The herbs and spices that were readily available were heavily laden with MSG and compounds only found in a chemistry lab. Not only did they make food taste good, but they were also sometimes addictive. I remember going down this path because I was tired of the redundant taste of the natural seasonings I used back then. Cooking with only a couple of seasoning does get old as everything I cooked tend to have a similar taste.
Everything changed when I started using recipes from the internet, instead of playing around with the stuff I already knew how to cook. The list of herbs I would run into went on and on, each herb has its own unique taste and attribute. I narrowed down my staple favorites and those became a regular for me. I could now make chicken stew with vastly different tastes, thanks to my expanded list of natural seasons.
1. Onion and Scallion
Fresh onion is my tried and true. Onion provides excellent and intense flavor to virtually any meal. Ninety-nine percent of the non-sweet foods I cook starts with onion. I use onions on eggs, meat, even rice, and grains. Add some chopped onions to quinoa and voila!
Also, onion does have some health advantages. Onion is packed with antioxidant and is therefor heart healthy and protect against cancer.
Onion does seem to fall into the category of ‘there are two kinds of people in this world.’ There are some who love onions and those who don’t. Eating raw onion isn’t for everyone, but when you marinate or cook your food with onion, it transfers that flavor without being as intense.
Half of a medium-sized onion to every half pound of meat should do the trick.
Scallion, also called green onion, is also an excellent replacement for onions. Scallions are young onions, and its base is an immature onion. I also use it in addition to onions when available. Onions last longer, so I usually have them on hand
As a side note, shallots are similar to onions, but with a milder flavor. I also keep dried onion powder on hand for emergencies, and occasionally I will choose to use dried onions.
Similarly to an onion, fresh, raw garlic has an intense taste. If you eat a piece of raw garlic, it isn’t likely to be very palatable. Cooking with garlic provides such fantastic flavor to your food, you do not need that MSG-laden fake spice to get food that tastes good.
In addition to onion, most of my food will also have garlic. Onion and garlic are my two starter seasonings. Three to four cloves of garlic per pound of meat should be plenty. You can adjust per your preference.
Garlic can also lower your blood pressure, and it has some anti-viral properties as well. My mom makes garlic tea to fight against colds. I have never tried it, because I can’t see garlic making tasty tea, but I digress.
I also have garlic powder on hand for when I run out of fresh garlic, but I sometimes use it in addition to raw garlic.
Rosemary is a very delightful herb. When I lived in Jamaica, some people would use this herb to make tea. Although I never had rosemary tea, I do keep it in my cupboard. During the warm month, I keep a rosemary bush, but for colder months, I just used the dried herb.
Rosemary is great on meat. I use it on lamb and sometimes on chicken. I always use it in addition to onion and garlic. You can experiment with rosemary in vegetables, stews,
Rosemary is touted as a natural medicine for memory problems. True story, a friend of mine works as a live-in caregiver for a patient with Alzheimer’s. A couple of years ago, her client was given 6 weeks to live. My friend fed her with Rosemary tea, and she slowly improved. While she is not healed, she is still alive and has improved a lot in recent years. Whether you want to call it luck or give credit to the rosemary, we know it didn’t hurt her.
Thyme used to join onion and garlic in almost all my cookings. But, I have since removed it from my ‘staple 3’ and use it only for certain things. Thyme tends to be over-powering in some meals so I only use it for
Thyme works well for savory dishes such as meats. As a plus, it also enhances your immunity. I use either fresh or dried thyme as I think they both have good flavor.
Basil is one of my favorite herbs. It is also the most versatile herb that I use regularly. It goes well with anything. You can add it to sweet or savory dishes. You can also
Basil makes a great addition to tomato sauce and meats in general. Did I mention you can add basil to almost anything? Yes, I did! You should try it. Basil has a strong yet subtle flavor, it’s pretty hard to over-do it.
Basil is nutritious and it is rich in vitamin C, calcium, vitamin K and more. I don’t find dried basil to hold that rich flavor as the fresh ones, but I still keep a container to use in a pinch.
Cilantro is an interesting herb. You either love it or hate it with hardly any in-between. I have found a correlation with loving cilantro and the number of times you’ve had it. The first time you try it, you might hate it. Then, for whatever reason, the more you eat it the more you like it until you cannot get enough of it.
If you have ever been to a Vietnamese restaurant and had Beef Pho, cilantro is a herb that is provided with the broth. It was Pho that introduced me to cilantro, and as I mentioned the first time I got it, I hated it. Now, I cook with it somewhat regularly. I don’t always have it on hand, because I think the flavor is lost when it is dried and I don’t always keep fresh cilantro on hand.
Cilantro rice is one of my favorite things. I add about a tablespoon of chopped cilantro to each cup of raw rice and add a little lime juice to get cilantro lime rice. If you are having a problem adjusting to brown rice, try adding some cilantro.
Turmeric is a root that belongs to the ginger family. It is known for its vivid orange color. To make turmeric powder, it is dried and ground. There are no chemical reactions, no added chemical, just a ground plant.
Tumeric powder is the base powder for curries. As a person with Jamaican culture, I eat curried foods, but it’s not quite as heavy as the curried dishes generally served in Indian restaurants. The way I use turmeric is to add about a tablespoon per pound of meat, add other spices and herbs such as cumin, coriander, onion, garlic, salt, and black pepper.
The meat is then browned and left to slow cook for a while until it is done. This method gives it a curry flavor without it being too ‘rich’. Cooking meat this way is good for those who don’t like the intensity of some curried dishes that often comes with lots of other species and coconut milk.
8. Cumin powder
Cumin is the seed made from the
Cumin powder is used in savory dishes such as meats, stews and soups.
Both coriander and cilantro come from the
Oregano is a herb that gives a rich flavor to savory dishes and is a wonderful addition to virtually any dish. It goes well into tomato sauce and soups. Fresh oregano is excellent and preferred if you have it, but ground oregano also works well. It is a staple in my cabinet. If I use thyme, I almost always use oregano. The combination works well together and can change your soup from a ‘meh’ to a ‘yay’.
Another true story goes like this. A few months ago I followed an Instant Pot recipe for chicken soup. I don’t usually use recipes for chicken soup since my version more closely follows the Jamaican one I grew up drinking. But, since my 4-year old son has become used to having chicken soup from the restaurant Panera Bread and loved it, I wanted to give a similar recipe a try. I found an Instant Pot recipe and in an hour the soup was done.
If it’s one thing I know about 4-year-olds and it’s that, they are honest. They spare no feelings. So, his immediate reaction to my soup was ‘yuck’. Why is it so yucky mommy? It bruised my ego. I take pride in my cooking. In my opinion, it was ok, not as tasty as the Panera version but certainly edible.
In retrospect, I didn’t feel in my heart that the soup would be too tasty, just by observing the ingredients, but I tried it as is. In an attempt to salvage the soup after my son’s comment, I added some thyme and oregano and cooked it for a few more minutes. My son’s new comment was ‘mommy, what did you do, it’s so yummy now?’
I live in Connecticut, and I don’t know the history, but it is nicknamed the nutmeg state. I found it ironic that I went into a store and asked a clerk for nutmeg and she had no idea what that is.
I grew up with nutmeg as a staple spice for sweet foods. It is similar to cinnamon in its use but has a different taste. You can use nutmeg virtually in any recipe where cinnamon is used. You can use instead of cinnamon or as a combination.
Call me biased a little, but I prefer nutmeg to cinnamon. Nutmeg is an oval-shaped kernel that comes from the fruit of the nutmeg tree. A popular Jamaican tradition is to procure the whole nutmeg instead of the powder. When it is time to add it to your recipe, the nutmeg is grated, usually on a tiny grater or fancy grinder, giving you the freshest flavor possible. It isn’t always possible to obtain the nutmeg kernel whole, so the nutmeg powder will do just fine.
Try it in your desserts and it will not disappoint.
Cinnamon, is the rival to nutmeg. It is the inner bark of some tree species called genus Cinnamomum. It is grated and used as a spice. It adds that ever so distinct flavor to desserts. That smell is also heavenly. Cinnamon powder can be added to savory dishes as well, but I am not a fan of it used this way. You can add a little cinnamon to potatoes, add a little sugar (or not) and bake.
The ungrounded cinnamon sticks can also be used to infuse flavor in hot beverages and double up as a stirrer.
When most people think of ginger, they automatically think of it as a medical aid. It is associated with treating heartburn or stomach ache. And of course those uses are very accurate, it gives great flavor to foods. Some varieties are very spicy so use with care if you are sensitive to that sensation.
Ginger used on meats gives it that subtle diner flavor. Combined with other herbs and species, it makes for a delightful addition to your meal. Ginger can be used in sweet or savory dishes as a flavor enhancer. If possible I get some ginger root and freeze it, but I always have ginger powder on hand.
Some of the herbs I mentioned here, can be used in both sweet and savory dishes. Experimenting with the combination of herbs and spices is also very exciting.
I would never try to add onion or garlic to a cake. Nor would I add nutmeg to a soup, but some might differ. Basil is a herb that works well on almost anything you put it on. Cinnamon, though not my preference, can also be
Experimentation is the key to success here. If you have never used a herb before, start small and work your way up. There are far more herbs than these out there, but this is my staple set. I use them more than most other herbs out there. Parsley is also pretty common but I don’t find it has a good enough flavor to flavor foods. When I do use it, it’s mostly as a garnish or it might add a subtle flavor. We don’t get too fancy at home, so in most cases, I don