a delicious flavour and can be found in the Alps and southern Germany.
Boletus are very popular in Europe. They have large brown caps with honeycombed undersides. When sliced and dried, they are called Cepes in France and Porcini in Italy. They have a strong meaty taste. Mustard

Mustard is a condiment prepared from the seeds of three plants of the cabbage family. There are three types of seeds: white, brown and black, and a wide selection of mustards made with various combinations of these seeds in conjunction with various other flavouring ingredients such as vinegars, wine, honey, spices, peppercorns, chilies, garlic, etc. While most larger supermarkets are now starting to carry a wider selection of mustards, your best source is still your local delicatessen or corner gourmet shop.

Prepared mustards will keep in their jars for up to 6 months, the powders in their tins for three to four months. When adding mustards to food during the cooking time, remember that the pungency of mustard is destroyed by heat, so add it to finished sauces or stews.

English Mustard is made from a combination of white and black seeds, flour and turmeric. It's the turmeric that gives it its yellow colour. Just mix the powders with water until the desired consistency is reached. It's a good idea to allow the flavours to develop for about an hour before attempting to use it. It has a hot sharpness that combines well with strong foods such as sharp cheddar, sausages, roast beef and such.
Bordeaux Mustard is made of black mustard seeds combined with unfermented claret and often flavoured with herbs such as tarragon. It has a mild, sweet/sour taste and is a wonderful accompaniment to grilled steaks.
Dijon Mustard is made form husked black seeds mixed with salt, spices amd white wine vinegar. They have a subtly pungent flavour and as such are a great addition to classic sauces such as Cumberland, Remoulade and Vinaigrette Dressing.
Meaux Mustard a mixture of crushed and ground black seeds mixed with vinegar and spices. Most popularly sold in wide mouthed stone jars, they have an unusually crunchy texture and a fairly hot flavour. They do well as an addition to cold meat platters.
German Mustard is made from strong black mustard, flour and vinegar. Slightly sweet and aromatic, it's not as pungent as English mustard, but more so than Bordeaux. It is often flavoured with herbs especially tarragon and is perfect with the various wonderful types of German sausage.
American Mustard is made from white mustard seeds, white wine, sugar and vinegar. It's pale yellow, mild and sweet and makes an excellent accompaniment to hot dogs and hamburgers and is good spread over chops and sausages before grilling.

Well, that's it for this month. Next month, we'll continue through with various flavourings, the following month we'll feature recipes that include one or more of the flavourings we've covered. After that, we'll start marinades and move on to sauces and the like.

As always, I love to hear from you. Let me know if there's something we've missed.

Hope the new millennium sees you all doing exactly what you wish to be doing and with exactly the right amount of success.