Familiarity breeds intent, and those of us in the food business are quite familiar with that duet of herbs: basil and oregano. Generally, our intent is to use them in every way possible –– sometimes, whether we need to or not. For example, a pizza restaurant that shall go unnamed once used oregano to the point of absurdity. Finally, I called the owner (anonymously) and told him that if he kept laying down a napalm of oregano on my pizza that I was going elsewhere. I love oregano –– when it is used in moderation and in proper balance to the rest of the ingredients.
First, let me address the issue of dried herbs versus fresh herbs. Given the availability, price factor and overall usage, I would opt for fresh over dried every time, and who among us is not guilty of keeping dried herbs around too long? Dried herbs are not like a fine red wine — they do not get better with age. In fact, they lose potency by the week.
When using fresh herbs in, say, a pasta sauce, add them near the end of the cooking time. Putting them in early will alter the taste, since fresh herbs do not hold up as well in heat as dried herbs.
Conversely, if you are using dried herbs in a sauce, put them in at the very beginning. Dried herbs need time (and heat) to rehydrate and round out their flavor. Generally you will need to add three times as much fresh herbs as dried herb in a recipe –– for example, three tablespoons of fresh basil, or one tablespoon of dried basil. You wouldn’t scatter whole peppercorns on a salad. Passing the peppercorns through a mill —grinding — over the salad releases the flavor, making it pronounced and viable. The same is true for dried herbs you put into a pasta sauce (and on pizza when possible), rub the herb between your thumb and forefinger as you add them. This releases the inner flavor of the herb.
So what herbs and spices should you put into use in your restaurant? Consider these:
Rosemary is a very pungent herb and should be used sparingly. I favor its use mostly in soups and with chicken and lamb dishes. Add some rosemary to a dough you would be using to make focaccia (rosemary and onion focaccia is a winner) or to flavor up chicken strips.
Marjoram is a sweet-scented herb that is important in Mediterranean cooking. Sweet marjoram has a decidedly delicate flavor. Oregano is a member of the marjoram family that is more pungent than sweet marjoram, but some cooks like to use marjoram and oregano interchangeably.
Sage is an herb that is not commonly used with pizza (it has a very intense flavor). But, using sage with a butter sauce and ravioli or other pasta sauce can be quite tasty. Use sage in combination with Italian sausage and peppers.
Fennel (dried, not fresh, also known as anise) is an important part of my pantry. I use whole fennel seeds and I have a spice grinder dedicated solely for grinding fennel seeds.
Parsley is definitely an unsung herb, but if you are going to use in cooking (as opposed to using it as a garnish) it should be flat-leaf Italian-style parsley.
Nutmeg is indispensable in cream-based sauces such as Alfredo. It’s best to avoid ground nutmeg. Grate whole nutmeg fresh as needed. Use it sparingly; a little of its intense flavor goes a long way.
Capers, packed in brine, are the best kind to use, but rinse them under cold water before using them in a sauce. Capers are an excellent flavor addition to a spicy red sauce (for pizza or pasta).
Thyme is another undersung herb. I would never be without thyme (I mostly use dried thyme). Thyme would be my first herb choice when using any type of seafood (on a clam pizza, for example, or to flavor the clam broth for linguine with clam sauce).
Cilantro plays an important role when making any type of Mexican dish, including Mexican pizza toppings, salsa and tacos.
Chives work great when added to, say, mashed potatoes. Also chives work great with any type of eggplant dish (caponata, for example).
Tarragon has a hint of licorice flavor. I use it for chicken tarragon, also for tarragon mayonnaise (great with a chicken sandwich).
Penne with Bolognese
Yield: four servings as a pasta course
(scale up in direct proportion)
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup chopped yellow onion
1 pound ground beef
2 teaspoons fennel seed and
1 teaspoon ground fennel seed
¼ cup milk
4 cups canned plum tomatoes, crushed with juices
3 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 teaspoons dried oregano, crumbled, or ¼ cup fresh finely chopped
½ cup chicken broth
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
¾ pound penne, rotini or other short pasta
In a heavy pot, warm the olive oil over medium-high heat for 1 minute. Add
the onion. Cook and stir for 2 minutes. Add the meat. Cook and stir for another 4 minutes or until the meat is cooked through. Add the fennel seed and milk and cook for 3 minutes.
Add tomatoes, parsley, oregano and chicken broth. Bring the sauce to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally for 35 to 40 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. (The sauce can be prepped ahead to this point and held).
Cook the pasta until it is al dente. Drain well. Divide the pasta among four heated pasta bowls. Spoon on the sauce. Served with grated Parmesan on the side.
Pat Bruno is Pizza Today’s resident chef and a regular contributor. He is the former owner and operator of a prominent Italian cooking school in Chicago and is a food critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.