Herbs and spices, when used correctly, will give a flavor kick to any style of pizza, pasta dish or salad. When using fresh herbs in a pasta sauce, add them near the end of the cooking time — just long enough for their flavor to “bloom.” Conversely, if you are using dried herbs in the sauce, put them in at the very beginning. Dried herbs need time (and heat) to re-hydrate and round out their flavor. And, please, do not use dried herbs that are over the hill. They have no real flavor left. You might as well throw in dried weeds.
Generally, you will need to add three times as much fresh herbs as dried herbs in a recipe. When using dried herbs, crush or rub them between your thumb and forefinger as you add them to the sauce. This releases the essential, inner flavor of the herb.
Without further adieu, here are the 10 herbs and spices every pizzeria should have on hand at all times for use on pizza or in a variety of pasta dishes:
Oregano and basil. These are two of the most important herbs used in a tomato-based sauce. Both are aromatics. Oregano adds a piquant flavor, while basil adds a fragrance and sweetness to the sauce. In combination, they are the ideal tomato sauce –– pizza or pasta –– enhancer.
Marjoram. This is a sweet-scented herb that is quite important in Mediterranean cooking. Sweet marjoram has a decidedly delicate flavor. Often, chefs will use oregano and marjoram interchangeably.
Garlic. This is another great sauce enhancer. Whether used fresh, sautéed, crushed or chopped, garlic adds its own unique flavor interest. Once again, though, use only garlic that is firm, not soft or going bad (if you see a green shoot in the middle of the clove, it means that the garlic is starting to age, but you can still use it, just remove that sliver of green first.) I rarely use garlic powder; it imparts a bitter, heavy aftertaste to a sauce.
Bay leaf. This works well with tomatoes but should be used with considerable care because of its intense flavor. Too much bay leaf may overpower the other flavors in the sauce.
Parsley. This is definitely an unsung herb, but it must be the fl at-leaf or Italian type. Curly parsley is fi ne as a garnish, but that’s about as far as it goes in my flavor book.
Red pepper flakes (crushed chilies). This is the sauce enhancer to use when a spicy heat effect is desired. Use according to taste to spice up a pizza or pasta sauce (linguine with clam sauce, for example).
Black pepper. Here again it’s all about freshness. Ground black pepper that has been sitting in a can for months and months is, well, black — but it’s not pepper (a lot of what it did have for flavor went south). Grinding peppercorns into a sauce or on a salad is the right way to go.
Capers. Capers packed in brine are the best kind to use, but rinse them under cold water before adding them to a sauce or dish of any kind. Capers are practically indispensable to a spicy red sauce.
Thyme. This is an interesting all purpose herb. It has a strong, pungent flavor, so use with restraint (a little goes a long way). I find that thyme adds a lot of interest to certain pasta dishes like linguine with clam sauce (red or white). Also, if you are doing a clam pizza, try using thyme to round out the flavor profile.
The Sauce is Boss
I adapted this sauce from the basic flavor toppings used in the making of a classic Margherita sauce. The end result is an eminently flavorful pasta dish that also just happens to sport the colors –– green, white, and red –– of the Italian fl ag. This sauce works great with a shorter cut of pasta — penne, rigatoni, farfalle –– and is enough for about 6 servings.
1 large clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 cups canned plum tomatoes
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup torn fresh basil leaves
1 pound fresh mozzarella, chopped coarse
Enough cooked pasta for 6 servings (figuring 2-3 ounces uncooked per serving)
In a large heavy sauté pan, sauté the garlic in the oil over moderate heat for two minutes. Put the tomatoes and their juices into a mixing bowl and crush them with your hands. Add the tomatoes to the saucepan. Add salt and pepper. Bring the sauce to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook the sauce at a steady simmer, stirring occasionally for 20-25 minutes (keep crushing the tomatoes with a fork or heavy spoon to form pulp) or until the sauce has reduced to about 2½ cups.
Add the basil to the sauce and stir to combine. Divide the pasta among heated pasta serving bowls. Ladle some of the sauce over each serving. Sprinkle an equal amount of fresh mozzarella over the sauce. Serve at once. Pass grated Parmesan cheese separately for additional flavor.
The Secret Weapon
If I have any secret sauce ingredient to speak of, it would be olive oil. I like to swirl a tablespoon or two into a sauce about 10 minutes before the sauce is ready to come off the heat. Extra-virgin is always my fi rst choice, as it adds a fruitiness to the sauce that is very appealing. Ditto for a drizzle of olive oil over a pizza (especially if the pizza is topped with arugula or other greens).
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.