After my post yesterday about essential cookbooks, a reader contacted me by instant messenger to ask a really basic (and interesting) question about food preparation. Basically, they felt competent preparing simple dishes at home, but these dishes were always bland, which usually made even prepackaged meals taste better. Thus, they were often spending a lot of extra money buying takeout and such simply because of the flavor.
The real secret is almost always herbs and spices, which most beginning cooks seem to forget about, underestimate, or are intimidated by. The truth is that adding a few dashes of an appropriate seasoning to a dish can really make it flavorful – and make you forget about takeout.
Here are ten utilitarian herbs and spices you should have in your cupboard for general use; once you’re familiar with these, you can try expanding your repertoire (knowing my readers, they’ll likely throw up several suggestions in the comments). The dried herb and spice section at your store is the best place to start: most grocery stores sell small containers of each of these for less than a dollar. I’d recommend trying them one at a time in appropriate dishes before mixing them very much, because awkward herb and spice mixes can be atrocious, even if they’re quite good on their own.
Bay Leaves Get some of these if you grill or prepare stews. Almost every grilled meat is wonderfully accented with some crushed bay leaves pressed into the meat before grilling, and they’re also great in soups and stews.
Chives You can add these to almost any vegetable dish (especially steamed vegetables) to pop a good deal of extra flavors. Unsurprisingly, they’re also great on potatoes, along with sour cream, and can also mix well with eggs.
Cumin This is an essential ingredient for making any Mexican dish pop, plus it’s good as a general spice for meats and cheeses.
Marjoram A healthy dose of marjoram is one of my most vital secret ingredients in my spaghetti sauce. It also adds “Italian” flavor to pretty much any meat or vegetable.
Oregano Oregano goes well with any dish that uses a substantial amount of tomato in it, particularly anything Italian. It’s another key ingredient of a great homemade spaghetti sauce, for example.
Pepper (coarsely ground black, preferably) This stuff is fantastic on almost everything I’ve ever tried, from soups to meats to sauces. Don’t skimp on this, though – get some coarsely ground black pepper to start with and you’ll eventually find yourself wanting your own pepper grinder and making your own pepper mixes. Or maybe I’m just a crazy foodie.
Rosemary This is the stuff dreams are made of for both chicken and potatoes. That is all.
Sage This goes good on any poultry and any type of pork, and is also a great ingredient for hearty stuffings. It creates a very rustic and hearty “soul food” flavor.
Tarragon If you ever eat scrambled or fried eggs, buy a small container of tarragon to add to the mix. It also goes good on salads, on chicken, and on seafood.
Thyme It basically goes with just about everything: meats, vegetables, and especially in any soups you might prepare.