Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Top 10 Herbs and Spices
What’s cooking? Summer Salad

On an airplane a couple of days ago, I was reading the latest issue of Writers’ Digest, in which the editors took on a theme of “Top Ten” and pretty much wore it out. But you know how something like that will get inside your brain, so before I knew it, I had pulled out my notebook and begun writing down a few of my own Top Tens, mostly to do with cooking. I’m going to try not to wear it out here, today, so I’ll take just one, and write about the others over the next few weeks. It’s a cheater’s way to write – after all, you don’t have to develop any flow to the text; but for a now-and-then sort of thing, it’s fun.

I’ll start with my 10 Favorite Herbs and Spices, because I want to tell you about a simple and delicious salad I made as I was trying to pack. And one of the ingredients is in this list.

Garlic salt. OK, right off the bat, this probably doesn’t qualify as either an herb or a spice. But I keep it in my spice cabinet, and both garlic and salt are flavor enhancers. (I buy the Lawry's brand, which has freeze-dried flakes of parsley in it; maybe the parsley flakes help it qualify for this list. But if you’re going to clench your teeth and mutter curses at me for this, you’d better move on.) In any case, I put it in almost everything that’s not dessert. I add it to a lot of soups, and sometimes I sprinkle it on salads that don’t want a strong garlic taste. Garlic salt and lemon pepper are my standard seasonings for meat or seafood of almost any kind, especially if I’m grilling or broiling, and not adding any sort of sauce. So naturally, my number 2 is...
Lemon pepper. Lemon definitely doesn’t qualify as an herb or a spice, but it does make the flavor of so many things sparkle. And in combination with garlic salt, lemon pepper helps bring the flavor out on most kinds of protein.

Mint. I’m starting to believe that southerners have a specific taste bud that periodically sends out a call for mint. Sort of like oregano for Mexicans and basil for Italians.(This may be why English food has a tendency toward bland – I can’t think of a single herb that’s particularly English.) Whatever the reason, I will happily add mint to a range of dishes. Fresh fruit, salad dressings, ice cream,... And the drinks: lemonade, iced tea, mojitos, even plain old water with ice and lemon.

Thyme. A staple of my chicken soup, which is, ahem, fabulous. (Soon, soon, I will post it. Just gotta get out of this summer heat.) Actually, many broth soups call for fresh thyme in the bouquet garni. It’s easy to grow, and pretty hardy. And if I’m baking chicken breasts for a salad, I always throw a sprig of fresh thyme and a thin slice of lemon on each breast – it gives a great flavor to both the chicken and the broth that accumulates.

Dill. Dill is the lemon juice of the herb garden. There’s a sparkle to it that really perks up the flavor of broth soups, of baked chicken, and many kinds of fish. It’s another staple of my chicken soup. Fresh dill is also good in a salad.

Ginger. I’m going to distinguish here between fresh ginger and powdered ginger. I love fresh ginger, but it’s already on a list of my 10 favorite ingredients for cooking, which I’ll write about in a future posting. So here, I’m just talking about the powdered form. One of my favorite baked chicken recipes, called Bobbie’s Chicken, is from the first Silver Palate Cookbook. It uses an obscenely large quantity of powdered ginger and powdered mustard to create a rub that produces – oh, my goodness – just the best baked chicken ever. And my friend Pam has a ginger snap recipe that I’m hoping she’ll let me post one day. Ginger is another of those sparkly spices that do more than add flavor – they make your mouth do an oh-wow thing. Which must be good, yes?

Cumin and Chili Powder. I can’t seem to talk about one of these without the other, so I’ll stop trying. Maybe that’s because chili powder actually contains cumin. But sometimes you want more of that earthy, roasted flavor that cumin alone imparts. Of course, any good chili recipe requires both of these spices, but have you ever considered mixing them with a tiny bit of sugar and tossing sweet potato spears in it? Oven-roasted sweet potato fries will make you weep.

Nutmeg. This stuff is one of the best fall flavors I know. It’s essential in my Aunt Marcy’s pumpkin chiffon pie, wonderful if grated on top of whipped cream for many desserts, often found in sweet rolls, and completely amazing when grated over cooked fresh spinach. The grating part is so easy, I stopped buying grated nutmeg years ago. Buy the nuts in a jar and get a fine grater (or rasp) – you’ll never regret it.

Basil. I left this for last because it’s a key ingredient in today’s salad recipe – not because I like it any less than the others. In fact, pesto is a strong contender for My Favorite Pasta Sauce. [See my July 31, 2009, post for the recipe.] After Sun Gold tomatoes, it’s the best thing I grow in my Austin garden. And among farmer’s market lunches, nothing could be simpler than sliced tomatoes with mozzarella and basil, topped with a bit of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. But the following comes very close (and, in fact, is not too different).

Kitchen Goddess Note: I recognize the heresy of using bottled salad dressing, but Julie’s Caesar Salad Dressing (from The Silver Palate brand) is really good, and you will note that this is a salad made as I was literally on the run. So there.

Leaving for the Airport Summer Salad

1 medium tomato, cut into half-inch cubes
2 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut into half-inch cubes
1½ cups watermelon, cut into half-inch cubes
1 peach, peeled and cut into half-inch cubes
2 tablespoons fresh basil leaves, sliced into thin ribbons
2 tablespoons Julie’s Caesar Salad Dressing (Silver Palate brand)

Toss it all together and enjoy. Serves one hungry person – or two, if it’s not the only thing on the menu.


  1. this was informative, and fun! must try this garlic salt/lemon pepper combo; can't say i've really used either one much.

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