Adding herbs and spices to basic meals

A pinch of spice and a sprinkle of herbs is an easy way for oily ragger culinary artists to add sophistication to simple low-cost meals. There’s a lot that could be said about herbs, but here are some simple tips for the ones that are easy to grow.

Parsley is rich in nutrients and a great way to sneak “greens” into the family diet. It is commonly used as a garnish or finely chopped into soups, sauces, stuffing, stews, egg dishes, salads, mashed potatoes and carrots.

Mint is so rampant that it should be contained in a pot or its own confined spot in the garden. It can be used fresh or dried but is best known as the main ingredient of mint sauce and used with roast lamb. It also adds a uniquely fresh flavour to boiled potatoes and peas.

Thyme can also be used in roasts, as well as in soups, stuffing, meat loaf, casseroles, stews, egg dishes, salads, breads, sauces, spreads and vegetables. The most popular types are common thyme and lemon thyme.

Basil needs warmth and regular watering and is an ideal pot plant for the patio garden or a sunny spot on the kitchen windowsill. The most common variety is sweet basil. When cooking, think basil and tomato. It is ideal for tomato soups, tomato salads, tomato sauce, tomato paste, tomato this, tomato that… so much so that it is often referred to as the ‘tomato herb’. It is also used with pizza, pasta, fish and chicken.

Rosemary has many uses in the kitchen. It is commonly used with roast meats, especially lamb but also chicken or game (like pheasant, quail and rabbit). Try impressing your friends at the summer BBQ by using rosemary spikes as a skewer for meat and vegetable kebabs, or throw some sprigs on the hot coals to add aroma to the meat. A few sprigs of rosemary placed in the roasting dish with a medley of vegetables (such as carrot, parsnip and beetroot) and garlic will bring out wonderful flavours and turn a simple serving of roast vegetables into an oily rag gourmet delight.

Oregano can either be used fresh or dried. It is frequently used in Italian cooking and, when combined with basil in tomato dishes, creates a distinctive Italian taste. It is used on Italian-style pizza but goes well with sautéed zucchini and onions, in vegetable or bean dishes, and fresh in salads.

Chives, which belong to the onion family, but are much smaller, add flavour to salads, soups and vegetables, as well as egg dishes and egg sandwiches.

Marjoram leaves and flowers are usually used in meat and poultry stuffing, in salads, or in marinades. The flavour also blends well with most vegetable dishes. It is often used as a substitute for oregano.

Sage leaves can be used fresh or dried with meats, in stuffing, gravy, casseroles, soups and stews.

Tarragon is good with chicken but also used to flavour salads and egg dishes.

Bay leaves will add flavour to soups, fish and meat dishes, gravy and marinades. It is usually used whole while cooking and removed prior to serving.

Spices also add unique tastes and aromas.

Allspice (seeds) has the smell and flavour of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg – hence its name “allspice”. It may be used whole or ground, in game and poultry stuffing, in pickles, marinades, stews and chutneys, as well as fruits, desserts, and baking.

Cayenne is a powder prepared from red-hot chilli pepper. It is will add a punch to Mexican dishes, dips, spreads, dressings and cream soups.

Cinnamon is the dried bark of the cinnamon tree. It is a sweet spice in stick or powder form and is used to flavour cakes, buns, biscuits, or puddings – especially apple based dishes – as well as sprinkled on your home-made cappuccino, or pancakes and cream!

Nutmeg seeds have a strong but sweet smell and can be used in cakes, desserts, casseroles, and to flavour apples.

Paprika is ground red peppers – it can be used in stews and as a sprinkle over egg and cheese dishes.

Vanilla extract (from vanilla beans) is commonly used to flavour desserts, beverages, and milk products.

There you have it – lots of things to add flavours and tastes that can transform a low-cost meal into an oily rag fine dining experience!