Herbs and Spices: an Affair of the Palate

I love having the power at my fingertips to lead a potentially good meal around the corner to becoming even better, with simple touches of just the right herbs and spices! What’s the difference between the two, you might ask…is it just the form they’re in, whether fresh or dried? Actually, it has more to do with their origins.

In doing some research to refresh my memory, I was reminded that herbs come from the leafy, green parts of the plants, while spices are derived from the bark, stems, root or bulbs. I’m always surprised if a friend admits to not using many of either, since my over-the-top collection of the dried varieties boasts about 50 little bottles neatly arranged alphabetically. Sounds like a lot, I know, but they all get used, eventually.

Fresh herbs are my preference, but they don’t last very long from the grocery store, and chives is the only one I have luck with growing, long-term. I can keep rosemary, basil, sage and parsley alive for a while, either outdoors or in, but the time is limited. I have a growing penchant for the pungent ones that arrive at the stores in their own little tubes, mixed with a little oil, like ginger, cilantro and basil. You may want to try these, if you haven’t already.

The dried combinations available in the supermarkets are tasty, too, like Italian, Greek and Moroccan seasonings containing herbs and spices that naturally lend just the right touch to foods from those areas of the world. The concoction that I wouldn’t want to do without, though, is Herbes de Provence. The high prices sometimes hint at being imported directly from France, but don’t let them fool you. The less expensive brands in the plain plastic containers work just fine, or you can make your own blend. As Peter Mayle points out in his book, Provence A-Z, there are rules in place that assure the resulting “recipe” for mixtures actually bottled in France: 26%, each, of oregano, rosemary and savory, followed by 19% thyme and 3% basil. I also enjoy a bit of lavender thrown in!

While using a pinch of that favorite “French” concoction recently, my mind started wandering to what “Herbs of Michigan” would contain, leading me to think about which ones might be tied the most closely to regional foods from this state. Better yet, what about a mixture particular to the Upper Peninsula, called “herbs da U.P.”, if you will! I’m sure the combination could vary widely, since immigrants including Finnish, French Canadians, Swedish and Cornish traditionally came to this part of the country to find work in the mines. A specialty that comes to mind first is the Cornish pasty (pictured below), that meat pie so well-known in the upper reaches of Michigan. Many pasty (rhymes with “lastly”) recipes call for onion, tarragon and thyme, which could make an interesting dried blend.

Based on your location or cooking areas of expertise, you may already have your favorites. You could even bottle your own personal blends, to have ready and waiting as you don your apron! It would be great to hear from readers about their herb and spice preferences.

pasty

Parallels Between Gardening and Writing

                                   beans cropped

Upon returning from my wonderful week of visiting my daughters and their families in Texas, I was struck by how many similarities there are between gardening and writing. Although I don’t feel compelled to wear a sun hat and gloves while I write (I do sometimes turn on my sun box to help prevent SAD or wear my fingerless stretch gloves for comfort at the keyboard!), the two activities surprisingly have many things in common:

  • We get to make something out of nothing and play “creator”, carefully placing seeds and seedlings or germs of ideas to tend and grow.
  • As gardeners or writers, we see the products of our efforts. Without sufficient watering, coaxing, trimming, thinking, researching or writing, we can expect poor outcomes.
  • In either activity, we often have to be brutal to get the desired results. Plants sometimes require cutting back, digging up and moving to achieve optimum growth, or to prevent vegetation from overtaking other struggling plantings. Writing stories and books often involves scratching sentences, sections and chapters, or possibly throwing out entire works to begin anew.
  • Those of us who work with our hands in the earth to care for growing things or lovingly write stories, books or articles to portray the ideas in our minds can experience the same rewards upon fruition. The work is finished (for that moment). Leaves glisten, flowers sparkle and plants stand tall. Words flow smoothly across the pages, and the paragraphs express exactly what we saw in our minds’ eyes.

There were recognizable changes to observe in the garden when I returned home to Michigan. Clematis had exploded with dark purple blossoms the size of small dessert plates. Pots of nasturtiums merrily twinkled with trumpets of yellow, orange and red. Vines of pole beans wore blossoms and finally reached the apex of the sapling tee-pee supporting them. Bush beans hid tiny, baby beans peeking from among the leaves. The black-eyed Susan presented buds on the cusp of unfurling. I wish I could say that my writing indicated that much progress on my return, but it was a “vacation”, with a great deal to accomplish in a short time. Many of my experiences, observations, notes and memories will eventually creep into my stories and books I’m sure.

As for the plants like the delphinium and the lilies that are already beginning to die down for their annual rest, how does that relate to creations of the pencil, pen or keyboard? I think of that process as a connection to recharging our “writerly batteries”. We might feel compelled to set aside quiet time to people-watch, research, complete select training in the craft of writing or attend conferences.