Pantry Basics: Herbs

Many of you may disagree with my choices for Pantry Basics. As I said, it is subjective. It will vary from person to person depending on what you like to cook. So, don’t think you have to get the ones I list as basics if you know you want something else. For example, reader David said he couldn’t do without coriander. Me, not so much. Also, there are many more choices than what I have listed. I will cover a lot more when we get to the Intermediate level of Pantry stocks. After all, I certainly don’t think a handful of herbs and spices are anywhere near enough. I love spices and I have a whole cupboard full of them.

Dried Basil. This herb is very easy to grow. If you have a window box with a fair amount of sunshine, you can have fresh basil all year-’round. But dried herbs have their uses, too. And this one is basic. It goes on so many foods and is a must for pasta, tomatoes, pizza, and steak. Try it on things you might not think of, like eggs, soups, beans, and tofu. The name of the plant comes from the Greek word for king, and many culinary experts call it the king of herbs. Add basil, dried or fresh, at the end of cooking, since the heat kills much of the flavor.

Oregano. Some people might think I overuse this herb, and maybe I do. But I really like the taste of so many things: scrambled eggs, meat, vegetables. That covers a lot of territory. Oregano is a member of the mint family of plants. And, like all other mints, it grows like a weed and can soon take over a garden if you’re not careful. Besides Italian cooking, oregano is also used in many Mexican, Spanish, Turkish, Greek, and Portuguese dishes. Like so many herbs, it is aromatic, meaning the smell is as much a component of the food as the taste. Quality varies widely. Most of the oregano in this country comes from Mexico or Central America.

Dried Parsley. Most recipes call for fresh parsley. My complaint about this, from a bachelor’s point of view, is that a bunch of parsley goes bad before I can use it up. It was not expensive, but I hate waste. Dried parsley goes well with potatoes and other root vegetables. Its slightly bitter taste counters the sweetness of starches. It also goes well with meat and poultry. One of the things I like about this dried herb is that its mild flavor is very forgiving if you overdo it. One warning: parsley in any form should not be used by pregnant women as it can cause uterine contractions.

Dill weed. This is one some of you might disagree with. Certainly, I understand that culinary fashion has overused this herb. But I feel that way about cilantro, too. It’s usually called dill weed to distinguish it from dill seeds, which have a different set of uses and flavors. This herb has a rich history going back to ancient Egypt, where it has been found in kings’ tombs. The Jews used dill seeds as a tithe to the temple and a sacrifice to their God. This is a sunny herb that likes warm weather and doesn’t do well in even partial shade. I like to use dill in rice and vegetable dishes.

Certainly, there are many more herbs you might consider basics. That’s one of the wonderful things about cooking and the use of herbs and spices. For example, if you do a lot of stews and soups, you might find bay leaves to be essential. But I think most cooks, at least in the beginning, can hold off on that, and many others, until they need them.