The Only Shortcut to Becoming a Great Home Cook

I've mentioned quite a few times in my newsletters that there are no shortcuts to high quality and interesting cooking. Further, it doesn't have to be complicated and time consuming. You need:

  1. Good Recipes

  2. Fresh, High Quality Ingredients

  3. The Right Tool for the Job

  4. To Be Organized

  5. Develop Solid Fundamental Techniques

But I lied. There is one shortcut to good cooking. It's fast. It's easy. It's inexpensive. Anyone can use this shortcut, even a child. The shortcut is:

Use Fresh Herbs

You may say to yourself, "Of course that's true. I use fresh herbs whenever I cook nice or fancy." Or this might be news to you. Either way, you could also argue that fresh herbs are expensive and don't last long. Usually you only need a few sprigs and the rest goes to waste. So it's really just a way of buying yourself into being a better cook.

In some sense this is right. A bag like this one costs $2.79 at my local store.

Yet, a plant like this costs $2.49 at a comprehensive garden center (read: not Lowes), and will last months, even if you don't replant it.

And finally, an herb garden like this can support your kitchen for a decade, with only occassional replanting of perennials, and inexpensive plantings of annuals.

Here's what you need to know about fresh herbs:

  • Simply using fresh herbs where they are called for in a recipe will dramatically increase the flavor of a dish.

  • Using fresh herbs where dried are specified is typically done by increasing teaspoon quantities to tablespoon quantities.

  • There is not really a known exception where dried herbs are better than fresh. Dried herbs are often on supermarket shelves or in warehouses for YEARS. Since they are a necessary backup to fresh herbs, buy brands that have a production date or have the most color and character. Morton & Bassett makes high quality dried herbs.

  • Buy potted herbs at a garden center - even if you only use them for cooking and never plant them. The small container plant will stay alive in your kitchen, or on your back porch, for months. And it will KEEP GROWING, funny how they do that. This way you won't continually replace expensive store bought herbs.

  • Grow herbs in pots - most do well indoors. They just want light and a little (not much) water.

  • Plant an herb garden. In the south, rosemary, oregano, thyme, sage, marjoram all survive the winter. Chives, parsley, mint and cilantro do well in pots all year. Some annuals (cilantro) need to avoid the extreme southern heat, but are ideal in a garden in the north. Basil does well everywhere in the warm seasons. A Bay tree (starts as a twig) in an attractive pot can be taken in during a northern winter. I haven't bought bay leaves for 10 years now. Herb gardens need little water as most herbs thrive in dry soil, so it's a very simple gardening proposition.

I promised you a shortcut, and now it sounds like you have to plant a garden. Not really. You can simply grab a package of fresh herbs from the store, or pick up a simple plant and use it tonight in the kitchen. One of the best ways to use fresh herbs is on pasta. A mix of two or three finely chopped herbs, along with some olive oil, parmesan and S&P makes a surprisingly sophisticated dish, with lots of flavor. Last night I used thyme, tarragon and mint. It was delicious.

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