The classic culinary skill of cooking with herbs and spices - particularly fresh herbs - has likely not gotten as much attention in recent decades as it is today, an era when increasing numbers of people are mustering the courage to take the plunge and increasingly are making the effort to cook with fresh herbs, particularly if they have grown the plants.
Whether you happen to be a true newcomer to the world of cooking with herbs or are an old hand at it, there seems to be no end to the ways herbs can be included in culinary creations ranging from simple methods to some of the most complex and delicate of gastronomic creations.
Ohio Valley native Derek Roth is a professionally trained chef and is employed locally at the popular restaurant, Ye Olde Alpha.
Sweet basil is one of many herbs you can use to add a different flavor twist to your favorite dish.
He is an avid supporter of the Herb Society of Wheeling, and recently was invited to address the organization's annual membership gathering to discuss the topic of cooking with herbs. Roth's passion for fresh herbs is something he grew up sharing with his mother who is a longtime member of the local society.
Roth, now a father, makes it a point to bring his young son to the expansive herb garden the society maintains at Oglebay Park, making it possible for him to literally share a very special heirloom of sorts, as it affords them opportunities for hands-on introductions to the seemingly endless varieties of herbs available to consumers today.
There are three standard ways to introduce herbs into the foods a person prepares: to eat them fresh, to use as a garnish, or to add them to drinks or salads.
Whenever possible, Roth encourages the use of fresh herbs. He is also a strong believer in making the effort to dry, fresh herbs when necessary to ensure they are available for future use, noting this can be a very helpful way to keep the cost of introducing herbs to your cooking at a reasonable level.
"To dry and store herbs successfully, you will always want to keep them in a dark and dry environment," offered Roth.
He also suggested that should there be a need to purchase dried herbs from a commercial source, choosing a product that has been packaged in an opaque container which prevented damage from exposure to light over time will always be the better choice.
"This is something that can really be helpful if you do need to purchase dried herbs from the store, because you simply have no way of knowing the true age of the packaged herb," offered Roth, noting such purchases do not communicate when the herbs were harvested and processed.
A traditional method of introducing a popular herbal blend into your cooking is done simply by creating a seemingly ordinary bundle of herbs and putting them into a soup or stew as it cooks. The herbs are usually tied into a small bunch, making them extremely easy to remove later.
A popular grouping for this practice, which is called a bouquet garnish, includes several parsley stalks, a small sprig of thyme, a bay leaf, and optional extras such as lemon peel and celery stalk wrapping.
Another traditional grouping of herbs and spices is called the quatre-epices. A classic French blend that has long been a favorite took to use when preparing pork dishes, according to Lesley Bremness, author of, "Herbs - the visual guide to more than 700 herb species from around the world." It is one of the books available through the library maintained at the gift shop operated by members of the Wheeling Civic Garden Center at Oglebay. The quatre-epices mix includes black peppercorns, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, and can also include cinnamon.
Influences on the use of herbs and spices can be underscored heavily by the dynamics of their region of origin.
The classic Chinese blend is achieved by using star anise, fagara, fennel, cassia and cloves.
A foundation in the popular flavors of America's own Cajun cuisine includes a blend of paprika, mustard, cumin, chili and oregano.
The traditional blend of herbs commonly employed when making pizza includes basil, sweet marjoram and oregano.
Key to helping prompt Americans to get into the holiday spirit each winter are the spices which are found in a traditional pumpkin pie. Those much loved spices include nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice and ginger.
Another popular way to introduce herbs and spices into your everyday cooking efforts can come through using herbal vinegars, which have long been popular for their esthetic beauty while still in the bottle.
Introducing fresh herbs and flowers to a bottle of vinegar will produce a result easily used in dressings and marinades. Among the items often employed to bring about beautiful white or red wine vinegar crafted from cider or wine vinegar are dill, chili, marjoram, rosemary, elderflower or lavender.
Chef Roth encourages making the most of opportunities to try herbs and spices in new and different ways with a goal of evoking variances in a dish when the scenario offers the freedom to experiment without putting an important meal at risk.
Herbs like rosemary or sage can easily be overwhelming to a dish, so use extra caution when it comes to how much you use and in what recipes. Make the effort to learn a bit about an herb you want to consider adding to your own dishes - is it delicate or does it easily overpower?
"Remember to use a bit of caution when you are working with herbs and spices, as it is always easier to add more, because there is no way to really remove a spice or herb from what you're cooking other than to start over," offered Roth. "But when you have the chance to prepare something a little differently, why not play around with the herbs and spices you plan to use?"