Terri on Herbes de Province

Terri leads us through complicated flavors!

What’s the first rule of herbes de Provence?

–There’s no such thing as a traditional blend of herbes de Provence.

What’s the second rule of herbes de Provence?

–There’s no such thing as a traditional blend of herbes de Provence.

Herbes de Provence, as a marketed thing, did not exist until the 1970s, and we can thank Julia Child for turning it into a collective noun. Prior to her recipe instruction to add said noun to a chicken sauté, les grand-mères Provençales (Provencal grandmothers, yo) would simply add…herbs. Grown locally. In the proportions they found most pleasing for their palates. The French spice company Ducros (now a part of a giant spice company that shall remain nameless) packaged a medley of herbs for export et voila! Nearly fifty years have passed and we’re still buying it.

Located in the southeastern corner of France, bordering Italy, the southern Alps, and the Mediterranean Sea, Provence is known for food that is not fussy. Provencal cuisine coaxes tons of flavor out of simple ingredients, and the cooks there know how to apply local herbs to their best advantage. Want to sass up your asparagus? Roast it with olive oil and some herbes de Provence and suddenly, your dish is full of Mediterranean vigor. In no particular order, herbes de Provence may consist of thyme, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, basil, chervil, tarragon, lovage, savory, sage, bay leaf and fennel. It may include dried orange rind. Blends packaged for US consumption usually include lavender, but those packaged for consumption elsewhere do not. It seems Americans so closely associate Provence with their lavender fields that we’re not happy without a spike of it in the blend. At least, that’s the official line; I suspect it’s got more to do with offloading agricultural overstock, but that’s my inner cynic speaking. At least the end results are yummy.

Why do we love spice blends? Why do tremendous amounts of spice cabinets contain things like herbes de Provence or Italian seasoning or Chinese five-spice powder? That’s easy. Because…they do a lot of the work for the home cook, and provide a modicum of insight into cultural cuisine for a relatively small cost. We may not know what to do with a whole star anise, but we can experience it in five-spice powder. We may not have a bottle of chervil, lovage, and savory sitting in the spice rack (or growing in the local fields), but we can buy some herbes de Provence and partake in the aromatic flavors that are ubiquitous to the sunny Mediterranean way of life. You may not be in France but with some herbes and the right olive oil, you can imagine what it’s like there thanks to your potatoes.

Because the herb medley is so fluid, it’s impossible to nail down the overall health benefits. If nothing else, many of the herbs listed above—which may or may not be in a blend—have antioxidant properties, so that’s something you can count on. And who isn’t happier, and consequently less stressed out, when they eat food that’s been made delicious by use of a delicious spice blend? Boom, there you have it. Herbes de Provence relieve anxiety. You heard it here first, world. You’re welcome.

The ingredients in herbes de Provence are no secret, so if you have the time and inclination, feel free to mix herbs together in proportions you find most pleasing. It’s what Julia Child did. But if you don’t think you need to reinvent the spice wheel in order to make your dinner sing, get yourself a bottle of les herbes and transport yourself to the rolling hills of southeastern France

Terri on Cardamom!

Ah…  she’s thinking meatballs, I’m thinking sweet buns. Yum any way you try it, but who knew all this? Terri!

In the year 7000 BCE, the city of Jericho had a population of nearly 2,000 people, and they had developed crops of barley and wheat. Beer was still a thousand years away from discovery. The Jiahu people of central China had begun experimenting with a proto-cuneiform, inching the world closer to written language. And in India, cardamom was grown for export, in trade with Babylon.

If you’re counting, that’s 9000 years. Nine. Thousand. Years. 9000! That the words, “Yes, get me some more cardamom, please,” have been coming out of peoples’ mouths. We are more alike than different, even unto our ancients.

Cardamom, a cousin of ginger, is a chameleon. It is at once woodsy, citrusy, smoky, and sweet, and performs with equal vigor in baked sweet goods or in savory meals. I will attest myself that a touch added to my coffee—no more than 1/8 teaspoon—sends said coffee into the metaphorical stratosphere. Yeah… it’s that good.

Curiously, despite being a tropical plant that grows in climates with temperatures that do not descend below 35°F, cardamom has become an integral part of Scandinavian cooking. And by integral, I mean that Sweden consumes more than 18 times as much cardamom as most of the rest of the world, except for India and the Middle East. Norway consumes 30 times as much. Conventional wisdom says the Vikings brought cardamom back to Scandinavia with them after a standard-issue sacking of Constantinople about a thousand years ago, and that’s how the Swedes ended up with their funky citrus-woodsy-sweet meatballs.

With deeper research, academics are now challenging that presumption, stating a lack of evidence that points to Vikings. By 1050CE, according to trade documentation, cardamom had only made it as far north as Germany, and there are no cookbooks or records that show Vikings included cardamom trading as one of their many talents. Thanks to a current, copious application of academic elbow grease, there are more and more food historians that think cardamom did not come to Scandinavia as a happy side effect of a sacking but rather, thanks to the Moors. Established on the Iberian peninsula in the 8th century, Moorish recipes began showing up in Danish cookbooks in the 1200s, two full centuries after the supposed Viking cardamom introduction.

A natural digestive, cardamom has been used historically to alleviate stomach problems. There’s some interesting research that indicates cardamom to be effective in the prevention and treatment of stomach ulcers, primarily by acting as a natural antibiotic to the Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria commonly linked to ulcer formation. Recently, cardamom and cardamom oil have been shown to lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels, which helps improve heart health. It’s been shown to counter the effects of a high-fat diet by preventing the formation of abdominal fat, improve glucose intolerance, and inhibit the inflammation of liver tissue. And! The ancients chewed cardamom seeds for years, both because it’s yummy and because it helps keep gums healthy.

Cardamom delivers organ-friendly overall health benefits, while managing to balance savory-sweet deliciousness. It’s diversity is reflected in its popularity, being much beloved in both India and Scandinavia…and in the rest of the world. While I may not be able to thank my Viking ancestors for furthering cardamom’s global popularity a thousand years ago, I can thank them for their surprising use of it in meatballs.

Terri on Basil… mmmm

Here’s Terri on an herb we love… it always felt so straightforward before this…

Basil has a curiously contradictory folkloric heritage. To the Romanians, the gift (and acceptance!) of a basil sprig indicated an engagement, while Greeks thought basil represented hatred and poverty. In Egypt and Iran, basil was planted or scattered on the graves of the recently departed as a sign of love, while in Crete, basil was thought to represent the devil…but would be kept on the windows to ward him away. In the 16th century in England, it was particularly dangerous business handling basil. It was thought, by at least one person important enough to have his musings preserved, that basil sprigs put under a rock bred scorpions. Even worse, one physician claimed that if one breathed too deeply the scent of a basil plant, scorpions would infest the sniffer’s brain. Scorpions. In the brain. Meanwhile in Africa, basil protected against scorpions.

Editorial note: Basil does not produce scorpions. (Priestess response: Well, that’s a relief!)

This glorious herb has been cultivated for somewhere between 4,000-5,000 years, give or take whose history you decide to follow. It originated on the hills of India, growing wild in the lush heat, and made its way everywhere warm (or could go to seed and have the seeds protected during the winter), relatively quickly, especially for a plant that can’t travel on its own. America as a continent is a late-comer to the basil game, since basil did not reach these shores until the 1600s, when it was brought over with the pilgrims who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Even with 400 years of basil at our fingertips, we still primarily associate this herb with Mediterranean and/or Thai food.

Sweet basil delivers a flavor package that is at once soft, round, pungent, bitter, and delicate. It is also unforgiving in how it should be used; basil ought to be used fresh, and either raw (pesto, salads) or added at the end of the cooking time (pasta, Thai stir fries, everything else it’s cooked with) lest the heat destroy the volatile aromatics that give basil its distinctive flavor. Drying it…honestly, I’ve yet to see the point of dried basil, because to me it tastes like slightly licorice-y paper. And it doesn’t store well. If you wrap plucked leaves in damp (but not wet!) paper towels and put them somewhere cool (but not cold!), you may be able to hang on to the leaves for two days before they reduce themselves to slime. Maybe. Your best bet is to grow a pot on your windowsill. This way fresh basil is always at hand, and you can ward off Satan in the process.

Nutritionally, sweet basil offers a lot to the consumer. Basil is packed with Vitamin K, which is instrumental in protein modification and blood clotting. (Side note: if you are on blood thinners, maybe keep an eye on basil consumption.) Its essential oils have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, which help alleviate symptoms of arthritis and a sour gut. Even John Gerard, an herbalist writing in the 16th century, recognized basil’s ability to calm digestive upset. And it’s a great source of manganese and Vitamin A, which help promote cardiovascular health. As long as you don’t overheat the basil and destroy the essential oils that provide these benefits. See how it all goes together?

Perhaps the complex flavor profile and myriad health benefits contributed to the complicated social history that surrounds this herb. All I know is, when I smell it I get hungry. I’m usually happier having eaten something that’s basilicious, and I’ve never encountered even one scorpion while doing so.

Terri on Turmeric

So happy to have Terri Peterson’s knowledge and insight on our spices. Here she is on Turmeric:

The turmeric flower is a majestic bloom. The petals are pointed and can be snowy-white, or magenta, or variegated. They’re stacked one on top of the other to make a stalky bloom, all nestled inside a vibrant green cloak of meter-high leaves.

But we don’t eat any of that. (Side note: We could. We just don’t, as much. And I digress.)

Turmeric is known for its stem, its gnarled and wooden-looking underground stem system. It’s a rhizome, which means it sends out stems horizontally underground from its nodes, which once again begs the question: What won’t we eat? And who’s the first person who looked at a clump of turmeric stems and said, you know, dry those babies out and grind ‘em down, and dinner is on!

But looks are deceiving. Peel the turmeric and suddenly you’re holding a handful of gold. The swollen stems are built to store the energy from the sun and convey it from plant to plant; it’s as if the body of the rhizome holds a bit of the sun itself. Turmeric imparts a pungent, earthy flavor to food, so you have the sun and the earth in one tablespoon, which is not a bad thing to spend a little bit of money on while spice shopping. And it’s been touted for its medicinal properties, too.

Ayurvedic medicine has long employed turmeric as an antibiotic and anti-inflammatory agent, and globally it’s used in a tremendous array of folk preparations. Archaeological digs have uncovered pharmaceutical preparations with turmeric in them that date back to 2500BCE, though turmeric didn’t move into the sphere of Ayurvedic wunderkind until 500BCE. Current research into turmeric shows great promise in its ability to temper the effects of arthritis, Alzheimer’s, and even some cancers.

So how do you get more of this into your life? Drink some turmeric tea. Eat more curries. Shred the raw root and add it to carrot soup, or mix it with spiced steamed milk (coconut, preferably) for “golden milk”. Fans of golden milk claim it can improve memory, lower cholesterol, and temper blood pressure. Make sure to mix a little black pepper in there because the piperine in pepper binds with the cucurmin in turmeric and blocks it from being absorbed by the liver, so it travels all that much more readily through your blood stream. (If you want to get technical, piperine increases cucurmin’s bioavailability. Dig it.) It can even be baked into savory sweets, though you do have to ask where the health benefits begin and end in the face of butter and sugar.

Pro tip: if you do cook with turmeric, don’t wear white, unless you live for the dare. It’s used as a dye for a reason.