The Herb is the Word, Part I
Much of what I have to say here is a condensation of Mark Bittman’s Herb Lexicon. If you have not yet discovered Mark’s wonderful books (everyone should own How to Cook Everything) or if you are not a regular reader of his column (he is the New York Times food editor), I urge you to become acquainted with his work.
Though I prefer to use fresh herbs whenever I can, there are a number of herbs that I buy dried and keep for use in particular recipes. The danger of dried herbs is that they often sit in their jars in your cupboards for years, disintegrating into bitter bits. Do a purge every year and replace any dried herbs that have lost their color or have an “off” odor.
Dried Bay leaves are a pantry essential for me. I can’t make chicken stock or soups without Bay leaves, and they contribute complexity and depth to roasted vegetables. I also tend to buy dried Marjoram. Marjoram is a natural with vegetables, salads, and vinaigrettes. Light foods like eggs and tomatoes really come to life with a sprinkle of Marjoram. Thyme is one of those herbs that can be great fresh, but I often use dried, because the intensity of flavor is a bit muted with dried Thyme. It is important not to go overboard with Thyme, as it can easily overwhelm a dish, which is why it is so frequently added to long-cooking dishes where the flavors blend and soften. Bittman likes to pair thyme with olive oil and garlic in a saute. I like to use thyme in chicken or fish stews or with braised vegetables. Oregano is a versatile dried herb with a bright, piquant flavor, and is most noted for its presence in Mediterranean cooking—Italian, Greek, and Spanish dishes. I prefer fresh Oregano, but dried is acceptable. Oregano is wonderful in sauces, as anyone who has made an Italian red sauce knows, or in a vinaigrette, but my favorite use for Oregano—like Marjoram, is sprinkled on simple foods to brighten the flavors: tomatoes, eggs, or cheese. Sage is often found in stuffing seasoning for a good reason: It is wonderful with starches like pastas, beans, or breads or biscuits: Parmesan-sage biscuits are a little piece of heaven.