If you can’t tell by now, I’m kind of obsessed with herbs and spices. In fact, one of the first things I think when brainstorming new recipe ideas or deciding what to pack for lunch (right after how can I make this healthier?) is: How can I incorporate herbs and spices into this dish?
Herbs and spices have the ability to bring the simplest of foods, both sweet and savoury, to a whole new level. For instance, roasted vegetable and meat dishes are completely transformed by adding a sprig of aromatic rosemary or a sprinkling of curry powder. For spicy dishes like curries and stir-fries, herbs like fresh parsley and cilantro impart a cooling, vegetal note that helps take the edge off the heat.
The beauty of cooking with real spices and herbs is that they don’t add any unwanted calories, fat, sodium or sugar. On the contrary, they instantly up the nutritional value of whatever food you’re cooking. This most definitely isn’t the case for other flavouring agents like bottled sauces, table salt, pre-packaged seasoning mixes and whatever else you’re used to adding to your food to boost flavour.
Making a point of cooking with more herbs and spices is something anyone can do to eat just a little bit healthier.
You don’t need any special skills or equipment, and it doesn’t take more time. Just pick a dish you would normally use a pre-made seasoning mix for–say, tacos–and make the seasoning yourself. Instead of using the mystery powder contained in that little packet, add some paprika, chili powder and onion powder to the meat mixture while it’s cooking. To deepen the flavour, you may want to throw in a spoonful of tomato paste. At the end, try stirring in some chopped fresh cilantro.
If you’re just starting out with herbs and spices, it’s helpful to group them into categories so that you know how to cook with them. Here’s a general overview…
Generally speaking, herbs are the green leafy parts of an aromatic plant. They’re sold in both fresh and dried form, but I like to choose fresh whenever possible as they’re more flavourful and nutritious that way.
There are two main kinds of herbs: tough and woody (like rosemary) or soft and delicate (like basil). Woody herbs are hardy enough to withstand heat and are therefore included in dishes at the beginning of cooking, like in roasts and braises.
Soft herbs, on the other hand, will lose their flavour and texture if exposed to too much heat, so they are usually added at or near the end of cooking to finish a dish. They’re also ideal for dishes that are served at room temperature, like salads and pilafs. (This red quinoa tabbouleh recipe, for example, is pretty much a vehicle for parsley.)
Below is a list of my favourite herbs and some ideas for how to use them:
Basil - The classic pairing of tomatoes and basil is a match made in heaven for good reason! Basil’s cooling, herbaceous flavour is perfect in light summer salads, pastas and pilafs. Whip up a classic caprese salad with sliced tomato, fresh mozzarella, torn basil leaves and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.
Cilantro - This distinctively fresh, brightly flavoured herb is commonly used in cuisines like Mexican and Thai. Combine a generous amount of chopped fresh cilantro with some diced tomatoes, onions, jalapeños and lime juice to make pico de gallo, or sprinkle it over curries, stews and chilis to alleviate some of the heat.
Parsley - This common herb’s grassy, vegetal flavour is highlighted prominently in the Middle Eastern favourite, tabbouleh, and also happens to be Italian food’s best friend. Mix a handful into pasta dishes right before serving to lighten up creamy or heavier dishes.
Dill - Perhaps known best for its starring role in classic dill pickles, this feathery herb has a bright, tangy flavour that pairs perfectly with fish and summer vegetables. Stir some chopped fresh dill and diced cucumber into Greek yogurt for a healthier tartar sauce, or toss with summer squash before roasting.
Sage - Winter squash and sage are basically soulmates. Dishes featuring pumpkin, butternut squash and acorn squash, to name a few, really benefit from the pleasantly pine-y flavour and aroma imparted by a few sage leaves. Roast winter squash with some sage leaves, purée and mix with chicken broth to form a creamy sauce for pasta.
Rosemary - Fresh rosemary has a distinctive, perfumey aroma that makes roasted or grilled meats and vegetables sing. Try tossing a sprig or two of rosemary in the roasting pan the next time you make roasted root vegetables (potatoes, carrots, parsnips) or meats.
Spices are generally derived from other plant parts such as roots and seeds. They’re typically sold in dried, ground form, though you can also find intact versions such as cinnamon sticks and coriander seeds.
Spices have an incredibly wide range of uses, from baked goods and drinks to meat dishes, vegetables, curries, stir-fries and stews. Spices are used liberally in cuisines around the globe, including Spanish, Mexican, Indian, Middle Eastern, African and Chinese, to name just a few.
Below is a list of my favourite spices along with some tips on how to use them:
Cumin – Warm, peppery cumin is commonly used in Indian, Mexican and Middle Eastern cuisines. Add ground cumin to chilis, stews, curries and roasted meat dishes to bring the flavour profile to a deeper level.
Coriander - Derived from the seeds of the cilantro plant, ground coriander has a warm, spicy flavour with a hint of citrus. Coriander is commonly used in stews and curries along with other spices. Try adding coriander to chili or baked beans or use it as a rub for meat along with cumin.
Paprika – I’m half Hungarian, so my thoughts on paprika might be a teeny bit biased. But next to salt and pepper, it’s the one spice I can’t imagine not having on hand at all times. Paprika adds a pleasant depth and slight smokiness to everything from eggs and roast chicken to potatoes, cauliflower and meat dishes. Experiment with the different types such as sweet, hot, smoked, Hungarian and Spanish paprika to find your favourite!
Turmeric – Used liberally in Southeast Asian and Indian cuisines, bright yellow turmeric has a warm, subtle and slightly bitter flavour. Add it to stews, curries, vegetables, meat and rice dishes for an added layer of warmth and colour.
Cinnamon – One of the most distinctive spices around, warm, spicy cinnamon can be used in sweet and savoury dishes alike. Add ground cinnamon to curries, stews and meat dishes for an exotic flair. For a sweeter take, add some cinnamon, along with a little grated nutmeg, to a banana-strawberry smoothie for an even tastier treat.
These stuffed Romano peppers with turkey, Israeli couscous and pine nuts are a perfect example of how spices and herbs can be used to add flavour to an otherwise simple dish. Ground turkey is a nice lean option, but you can make these with extra-lean ground beef or another type of lean meat instead. Serve them as a main course along with salad and a dollop of Greek yogurt if you so desire!
- 1 cup Israeli couscous
- 4 Romano peppers, halved lengthwise, seeds and ribs removed
- Canola oil spray
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 lb ground turkey
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup pine nuts
- 1 tbsp tomato paste
- 1 tbsp cumin
- 1 tbsp cinnamon
- 1 tbsp paprika
- 1 red chile, finely chopped (optional)
- 2 tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley
- 2 tbsp finely chopped fresh mint
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Pre-heat oven to 375°F. Place the peppers on a baking sheet, spray with oil and bake until peppers are softened, about 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile, in a medium pot of boiling, salted water, cook the Israeli couscous until al dente, about 5 minutes. Drain and let cool.
- In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the cumin, paprika, cinnamon and onions to the pan and cook, stirring, until onions are softened, about 5 minutes. Next, add the ground turkey, pine nuts, tomato paste, chile (if using), salt and pepper Continue to cook, breaking up the turkey with a wooden spoon, until the meat is cooked through, about 10 minutes. Stir in the cooked couscous, parsley and mint and mix to combine evenly.
- Spoon the turkey and couscous mixture into each pepper half. Transfer to a baking dish, cover with foil and bake for 15 minutes.
- I used Ottolenghi's recipe for stuffed eggplant with lamb and pine nuts, from the Jerusalem cookbook, as a loose guide only. The original recipe used lamb, though I opted for turkey; however any type of ground meat would work. The stuffed eggplant recipe also called for tamarind, lemon juice and sugar, which I omitted.