Meet Herb

Never one to do things in the usual manner, I've decided to step away from the herbal etc information I have been imparting for the past 18 months or so, and give you an overview.

I can just hear you now. "Isn't it a bit late for that??"

But I would say no . . . not really. It's never too late.

I thought it might actually be a good idea at this point to go into the reasoning behind this column and your reading thereof. (Nifty, huh???)

I must tell you first off though that one of the premier tenets of my cooking career has been a strong belief in the following phrase -- I picked it up somewhere in my travels and it has stuck with me -- "Any adventurous cook must be stimulated by exploring". From the moment I first read those words I decided to make them my "motto" and I have never regretted it.

It has been said that the difference between the routine use of spices and herbs etc and being more adventurous with them is somewhat like the difference between black and white and colour pictures. The wider your range, the more you have to call on in experimenting and the more confidence with which to do it. So . . . with these columns, I have tried to -- one hopes successfully -- and will continue to broaden everyone's knowledge and comfort with herbs, spices and flavourings so that you can make dramatic differences to your everyday cuisine with little effort and almost no additional expense.

In most cases, the ingredients I talk about in these columns are at the peak when they are the freshest -- except in the case of dried ingredients such as dried herbs. Although for the most part, they can be stored for some time without a serious loss of flavour and aroma, I still subscribe to the freshest is best school. I tend to buy my herbs, spices and flavourings in small batches and rebuy often, especially when purchasing or picking fresh herbs. And, if you are at all an aficionado of Indian or Middle Eastern cuisine, you already know that buying spices whole and grinding them as you use them is by far the most flavourful way to do things. However you buy them though, the same rule of storage applies. Store them in airtight containers, in a dark, cool, dry place and they should retain their flavour for a year or so. But them whenever possible in specialty shops and replace them regularly. Much better to throw out some rosemary you're not sure of than to chance ruining a dish with something less than flavourful.

With herbs, this freshness rule is even more important. Since so many of the plants are also decorative, it makes sense to grow them yourself, no matter what shade of green thumb you may or may not have. Try parsley or chives in window boxes with geraniums, rosemary against sheltered walls and creeping thyme in crevices of paving stones and such. Or grow them indoors on a sunny windowsill and snip them at will all the year round.

Herbs which fare best in the drying process are those with the most volatile oils such as rosemary, thyme, marjoram, and savoury. Those which do worst are basil, parsley, tarragon and mint. And always remember to use far less of the dried herb than of the fresh.

Spices usually work best in combination with other spices but herbs seem to come into their best flavouring when used on their own. For instance sprinkle a handful of fresh basil over a tomato salad, a few spoonfuls of sorrel paste in egg or cheese dishes, a sprig of rosemary under a lamb roast, these are all great examples of the wisdom of "less is more".

That's it for another month. Next month I start another multi-part series on spices starting with some BBQ favourites. Next month also look for the first of two articles based on my trip to Dallas . . . Texas BBQ . . . Saving the TexMex article for July.

Remember to experiment . . . send in questions and comments . . . and above all . . . keep cooking!