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The Italian Cook’s Herbs, Spices, & Secret Flavor Enhancers

If there is anything that defines Italian cooking it might be the universal use of tomatoes. Or maybe garlic, added to the signature collection of vegetables called “odori” or “sofrito” (onions, carrots, and celery). But what else helps define Italian (or more broadly Mediterranean) cooking? Hands down, it is the use of common herbs, spices, and flavor enhancers that increase the depth and breadth of flavors in any preparation and give the distinctive Italian nuance.

How do we give our foods distinctive flavors, deeper flavors, more interest? What are the universal flavor enhancers?

Cooking with fresh herbs | Photo ©alleksana

Herbs & Herb Gardens

Let us start by looking at a group of necessary herbs. Probably the most prominent of them would be rosemary. My mother and nonna both had huge rosemary bushes and I was sent out to the garden more than once with garden clippers to get fresh sprigs of rosemary. My garden , of course, also has rosemary bushes. Tied for second place would be parsley, sage, basil and bay leaves. These are the basics. After that we get to mint, oregano, thyme and chives.

The first thing to remember is that fresh herbs taste better than dried herbs, sometimes significantly so, enough so that substituting dried for fresh just doesn’t work. This is especially true of basil. There are two exceptions: the ubiquitous dried Italian herb mixture available in every grocery store and delicatessen and oregano itself. The Italian herb mixture is a staple when making stews, braises, soups. However, if you really want to ramp up the flavors of a dish, use the same herbs that are in the dried Italian herb mixture, but get them fresh and tie them in cheesecloth—make what the French would call a “bouquet garni”—and use that in the preparation. With oregano however, I sometimes go the other way and prefer the flavor of dried Mexican oregano to fresh from my own garden.

Every serious Italian/Mediterranean cook needs an herb garden, which is amazingly easy to do. You can plant your herb garden lining the front walk up to your front porch. You plant herbs as a border around a flower bed. You can  plant your herb garden on large pots on a balcony. You can make an herb garden in the backyard near the kitchen door, or use herb plants extensively in landscaping. But be careful if planting mint, it is very invasive and will take over. Therefore plant your mint on purpose in a large pot to keep it from invading other areas.

One thing you probably cannot plant in your back yard is bay laurel. Bay leaves though can be gathered during your walks in the hills (make sure it is the culinary variety such as Laurus nobilis—beware of toxic bay-like leaves). Fresh bay is much more pungent than dried so adjust your recipes accordingly (and again, “to taste”). This can be experienced while on your walk by gathering a leaf or two of bay and crushing it between your palms and then smelling it. It can be searingly strong.

Salt

Once you have started your herb garden or herb collection, the next step is to understand salt.
There are many salts in the world and each will contribute something different to the outcome of the dish. Standard table salt in America is iodized (iodine is added as a necessary mineral for the body), but iodine can also contribute off-flavors. Consider using pure sea salt. There are many to choose from around the world. The French have fleur de sel. The Italians favor the sea salt gather in the salt beds of Trapani. Or try a mined salt such as Himalayan pink salt. Try each on a different slice of grilled beef and see which gives the meat your preferred flavor. In addition, salts are “ground” to differing textures. Many professional chefs will finish a steak with a coarser grind of salt because they want the “crunch” or texture that it provides. Salt was deemed such a significant flavor producer that during the middle ages only the royalty and wealthy could afford it and in some instances, it was banned for use by the masses.

Acid

Are you concerned about high blood pressure and the health effects of too much salt? You can achieve the same increase in flavor by using acids to enhance flavors, sometimes more effectively than even using salt. The two-to-four ounces of vinegar poured into a roasting dish during the last 15 minutes of cooking, covering the roasting pan so the aromas don’t escape, can add wonders to a roast chicken or roast leg of lamb. What other acids help in cooking? Lemon zest adds sparkle to so many savory dishes such as veal, fish and chicken, and zest is also used extensively in baking. And of course lemon juice itself. Wines—white wine, red wine, rosé and even champagne—all add different flavor elements and uplift the appreciation of a sauce. Different vinegars also will impart different flavors—hampagne vinegar, red wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar and malt vinegar, for example.

Sweet

Some however feel that the addition of acids also brings a sourness to a dish. Very often it is advisable to add sugar to an acidic or salty dish to balance it. This is especially true of tomato-based sauces which are greatly improved when the combined acid (of the tomatoes), salt and sugar are correctly balanced. And if you are a baker you will see salt added to sweet baking recipes. Again balance. The sweetness is enhanced with the addition of salt. One of Italy’s favorite condiments is “agrodolce” (sour and sweet, acid and sugar); tuna or swordfish agrodolce is an iconic Sicilian preparation.

Umami

But the most puzzling of all is the term “umami.” Some insist umami is the fifth sensation experienced on the tongue. There are many products that can be used to enhance the savory flavors associated with umami. The first is anchovies. If you are making a beef stew, experience what happens if you add a couple of anchovies to the sauce. Can’t stand anchovies? Try Worcestershire. (Be careful though, don’t read the ingredient list—it contains fermented anchovies!) Worcestershire is related to the ancient fermented fish sauce called garum used in ancient Rome, Greece and Phoenicia. The Asian chefs also have many different types of fish sauce that they use. Olive juice (the liquid in which olives are preserved) is also a wonderful contributor of umami savory flavors. And don’t forget miso paste. Arabs enhance flavors of meat dishes with cinnamon. Hungarians use paprika.

Spices

If you still think your cooking needs more complexity, more layers of flavors, then experiment with some spices. Try adding ground cumin to roasted lamb. Or add saffron to a risotto to pair with fried chicken, veal saltimbocca, or osso buco (classic Milanese). Ground fennel seeds and cardamon are wonderful flavor enhancers. Use caraway on steamed cabbage. Don’t want to spend the time grinding fennel, anise or caraway? Cash in on the built-in flavors of liqueurs and spirits. For example, finish a dish with Pernod (anise-flavored liqueur) or aquavit (Scandinavian herbed spirit) plus butter.

Liquor/Liqueur & Beyond

How about enhancing the flavors with other distilled liquors? Your liquor cabinet and spice rack contain marvelous secrets that can be used to make your cooking much more interesting, more intriguing, more seductive, more flavorful.

Do you like the smokey flavors that come from grilling or roasting with wood? Try marinating the chicken or fish in mezcal before roasting or grilling. Or put half a glass of mezcal in the bottom of the roasting dish before roasting the chicken. And if mezcal works, experiment with using smokey scotch. Brandies and rums work really well in many preparations, especially cooking. If making a savory dish with chocolate (such as Mexican mole), the addition of finely ground espresso coffee beans will add great depths of flavor. In fact you can use the same ground espresso beans as a dry rub on steak before grilling it.

Look Around You

There are so many flavors all around you: in your bar (vermouths have incredible ranges of flavors, as do distilled spirits), in your spice rack, in your herb garden—just start looking. You will soon learn that you prefer certain flavors combined with certain meats and vegetables. Again this is a matter of great personal preference, discovered through experimenting.

Just remember your mother was wrong! It is perfectly OKAY to “play with your food”—and it might even make your culinary creations better!

Fun fact: From Roman times through the Middle Ages, salt was a valuable commodity, also referred to as “white gold.” This high demand for salt was due to its important use in preserving food, especially meat and fish.

Being so valuable, soldiers in the Roman army were sometimes paid with salt instead of money. Their monthly allowance was called “salarium” (“sal” being the Latin word for salt). This Latin root can be recognized in the French word “salaire” — and it eventually made it into the English language as the word “salary.” (NPR)

Don’t be timid, experiment, combine flavors and enjoy the journey!

Contributor: Ron Fenolio, CEO Veedercrest Estates and Chair – Family Winemakers of California | © 2022 Ronald L. Fenolio

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