I remember when I first made the decision to move away from high sugar, high salt food, to more wholesome, natural food. It was the day that I realized that the pre-packaged food tastes like crap compared to the stuff I can cook at home. The saying is true, why go out for hamburger when you can have steak at home? (Granted, this is in the literal context).
The key is to understand how to give your tongue the flavor and variety it desires without the added sugar and salt. Fresh and dried herbs and spices are the key to satisfying your tongue, your brain, and your stomach. Many people are afraid to cook with herbs and spices because they don’t know how it works. So I challenge you to cook with your nose. If you do, you will learn how to cook creatively and off the top of your head. You will be known as the best chef in the family!
I learned when I was teaching my young cousins how to cook that they would instinctively bring every spice and herb up to their nose for a smell. Since smell and taste are biologically linked, it makes total sense. It’s also important that you have good quality spices and herbs. If you have some in your cabinet, test them. If they don’t smell much, or they smell musty, throw the whole thing out. They’re not worth having. Go restock at a good spice store like Penzey’s, or another specialty store near you. If you don’t have one, go for the better quality at the grocery store.
Once you have then lined up in a row, one by one, sniff and taste each herb and spice. Think about other foods that you love to cook with. Does this flavor appear in that food? What types of foods would this go well with? That will give you a basic familiarization with what is available to you. Then, when you are making a recipe think through your spice cupboard. What smells would go well with what I am making? What are other herbs and spices that are close to the ones called for in the recipe? Try it out, and don’t be afraid to be daring! Your family will live with an occasional flop, and they will sing your praises for the daring experiment gone deliciously right (like roasted or mashed sweet potatoes with curry powder and red pepper flakes—try it, trust me.). Here are your essential spice pantry ingredients:
- Oregano (everything)
- Thyme (everything)
- Italian seasoning (for Italian, chicken, and pork).
- Garlic powder (everything)
- Onion powder (everything)
- Bay leaves (for slow cooking)
- Cumin (Southwestern and pork or beef)
- Coriander (for Southwestern, Mexican, or Indian dishes.)
- Sage (pork and chicken)
- Cinnamon (baking and to add depth to meat dishes)
- Real vanilla extract (not imitation stuff)
- Cayenne pepper and/or red pepper flakes (adds depth to so many dishes.)
- Good salt and black pepper (obviously, almost forgot about it)
The best way to get herbs is to have your own garden. If you don’t have space for a large outdoor garden (where most herbs will go perennially—or in the case of dill, like weeds), you can plant a windowsill herb garden. Then you can always add a fresh kick to your meals.
I know I failed at several apartment herb gardens before I finally figured it out. Like all gardening, its about sun and water. Pick a sunny window. If possible make it a southern or western window. You may see a window with sun in the afternoon when you’re home, but you don’t realize that is the only time it gets sun. Herbs need 6-9 hours of sun a day. Once you have that window, double stack your herbs. We put a shelf across the middle of our best window so we could have twice the space. These are your good window garden herbs:
- Basil (pair this with a slice of fresh summer tomato and melt in happiness)
- Rosemary (best fresh, not as good dried)
- Cilantro (essential to be fresh).
- Dill (a personal favorite)
- Parsley (flat)
- Oregano (better dried, but also good fresh).
- Thyme (good on everything)
Water is usually the biggest problem (it was for me). First, you need to make sure that you have a dish of some sort under your pot to catch the water. That way it doesn’t get on the sill, and it sits under your plant. When the soil is dry in the pot, it will suck up the water from the dish. Then, push in your index finger into the soil. If it is moist down at your fingertip, you don’t need to water. If it’s dry, water away. How often this is differs based on the plants, the pots, and your climate. Even here in the dry Rocky Mountain West I only had to water every other day. Gnats are another good clue. If you have gnats on your plants, you have way over watered them.
I hope that this helps you learn ways to kick up your cooking and be a Diva in the kitchen!