November 24, 2017   - Vol. IX No. 24
Herbs and Spices: Giving Regional Identity
At one of the many wonderful meals during Oldways’ 1996 First Barcelona Congress on the Mediterranean Diet, the caterer cleverly scattered fresh rosemary twigs on the floor, so that as guests moved about the room, enjoying the bounty of Catalan cuisine, the earthy, piney aroma of rosemary filled the air. The international gathering was designed to review and update the consensus among the world’s nutrition scientists on the many health qualities of the Mediterranean Diet. The rosemary, as it was crushed under the soles of so many party-going shoes, reminded everyone that the meeting wasn’t just about lipids and Venn diagrams, but about real ingredients that spoke to the region and culture.

Rosemary is a favorite ingredient not only in Catalonia and the rest of Spain. Hearty rosemary thrives all over the Mediterranean, so it makes sense that this herb thrives in most of the region’s cuisines as well. Olives or almonds, respectively marinated or roasted with fresh rosemary, are transformed by herbs into irresistible snacks found on tables throughout the Mediterranean. Herbs can also make smaller, healthier portions of meat more satisfying. For Greek and Turkish kebabs, small cubes of lamb and chicken are often marinated in rosemary and other ingredients, then skewered on rosemary twigs and grilled for even more flavor in a smaller bite.

While rosemary plays a key role, the list of Mediterranean herbs is long, with other heavy lifters including basil, thyme, parsley, and oregano. You’ll find dried herb mixes featuring the flavors of the Mediterranean in the spice aisle of most any supermarket. Look for “Italian Seasoning,” a blend of rosemary, oregano, marjoram, thyme, basil, and sage or “Herbes de Provence,” a combination of bay leaf, thyme, rosemary, oregano, marjoram, and lavender. You may also find Greek blends, featuring herbs and spices such as basil, oregano, cinnamon, black pepper, parsley, rosemary, dill, marjoram, thyme, and nutmeg.

The rule of thumb for dried herbs is to use them at the beginning of a recipe to allow time for them to release their flavor, while fresh herbs are added at the end, as their flavors “pop” more quickly. Since dried herbs have a more concentrated flavor, you’ll want to use only one-third as much if a recipe calls for fresh herbs and you’re substituting dried herbs instead. For example, if a recipe calls for one teaspoon of fresh thyme, you can use 1/3 teaspoon dried thyme instead.

Herbs are the leaves of a plant. Spices, which are also important to Mediterranean cuisine, come from the dried seeds, berries, roots, and bark of a plant. Common Mediterranean spices include cumin, coriander (cilantro seeds), cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and cayenne. Like herbs, spices turn up the volume on flavor. In North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean, spice shops are filled with barrels and baskets of aromatic and colorful displays of spices. Most shop owners prepare their own blends including ras al hanout , which means “top of the shop.” Ras al hanout refers not to the ceiling of the shop, but rather the shop keeper’s best, proprietary blend — a blend that might contain a traditional twelve spices, or as many as forty.  Za’atar is another spice blend from the Eastern Mediterranean that is rising in popularity because of its earthy, tart flavor; it’s primarily a mix of thyme, sesame seeds, and sumac (a dried edible berry, not the poisonous plant).

Storing Herbs and Spices
How long dried herbs and spices last is a frequent question that’s a little tricky to answer. It depends on how they are stored and how old they were when purchased. Since it’s hard to know how long a bottle has been on a supermarket shelf, a good rule of thumb is to use your nose to check the spices in your cupboard periodically. Open your dried oregano, for instance, and take a whiff. Does it smell like oregano? Crush a bit between your fingers. Now does it? If not, your herb or spice has lost its flavor and it’s time to replace it. Dried herbs and spices should be stored in glass jars in a cool, dark place. Plastic bags allow air in and the more exposure to air, the more flavor they lose.

Many of our Oldways partners and friends have sage (pun intended) advice on how to incorporate more herbs and spices into your Mediterranean repertoire. One particularly good reference is chef Ana Sortun’s  Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean .

We have also gathered some tips and charts on how to get more Mediterranean herbs and spices into your pantry, not just for the flavor boosts but also for their many surprising health benefits. Check out these related Oldways resources:

Click on a title or photo below to go to the recipes.

A twist on the traditional burger that is sure to be a crowd pleaser! Form falafel dough into a patty, cook until golden brown and serve on a bun with lettuce, tomato, onion, and tzatziki sauce.

Recipe and photo courtesy of Grecian Delight .

Israeli salad can accompany any meal, including breakfast! It’s simple to make and can be adjusted to your preference: dice the cucumbers and tomatoes to the size you like, and add olives, beans, or feta cheese, for example.

An Oldways recipe and photo.

This dip is a unique and delicious alternative to hummus. Although it’s Mayan in origin, it uses common Mediterranean ingredients, showing how good ideas echo across cultures! Try it with cut veggies or pita wedges for an appetizer or snack.

An Oldways recipe and photo.
Fresh Fridays is a bi-weekly celebration of Mediterranean eating and living. We hope our Friday recipes will remind you just how easy and delicious eating the Mediterranean way can be.