It’s pretty common knowledge that here in the South college football dominates proceedings most autumn weekends. And one major aspect of life affected the most is wedding scheduling. To this point, I recently spent the weekend before football season at a couple of wedding receptions for some folks I know who wisely scheduled their (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime blessed events around a ritual--namely, a college football game--which repeats itself 12 times annually and will do so probably for centuries to come.
In all honesty, it wasn’t much of a competition as one of the receptions had a Mexican-themed feast that was one of the best meals I’ve actually eaten here in Birmingham (catered or otherwise), while the other was, well, way below par. I mean below par like Tiger Woods circa 2000. Playing your local municipal course. From the ladies’ tees. Now as I performed my mental, culinary autopsy on the weekend’s fare, it was obvious that one of the caterers was just a better chef than the other. But regardless of one’s culinary acumen, there are some choices cooks can make which can drastically elevate or (unfortunately) bring down the level of food that comes to the table. And one of the glaring differences between the two meals was the use of fresh herbs vs. dried herbs.
Personally, I think fresh herbs should go in everything. In fact, at the last restaurant where I worked, I don’t think there was one savory item that went out that didn’t have a fresh herb somewhere involved in the cooking process whether it was thyme in a vinaigrette, sage in a braise, parsley or chives to finish a plate, whatever. There’s a certain effect that most chefs strive for (no matter what their style of cooking): complex layers of flavor, liveliness on the palate, visual and flavor contrasts, to name a few. And for me, fresh herbs are a cheap and easy way to achieve a lot of these as well as elevate the level of just about anything that one cooks. Conversely, I can’t think of a single time or place (other than maybe a space station or Betty Draper’s kitchen) where it’s appropriate for dried herbs to turn up. OK. Certain bath salts, but that’s it.
For instance, at what we’ll call the “winning” event, there was this roasted pig served with a healthy amount of fresh cilantro which was unbelieveably bright on the palate. At my table words like “it’s not heavy at all” were being bandied about in large part due to the copious amounts of fresh cilantro and chives adorning said beast. Conversely, the “losers” had this Greek Salad that had been liberally sprinkled with dried oregano or Italian seasoning that was the height of mundane. Now you might think that comparing a roast pig to a salad may not be the most equitable contest, but as my wife of almost 10 years (Oct. 2000—‘Bama had a bye that weekend, thank you very much) will attest to, I absolutely love salads of all kinds. In fact, they are one of the few foods that I would say that I crave. Tomato and Mozzarella, Salade Niçoise, prepackaged Waldorf kit, or side Caesar: bring ‘em all on; I love a salad. Except a Greek Salad covered in dried herbs. Looking past the fact the someone actually took the time to locate 20 or so unripe tomatoes in late-summer Alabama, the industrial taste of the dried herb mixture was worse given that it actually made me begin to suspect with horror that some evil trickster might have developed a canned salad.
Bottom line here is this: herbs have an incredibly transformative effect on food, but they’re a bit like the Force. When used for good they are an extremely beneficial power in the culinary universe, but if you go over to the dark side with dried, the damage can be irreparable. I mean only an incredibly potent influence could make a pig that’s been in a smoky box all day taste fresh or make a bunch of raw vegetables taste like they came out of a machine press. And like I said earlier, fresh herbs are cheap and easy to work with. Furthermore, if you want to get super-frisky and start growing them yourself, even better. Again, nothing could be easier. Even I’ve had success with an herb garden, and I’ve never grown anything in my life except for hair and fingernails (and even a dead person can do that for a week or so). But even if you don’t grow them, most grocery stores carry a nice assortment and you can put the unused ones you buy in a little water on your windowsill or table or wherever and receive their aesthetic benefits for several days until you need them. Or just stick a little bowl of Italian Seasoning on the buffet, whichever’s easier.
Check out our online article, 11 Herbs Every Cook Should Use to get started.