Q: Chef, I was looking through some cookbooks and came across a recipe that called for "Herbs de Provence." Is that a kind of spice blend? And what is the difference between an herb and a spice?
A: Herbs de Provence is the name given to a blend of herbs that originated in Provence, an area in southern France near the border of Italy. There is no set recipe, but the herbs most commonly used are dried sage, savory, tarragon, thyme, marjoram, mint, dill, basil, bay leaf, chervil, fennel, oregano or orange zest. Lavender is a popular addition here in the United States but it is rarely used in France. It can be used in all kinds of dishes; soups, salads, meats and breads.
Since 1970, it has been sold as a specific herb blend by many of the popular spice companies including Spice Island, McCormick and The Spice Hunter. Following is a typical recipe but there can be many variations.
Shown are Herbs de Provence, a blend of herbs that originated in Provence, France, near the border of Italy.
Stir the following herbs together and store in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.
3 tablespoons dried
3 tablespoons dried thyme
3 tablespoons dried savory
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
1/2 teaspoon dried sage
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/2 teaspoon crushed lavender
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
We prefer to use mostly fresh herbs that we grow ourselves. We chop and blend a variety of fresh herbs together right before cooking time. (I'll talk more about growing your own herbs later on in this article. It's easier than you might think).
A blend of spices similar to Herbs de Provence is the ever popular Italian Seasoning. It contains many of the herbs most often used in Italian cooking. Other well know spice blends include Chinese five-spice powder, pumpkin pie spice, chili powder, taco seasoning and Old Bay (an ingredient in one of this week's featured recipes).
What's the difference?
You asked about the difference between herbs and spices. Both come from plants. Spices come from the roots, stems, bulbs, bark or seeds. Spices are always dried and are usually ground. They mainly grow in tropical climates. Herbs are the leafy part of the plant. They grow in more temperate climates. The leaves can be picked and used right from the plant. Fresh herbs are usually available in the produce department at the grocery store. You can also find most herbs in dried form in the spice aisle.
We use both fresh and dried herbs and spices, depending on the recipe, but we favor fresh herbs. They add the most flavor to your cooking. Fresh herbs also have more health benefits than their dried counterpart.
Adding herbs and spices to a recipe can make the difference between serving a plain meal or a culinary delight.
A few tips for cooking
with herbs and spices
Dried herbs and spices are at their flavor peak for six to eight months.
Chopping or crushing the leaves releases the flavor and aroma so it is a good idea to do this right before adding to your recipe.
Make sure you use a sharp knife or scissors so you don't bruise or crush the leaves.
You can substitute fresh herbs for dried herbs in recipes by doubling or tripling the amount.
Long cooking times reduces the flavor of herbs so add them to soups or stews toward the end of the cooking time.
You may not need to use as much salt in your cooking because herbs and spices add so much flavor. Adjust salt according to taste.
Growing your own
Growing your own herbs is not difficult. For the price of a few dollars per plant and a minimal investment of time and effort, you can have a selection of fresh herbs as close as your windowsill or back yard. Herbs grow well indoors by a window, outside in a container or in the ground like traditional garden plants. They are decorative and functional.
Since most herbs thrive in full sun, pick a location that gets at least six hours of sunlight. They like well drained soil and do not do well if overwatered. If you plant your herb garden in outdoor containers, stick to just one variety per pot.
We have fresh herbs growing in containers, in a regular garden plot in the backyard and in a bed of soil that is heaped up so that the herbs are elevated (similar to a raised bed garden). This provides good drainage and it is decorative. Lawn edging is really not necessary.
Health benefits of
herbs and spices
Adding flavor to recipes is only one of the benefits of cooking with herbs and spices. For centuries they have been used for medicinal purposes. Before modern medicines were available, herbs and spices were used to cure illnesses, increase health and wellness and delay aging.
The medicinal uses of chicory and cinnamon are both mentioned in the Old Testament. The Quran mentions ginger. As early as 3000 B.C. ancient Chinese and Egyptian papyrus writings described medicinal uses for spices.
Many have anti-inflammatory properties and contain antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. They have soothing properties that heal wounds, decrease pain, increase circulation, treat depression and a whole host of other benefits. And most of them taste good, too.
There are hundreds of herbs and spices, too many to discuss in detail in this article. Following is a short summary of the spices used in today's featured recipes and a few other of my favorites.
Basil is available in several varieties including lemon basil, cinnamon basil and sweet basil. The flavor varies according to the variety. Fresh basil is the main ingredient in pesto sauces. Basil is also an anti-inflammatory and has high levels of antioxidants. Fresh basil leaves have antibacterial properties.
Parsley has a mild herbal flavor and can be used in many different recipes. The flat-leafed parsley is more flavorful and should be used in cooking. Curly leafed parsley, often seen on the rim of a plate, is best for garnishes. Parsley also has a lot of antioxidants. Two tablespoons of parsley provides 153 percent of the daily requirement for vitamin K so it aids in the clotting of blood.
Chili powder is a blend of spices that contains red chili peppers and usually cumin, oregano and garlic. It contains capsaicin which has an anti-inflammatory effect. It helps achey joints and even arthritis.
Cayenne pepper is probably the hottest of the spices you'll find at the grocery store. It adds a fiery flavor to Mexican, Indian and other "hot" cuisines. Definitely add this spice sparingly. A little bit goes a long way. It helps to clean the arteries of plaque. It increases metabolism. It is also an anti-inflammatory and reduces pain.
Dill is a green herb with feathery leaves that is available year round. Fresh dill might be scarce in the winter months so dried dill can be substituted. It is used mainly in pickling and on fish but works well in many savory recipes. Heat affects the taste of dill so it should be added at the end of cooking time. It offers antifungal benefits and is effective in causing dysfunction in the energy producing cells of mold.
Cilantro is the herb and coriander is the spice (seed) that comes from the same plant. Cilantro should only be used as a fresh herb because it loses its aroma and flavor when dried. Cilantro is said to have a whole host of benefits because it contains high levels of antioxidants. It is a digestive aid and may help prevent urinary tract infections.
Rosemary comes from the slender leaves of an evergreen shrub and has a piney flavor. Be careful not to use too much because it can be overpowering. It contains antioxidants and is one of several herbs thought to counteract the carcinogens that form in grilled meats.
Thyme is related to the mint family. It has a strong flavor and aroma so, like rosemary, use sparingly. It is believed to delay signs of aging and prevent cell damage. It has lots of antioxidants and cuts down on the carcinogens formed when grilling meat.
The following recipe features thyme and rosemary, both known for their anti-carcinogen properties. It also combines both herbs and spices for a flavorful meat rub.
Herbed rub for grilled
chicken, pork and salmon
Combine the following in a bowl. Rub the spice blend on the meat before grilling.
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon cayenne
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon Old Bay
1 tablespoon fresh chopped parsley
1 teaspoon fresh chopped rosemary
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
The recipe for Herbs de Provence that we talked about earlier also will work as a rub for grilled meats. Rub the herb mixture onto the meat before grilling.
Place the following ingredients in food processor and blend until chopped and blended.
1 cup fresh parsley, firmly packed
3 cups fresh basil, firmly packed
2 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup pine nuts
High quality olive oil
Chef Hosch and Ann's column prints on the first Wednesday of each month.
Submit comments, experiences and cooking questions to Chef Hosch and Ann by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chef Hosch and Ann are a husband-and-wife team devoted to healthy and gourmet cooking and catering. Ann is gluten intolerant and an occupational therapist, who has worked as a cook and baker prior to meeting Hosch. Chef Hosch is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, N.Y., and brings more than 25 years of experience and passion to his culinary arts. His work as executive chef in hospitals has honed his skills for anyone with special diets as well as cooking for large crowds. Chef Hosch and Ann specialize in creating fabulous foods for all tastes and diets.