Herbs and Spices: Food's Best Friends!

Day 3 of the 31 Day Challenge

Day 3 of the 31 Day Challenge

So do you say "Herb" with an H or "Erb",  with the H silent?  I always thought the H was silent (unless it is the boys name!) and then I starting watching Martha Stewart (yes probably 20 years ago!) and she says Herb with a pronounced H.  Sadly, the Natural Epicurean  hasn't told us what is correct.  My chef instructor says "erb" but English is not her first language so who knows?!  Either way, they are a key to adding flavor to our foods. 

Pronunciation aside, I have learned the difference between an herb and a spice.  Herbs are the leaves of aromatic plants, and are used to add flavor to foods. You can use herbs that are fresh or that are dried.  Examples of herbs are basil, sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, parsley, and lemon grass. Both fresh and dried herbs should have a nice robust smell if they are good quality.  Fresh herbs should be a vibrant color and healthy looking, and be free of brown spots, wilting and pest damage.  Many herbs are easy to grow, both in containers and in beds.  Here in Texas rosemary grows like a weed!  Fresh herbs should be added toward the end of cooking.  In raw foods they should be added as far in advance to serving as possible to allow the flavors to meld. Herbs are best stored loosely wrapped in damp paper towels in the refrigerator.  If you are using them right away you can stand them upright in a glass jar like flowers in a vase. 

Spices are flavorings that are produced from the bark and seeds of plants. They can be used to flavor sweet and savory dishes.   Dried spices can be found whole, ground or made into blends. Whole spices keep longer than ground ones.  Keep all spices in sealed containers in a cool, dry environment.  Examples of spices include cumin, cloves, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, and turmeric.  Pumpkin pie spice is a blend of spices that typically includes cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and allspice.   

Oops, not those spices! 

Oops, not those spices! 

Cooking with herbs and spices is easy.  I think most often we use them to enhance or add flavor to other foods.  Think oregano in tomato sauce.  Other times, the dish is designed to show off the flavors of the herb.  Pesto, for example, is meant to profile basil.  In class we did both.  We had a mild beet soup flavored with basil and traditional bouquet garni  (thyme, parsley, and bay leaf.)  and an Indian spiced soup flavored with curry, coriander seed, and yellow mustard seed.    The real lesson here is if your food is bland there is a whole arsenal of herbs and spices you can try.  Buying in small quantities in the bulk section of stores like Whole Foods is a great practice.  You can buy only as much as you need or maybe enough for a couple of recipes, which is inexpensive, and you won't have much extra to sit around your pantry and get stale. Win-win!

Indian Spiced Potato Soup with Ginger, recipe by the Natural Epicurean

Indian Spiced Potato Soup with Ginger, recipe by the Natural Epicurean

This is a highly spiced soup that we had in class for a demonstration of the utlization spices.  This soup really is all about the flavor of the spices not about the potato. If you like spices this is the soup for you.  If you have a grocery store that sells spices in bulk that would be an economical way to get what you need and you won't have to buy a whole bottle! 

Indian Spiced Potato Soup with Ginger

by Catherine Craig

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 60 minutes

Ingredients (6 cups (6 servings))

  • 1 Tbsp coriander seeds or ground coriander
  • 1 tsp yellow mustard seeds
  • 3 Tbsp ghee (clarified butter) or oil of your choice
  • 1 tsp curry powder
  • 1 Tbsp minced fresh ginger
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 large yellow potatoes, like yukon gold, cut into medium pieces
  • 4 cups of water or broth
  • 2 tsp lime juice and i tsp lime zest


If using whole coriander grind it with the mustard seeds using a spice grinder into a fine powder.

Heat the ghee or oil in a 3 quart sauce pan or soup pot over medium high heat. Add the coriander, mustard seeds, and curry powder. Cook for one minute until fragrant. (Be care the mustard seeds will pop.) Add the ginger and cook for one minute. Ad the onions. Sprinkle with a big pinch of salt and about 8 grinds of pepper. Sauté until the onions are soft and beginning to brown. Add the garlic and cook for a minute or two to soften. Add the potatoes to the pan and stir to coat with the spices. Add the water/broth and stir to combine. Bring to a boil then reduce to a slow boil/fast simmer and cook until the potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes. The cooking time will vary with the size of your potato pieces.

When potatoes are tender, remove from heat and blend into a smooth consistency. You can use an immersion blender or a stand blender working in batches. Stir in the lime juice and zest. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste.

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