Rosemary

Rosemary may be my most loved herb, ever, even though I don’t use it often. And when I do I use it sparingly. Rosemary has an Evergreen smell to it, but also a touch of bitterness. I use it most in beef and lamb dishes. It is a bass note for cooking darker meats.

Like most herbs, it can be used fresh or dried. The leaves and flowers are edible, but the woody stems are not. It’s also easy to grow as an annual in colder zones, and as a perennial in warmer areas.

I may be a titch biased, because Rosemary reminds me of Pine trees. The smell of pine is a home scent for me, because I grew up in New England. Every time I add Rosemary to a dish, I see big, White Pine trees and hear wind blowing through them.

Is there an herb that reminds you of home? If so, please share in the comments.

Chives

Chives are an incredibly versatile herb. They add just a hint of onion flavor to any dish. I use chives in dips, soups, dressings, and sprinkled on top of cold cuts in sandwiches.

Chives are a member of the onion family, but their flavor is very mild. So if you don’t want the bite of onion, chives are a great substitute. Like many other herbs, they can be used fresh or dried. And the flowers are edible, too.

Chives are easy to grow, and many people grow them in small pots on their kitchen windowsills. Kitchen herb gardens are wonderful, because fresh herbs are available to you all year round.

One of the ways I use chives is to dress a baked potato. I poke holes in a medium size potato (to let the steam escape), wrap it in aluminum foil, and bake in a 350 degree fahrenheit oven, for half an hour, or until it’s fork tender. Then, I take it out of the foil, cut it in half, and place it on a plate. I dress it with sour cream, salt, pepper, and diced fresh chives. Yum!

Dill

Most people think of pickles when they hear the word dill. I however think of summer salads and cold cut sandwiches. Not that dill isn’t great for pickles, but it can be used in many other foods, such as soups and dressings. I like to use the dried herbs in my salad dressing, or sprinkled on mayonnaise in my turkey sandwich.

Dill is a pretty herb, with its yellow blooms and feathery leaves. Its scent is both sharp and sweet. The leaves (called Dill Weed if you’re looking for them at the grocery store) can be used fresh or dried, and the flowers are typically used fresh when canning pickles. Ground seeds are also great to flavor sauces, or as a rub for fish.

Here’s a recipe to try:

Cucumber Dill Salad

Ingredients

1 large cucumber

1/3 cup sour cream

1 tablespoon milk

1 teaspoon dill weed

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

Peel the cucumber and cut lengthwise, then cut into slices. Put the cut cucumber into a small mixing bowl. In another bowl, stir together the remaining ingredients.  If the dressing is too thick, add a little more milk. Add the dressing to the cucumber and give it a stir.

Cover the bowl and let it hang out in the refrigerator for a couple of hours.

*I like to add some diced sweet onion to mine, but it’s not for everyone. Feel free to add other seasonings you like. Cooking is creative!

Oregano

Oregano is another pantry essential. It is a savory, warm herb used primarily to bring out the flavor of tomatoes. It’s also great in soups, stews and sauces. It pairs well with basil, especially in spaghetti or pizza sauces. Fresh or dried, whole leaves or ground, oregano gives many dishes a bass note. It’s earthiness is distinct, but not overpowering.

Oregano is easy to grow and spreads quickly. The Greek oregano we grow in our gardens has taken over a 2 foot by 3 foot space in just a couple of years. There’s little danger we’ll run out of it anytime soon.

A beginner recipe using oregano you might want to try is Garlic bread. Buy a loaf of French bread. Slice it in half the long way. Spread room temperature butter on the cut sides, and then sprinkle with about a teaspoon each of garlic powder, dried basil and dried oregano. Bake for 10 – 15 minutes in a 350 degree fahrenheit oven. Eat this as a side with pizza or spaghetti.

Refrigerator S’mores

Cam loves campfires, mostly because there is a presumption that there will be S’mores. S’mores are a warm, smushy treat of fire toasted marshmallows, and chocolate, sandwiched between graham crackers. They are messy, sweet, not good for you, but oh so good to eat treats.

I asked Cam, over the weekend, if he’d like to try making a S’mores-like treat that didn’t require an open flame. He was up for the challenge, so we bought marshmallows, chocolate bars, and graham crackers and proceeded to make a mess of my kitchen.

To begin, we put the chocolate bars in a glass mixing bowl, and used the microwave to melt them. It took about 2 minutes at power level 7. While the chocolate melted, Cam broke the graham crackers into quarters, and I sliced the marshmallows into thirds.

Once the chocolate was melted, Cam placed 2 marshmallows, side by side, on 1 cracker. Then he set it on a parchment paper lined cookie sheet and I drizzled the chocolate over the top of the cracker. When we were done with 14 crackers, we placed the cookie sheet in the refrigerator for about an hour, to let the chocolate firm up.

They may not be the prettiest food we’ve ever made, but the craving for a S’more was definitely met. The chocolate crackles, the marshmallow is soft, and the cracker crumbles nicely. Cam says we should make them in January, when Summer campfires seem such a long time away. My husband suggested using a mini blowtorch to caramelize the marshmallows. And I may just add a drizzle of melted caramel to them next time.

Sage

Sage will forever be associated with American Thanksgiving. It’s the herb that makes turkey and stuffing smell so inviting and delicious. It has a salty, tangy, earthy aroma, and can be used fresh or dried. It’s very good in poultry dishes, but can also be used with fish and pork.

Sage can be used fresh, dried, crushed or ground. Ground Sage is great in soups and sauces. I use it, along with basil, oregano and thyme, in my spaghetti sauce. It brings a brighter flavor to tomato based foods.

Sage is also really easy to grow. Indoors, or outdoors, it doesn’t like its feet wet and it loves sun and heat. It is considered to be a perennial plant, which means it comes back every Spring, once it’s established. And, it spreads, so if you plant it outside, give it some room.

Sage is definitely an herb you’ll want to include in your kitchen pantry. It is one of the most common herbs used in cooking.

Cooking Isn’t Difficult

Let’s talk about cooking. Cooking requires time, ingredients and the desire to create something, if not delicious, at least edible. I asked people what holds them back from cooking at home, and the most common responses were lack of time and lack of know-how.

We live in an amazing time regarding food. Our choices are unlimited. We can go out to eat and almost any food is available, prepared and served to us. Or we can buy any ingredient, even if it’s not locally grown, and make a beautiful meal. But, whichever choice we make, we pay – whether the currency is time or money.

I choose to pay in time. It’s a luxury, just like any other. For me, cooking is a joy. It’s one of the only activities I do that allows me to focus on one thing. It’s meditative, and it lets me be creative.

Let’s talk about lack of time. Good cooking doesn’t require hours in front of a stove. We have crock pots, microwaves and even electric pressure cookers to cut down on time spent actively cooking. It takes 2 to 3 minutes to steam frozen broccoli in the microwave. A 4-pound pot roast cooks in about 45 minutes in a pressure cooker. And 4 boneless chicken breasts can be ready for your plate in about 3 hours using a crock pot. Soups, desserts, and sauces require more attention time, but cooking doesn’t have to be a soul sucking, weekend consuming activity.

For example, most weeknights I don’t start cooking dinner until my husband calls me to tell me he’s heading home from work. His commute is about an hour-long. Dinner is ready within 15 minutes after he walks in the door. Sometimes it’s spaghetti, other times it’s French Onion soup, but there is real food on the table.

Lack of know-how is fairly simple to overcome. If you want to learn to cook, all you need is a recipe, a grocery list, and a sense of humor. When I first started cooking, there were absolute failures that no one would describe as food. Those mistakes were promptly thrown in the trash, and we had sandwiches or ordered pizza instead. But there were also successes, and those gave me the confidence to keep trying.

My 15-year-old son made Sunny Side Up Eggs and pan-fried toast this morning. He is just beginning to learn to cook. The underside of the eggs was a little brown, but he said his breakfast was delicious. And he was proud of himself for trying to cook something himself.

So, go ahead, do it! Start with something simple, like Scrambled Eggs or a Grilled Cheese Sandwich and give cooking a shot.

Never Enough Thyme

Thyme is probably my favorite herb. It’s one of the first plants to green up in my garden here in Minnesota. There have been years when I’ve picked it fresh from under the snow in November to use for the Thanksgiving feast. In the Spring, I’ve been known to get a little teary eyed when I run my fingers through the leaves, because we’ve survived another cold season.

Thyme is one of the most common herbs found in kitchens. It pairs well with other herbs, such as rosemary, bay and sage. It is usually used when cooking meats or soups. It adds an earthy flavor to food. Thyme can be used fresh or dried. The stems are woody and not edible. The leaves can be used whole or crushed or ground.

Fresh thyme and dried thyme are available for purchase at grocery stores year-round. Thyme is easy to grow, in gardens, and as a house plant. It requires good sunlight and consistent watering, but it doesn’t like its feet wet all the time. If it’s over watered, the roots will rot. Give it a good watering only when the dirt is completely dry.

I use thyme when I roast beef, chicken or turkey. I also add it to soups and spaghetti sauce. My husband uses it, along with other herbs, when he makes herb bread. It’s difficult to explain the scent of thyme, but I think it smells like fresh turned earth with a little bit of a salty tang. It’s almost like a bass note in a song. It gives structure and depth to the flavor profile you’re building, just like a bass line in music anchors the melody.

 

The Right Tools for the Right Job

Every kitchen should have a basic set of utensils (or kitchen tools) used for cooking. The things that come to mind immediately are wooden spoons (for stirring things, not to be used as a behavior modification tool), spatulas and flippers, but there are others such as whisks, ladles, and tongs. I’ve known people who could cook a full meal with a spoon, fork and butter knife, but other utensils make it so much easier.

In my experience, the most cost-effective way to build your stash of utensils is to buy a pre-packaged set at a big box store, or there are some decent buys at Dollar stores. A great time to find sets is during back-to-school season, as they make good off to college gifts. I wouldn’t recommend spending a lot of money until you figure out what tools you’ll use most often. Once you are comfortable in the kitchen, then feel free to find higher end spoons, pans, and/or measuring cups.

In my kitchen, I have:

  • Wooden spoons
  • Slotted metal spoons
  • Spatulas
  • Flippers
  • Whisks
  • Tongs
  • A spider (a small basket attached to a handle for removing food from hot oil)
  • A cheese grater
  • A garlic press
  • A pizza cutter
  • A food thermometer
  • Measuring cups

…and countless other things. I will talk about knives, pans, cutlery and serving dishware in later posts.

If you are going to cook, having the right tools makes the process so much less frustrating. Not to mention that doing the work yourself can save you money. For example, block cheese is usually less expensive than shredded cheese, so if you have a cheese grater you’ll save some pennies, and maybe get an arm workout in.

What other utensils can you think of, or do you already have and use?

The Spice of Life

Herbs and spices are the flavor building blocks for all foods. Sure, you can grill a steak, but without at least a little salt and pepper, it’s probably not going to be delicious. The simplest way to learn about herbs and spices is to become familiar with them. Knowing how to identify them, and how they smell is a good first step.

Go to a greenhouse in May and the most common herbs should be available for purchase. Gently rub the leaves and then smell your fingertips. The aroma you are smelling is what will be flavoring your food.

If you’re at a friend’s house while they are cooking, ask them what herbs and spices they are using. They’ll probably be happy to let you taste and smell the thyme, rosemary, basil or oregano they’re using. With any luck, they might be willing to explain why they’re using a specific herb or spice, how it enhances the meal they’re preparing.

There are some herbs and spices that are staples in the kitchen. Thyme, rosemary, oregano, basil, bay leaf, cumin, chili powder and pepper are just a few of the most common ones found in a cook’s kitchen. I will be writing a post once a week about one herb or spice – what it is, where to find it, and how to use it.