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Nutrition Section

Using herbs and spices to enhance your cooking

Much of what we think is flavour in our food, is actually smell. If you block your nose, a peice of onion tastes the same as a peice of apple. Our sense of smell is far more influential that we realise. The addition of a few of the right herbs and spices can change a meal from inedible food to a gourmet cuisine. Few people who smell mutton boiling in water, consider it an appealing smell but add some herbs and they will say the smell is making them hungry. The addition of the wrong herbs and spices or too much, can ruin the dish. There are groups of spices and herbs that go well together with certain foods but will ruin others. The art is in knowing which ones to use with what dish and how much is enough.

13th Century herbal page

A page from a 13th Century Herbal

Many of these accompaniments go back 500 years or more, recorded by hand in "Herbals", records from monestries that were part recipe book, part doctors reference manual.

For example cooking corned beef - don't just drown it in boiling water. Pulverise a pinch of fennel seeds in a mortar, add a half a tea cup of vinegar and a large dessert spoon of molassis (golden syrup will do). Top up with water so the corned beef is three quarters covered and boil in a pot with a lid until cooked. Not only does the meat taste so much better, but if you take some of the juice (liquor) left in the pot, add a teaspooon of mustard powder and thicken it with a little corn flour dissolved in water, you'll get a gourmet mustard sauce to go with your corned beef. This recipe was from a monestry in France in the 14th Century and was their way of reducing the salty taste of their corned beef. It was also supposed to ward off the "evylle myasma's foulsymme tryck" to spoil the meat as it lay in the brine in the corning barrel, probably what we would call bacterial food poisoning today.

Corned beef and mustard sauce

Corned beef and mustard sauce

The anise-like flavour of the fennel comliments the malty flavour of the golden syrup and the sour vinegar counters both the sweetness of the molassis and the salty tase of the beef. Lately the supermarkets and butchers are stocking a low salt version of corned beef, so you might need to add a teaspoon of salt to the recipe to compensate but it's well worth the flavour.

First there is a fundamental difference between herbs and spices. We are talking about dried ingredients here, not fresh. Spices need to be fractionated or heated to release their full aroma, while herbs need to steep or soak.

There is a good reason for this and it boils down to simple biology. Spices are usually derived from seeds (like cardamom) or bark like cinnamon. Here the item is dried and the aromatic oils are bound in the desiccated cells (e.g, cloves - dried flower stems) or stored in complex starches within the seeds. In these instances, you need to heat the spices to separate the volatile aromatic oils. If you roast them in a little oil, the oil will capture most of the aromatics and distribute the aroma through the whole dish.

Close up of dried cloves

Cloves are dried flower stems

You can observe this process in action. Smell the aroma of some ground spice straight from the packet, like cinnamon or cumin. In a pan, add a little oil and add the spice. Heat it slowly and you will notice that at a certain temperature the aroma suddenly trebles. That's the fractionating phase, where the aromatics separate. If you keep heating it more, the aroma will almost disappear. The aromatics have all vaporised.

Most spices all fractionate at around the same temperature. This means when cooking, you need to have your first ingredients ready to add to the oil (or butter etc) to drop the temperature when the spices have been fractionated.

Cooking with spices

1. Using a mortar and pestle, bruise the spices by grinding them a little

2. Begin your cooking by adding a little oil to the pan or wok.

3. Bring up to temperature (it will flow like water rather than viscous oil).

4. Add the spices, all together, not separately.

5. Keep stirring until they fractionate and you get that blast of extra aroma.

6. Quickly add the first of your next ingredients to drop the oil temperature.

Separator bar with green apple.

Cooking with herbs

Herbs are usually the leafy parts of plants (like lime, sage, thyme and Bay leaves). The aromatic oils are readily available because they are often a natural insect repellant (like sage, rosemary and thyme), antifreeze like garlic and thyme, or a replacement dessicant to conserve water (like rosemary and bay leaves). Therefore the aromatic oils that we want to add to our dishes, do not require fractionating.

Limes are actually a cooking herb rather than a spice. Both the leaves and fruit are rich in aromatics. Kaffir limes (shown here) have almost no juice but are rich in lime essences.

Kaffir Limes and leaves.

The Kaffir lime has almost no juice but is rich in aromatics and is favoured in Asian cuisine. Lime has the unique ability of "layering" flavours, like in Thai cuisine."

Herbs simply require steeping in the boiling liquor to release their aromatic oils, therefore should be added early in the cooking process, after the caramelizing process is finished. The liquor is the result of your spices, the oil they were fractionated in, the caramel from the fried onions, meats and any added liquid. Do not add your herbs too late in the cooking process, they require time to release their aromas.

You may have noticed that many dishes taste better the next day. This is because the herbs have fully steeped. This is especially true with cheesy dishes like lasagna. They should never be served the day they are cooked. They need to be cooked today, stored in the refrigerator over night and served tomorrow. The difference in flavour is striking.

Generally this is a good method for most dishes:

1. Oil and spices
2. Onions to caramelise
3. Meat to be par braised (cooked outside, raw in centre)
4. Stock, wines, herbs (dried), coconut milk etc.
5. Vegetables and fruits that require long cooking times (swedes, carrot, etc,
6. Vegetables that require short cooking times (cabbage, zucchine etc.).
7. A dusting of cornstarch to make the glaze, (if required).
8. Serve

Asian stir fry Pork and seasonal vegetables

Asian stir fry Pork with fresh seasonal vegetables prepared using the method above.

For stews and pasta dishes, stop at step 7 and refrigerate over night. With stews, any fats will rise and solidify and these can easily be skimmed off tomorrow, making a very tasty dish with almost no fat. This allows you to make low fat meals out of any cut of meat, no matter how fatty (and the fatty cuts are often the cheapest). There is no reason for any low fat (diet) cooking to be tasteless!

Cardamom pods

More valuable than gold
In Europe before the 1900s, cardamom was so valuable that it was worth more than gold, ounce for ounce. It only grew in a few tropical places in the world, where disease was rife, the trip there and back was perilous and in those leaky ships, there was a high risk of the precious cargo being ruined by mould before it arrived home to the markets.


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Bar - Gold bar with Granny Smith Apple

Some handy herb and spice tips

The following combinations are for three to four servings, Adjust the quantities proportionally for the number of meals you are making.

Soups and stews - add that cottage country wholesome taste - a pinch of marjoram, basil, oregano and one whole bay leaf per serve. It smells great when cooking, tastes fantastic and it's not a hot and spicey mix.

Adding a desert spoon of sweet chilli sauce to a stew will make the flavour come out more without being hot.

Curries - make sure you fry the curry powder or paste in oil or butter first to bring out the flavour. For Thai curry, add coconut cream and lime zest to bind and layer the flavours. For Indian curries, half a teaspoon of ground coriander seed enhances the flavour.

Baking - Bread or scones - Adding a pinch of fine ground sage to savoury or cheese scones makes them smell more wholesome and a teaspoon of sage added to bread dough makes it taste really country wholesome. If the bread is used for toast, when buttered hot and served with honey, it is fantastic. If a recipe calls for cinnamon, add a quarter as much again of ginger as well, it brings out the cinnamon flavour more. For diabetics, sprinkle half a teaspoon of cinnamon on your buttered toast for breakfast and it will help your body process sugar better. Cinnamon has qualities similar to insulin.

Plowmans bread buns with with a sage leaf decoration

Plowmans buns with fresh sage leaves baked in the top.

Baking - Cakes and biscuits - If a recipe says add banana, add a quarter of a teaspoon of instant coffee too - it brings out the banana taste. If a recipe calls for cinnamon, add a quarter as much again of ground ginger as well, it brings out the cinnamon flavour more.

Desserts - adding cinnamon and fresh ground cardamom to a rice pudding instead of nutmeg, tastes exotic and delicious plus it's a really cheap dessert. Add some ground cardamom seed and a teaspoon of lemon juice to apples when stewing them. They will taste stronger.

Drinks Aquavit - liqueur of the spices - renowned for it's unique aromatic spicy flavour, aquavit is an infused liquer best taken as a chilled shot straight from the bottle. Rather than pay a fortune, why not make your own?

2 teaspoons caraway seeds
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
2 cardamom pods, crushed
2 whole cloves
1 medium lemon, rinsed and dried
1 medium orange, rinsed and dried
1 (750-milliliter) bottle vodka
1 teaspoon granulated sugar


1. Toast the caraway, fennel, cardamom, and cloves in a small frying pan over medium heat, shaking occasionally until fragrant, (about 3 minutes). Remove from the heat and set aside.

2. Using a fine grater, remove half of the peel from both the lemon and orange but do not grate the pith.

3. Remove about 2 tablespoons of the vodka from the bottle. Either drink it or discard it.

4. Place the toasted spices, lemon and orange peels, and sugar into the bottle. Cover tightly.

5. Let the vodka infuse at room temperature (choose a spot that is neither too warm nor too cold) for 2 weeks, turning and gently shaking the bottle once a day. After 2 weeks, taste the aquavit; let it stand longer if needed.

6. Strain the aquavit through a fine-mesh strainer into a large liquid measuring cup; discard the solids. Transfer the strained aquavit to a clean bottle with a tight fitting lid and store it in the fridge.

Bar - Gold bar with Granny Smith Apple

Basket of Fresh herbs

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