Three Summer Spices That Need Some Love
Do you have an herb or spice you just can’t stand? One that makes you immediately lose interest in a dish by hearing its name in the ingredients? Or one that you absolutely love, where its name will buy a commitment from a wavering decision? Today I want to talk about a few herbs and spices that I don’t think made either of those lists, a series of spices that have plenty of good uses, but are frequently relegated to a couple dishes, or just generally ignored. Like your friend Craig. He’s fine, but you just forget to invite him to things. You’re certain he HAS interests, but you can never remember them.
Why talk about these Craigs of the culinary world now? Well, because they’re all great in a couple summer dishes and treats, so this is their time to shine. Just like Craig and…damn it, I want to say…Frisbee Golf? Field Hockey? One of those.
Tarragon is a state of mind, not a shape.
There’s a scene in Elizabeth Bear’s Whiskey and Water where a character makes a ratatouille. It is, in my opinion, one of the better crafted scenes in literature I’ve read in a while. In a novel of warring archmages, three separate Satans, and Fae politics, one character makes a spell by making dinner. Because the point of his spell is to have dinner with his friend and help them relax. Because he thinks they’re stressed out. As he makes the dish, there’s some nice descriptions of the cooking process, and some nice character revelations, but there’s also a fun sequence where he considers each herb he puts in, and what it means in a magical sense. Basil, wards away scorpions, and generally resists evil magics; oregano for love and joy; Sage for wisdom, protection, and warding off grief
Behold, the mightiest of a wizard’s tools: his cauldron of power.
Now available at Walmart!
And tarragon, he notes, because it’s nice. That’s it. He states there is no magic to it, it is simply nice and sweet and underappreciated, and he likes how it makes the ratatouille taste. And for some reason, to me, that makes it the most important of them all. Anyone can throw a bunch of herbs with MEANING into a spell. But it takes a true wizard’s eye to note where you can add your own touch, make the thing yours. Because I am a giant nerd.
In any case, it’s given Tarragon renewed importance in my mind. And why shouldn’t it? Tarragon is technically, most closely related to sunflowers. But in terms of flavor, it hangs out with fennel and anise. Yes, Tarragontastes slightly of licorice. And I know many of you flinched. For many, Black Licorice isn’t their idea of a good taste, but I want you to quickly consider all the other uses of tarragon.
The French use it on roast chicken, and if you take your Steak with Béarnaise, tarragon is why you don’t take it with Hollandaise. It shows up in French omelettes, and works great with fish, tomatoes, carrots and strawberries. And if you look at that list, from steak to strawberries, I think you’ll see what I meant: Tarragon LOVES summer foods. And summer cocktails! The difference between a screwdriver and a Harvey Wallbanger is tarragon flavored liqueur.
Normal Jon: “Why did we put a picture here? You can’t even tell that’s a Harvey Wallbanger” Drunk Jon: “YOU REALLY SHOULDN’T HAVE LET ME DO THE PICTURES, DUMBASS.”
Tarragon is basically the hippie of the three spices/herbs I’m recommending, because it gets ALONG with most things. So why isn’t it more popular? Volatility and preconceptions. Dried Tarragon is a lot weaker than fresh, so people use it dried, and don’t taste a difference. So they think “oh, it wasn’t really adding much”, and put it out of their mind. Others ask “What’s this taste like again?” and recoil from the answer of “Licorice”. Which is a pity. But I’ve already spent more than half this post on one of the three, so I should move on.
Don’t Be A Dill-weed
Once, I made a jar of Dill Pickles that had three distinct waves of dill flavor. Like, in some foods, you get an initial taste, and then a second flavor, and then the after note. For these pickles, each stage was more dill. And therein lies the power and weakness of dill.
Dill is a powerhouse. There’s a fierceness to its grassy, sharp flavor. A mint-like pop of freshness, even in the dried seeds. And that makes it great at cutting fatty foods, making things like salmon feel lighter, and bringing a lightening tang to many potato salads, but that same power makes it something of a bully. And to many Americans, the first thought after “dill” is “pickle”, with the even more intense backing of brine behind it. So we think of It as an even bigger bully than it is.
This is the top flickr result for bullying. Do I not know what bullies are? I thought they were like, rude people who need to exert dominance, not meth-addicted cave trolls.
It’s at its best in summer dishes when you pair it with fat, OR with its own bite. Anything green or crisp you would toss in mayonnaise could use dill. Anything you would cut with lemon juice, dill will play with. Dill’s job is essentially to make the rich more palatable. The dill pickle slice is to the Reuben and the Pastrami sandwich what Pickled Ginger is to the Unagi and Maguro sashimi: the palate cleanser, the leavener. The pickle.
I once told my father he smelled by saying “Pap, u-rika!”
It’s rude to lie to the people, Title Jon. There’s no shame in saying there’s no good Paprika puns.
Anywho, I almost wanted to change this one, but I was persuaded otherwise. See, Paprika DOES see fairly regular use, especially by chefs in commercial kitchens. But if I asked ten random people on the street to name a dish that used Paprika, there’s a chance I’d get a very specific answer.
Satan-ized Chicken Ovals?
And the weird thing about that is the Paprika does very little in Deviled Eggs, because to get its flavor, it needs to be COOKED. In Deviled eggs, it’s almost exclusively there for color. Which is pretty common in American cooking: Paprika’s just there to make things look prettier. It doesn’t DO anything.
I blame this belief on the name. “Paprika” is too dainty a name. Too flighty and tinkling. “Paprika” is the kind of thing you give a toddler so it can learn what ‘spicy’ is with no risk of getting hurt. But this spice has other names. The Spanish call it “Pimentón”, (Pih-men-tOH-n) a name with weight, and power. Pimentón is dried, ground, red peppers. Would you sprinkle Pimentón over Deviled Eggs? Maybe, but you’d think twice about how much you shake. No wonder it’s the primary flavoring of “Patatas Bravas”, “Fierce” or “Brave Potatoes”: a potato salad imbued with the kick of pimentón.
More like Piment-HARD-ón, am I right? Shit, there’s still no good puns for this damn spice.
So help Pimentón kick some ass this summer. Toss it on pineapple or mango, and see where the heat takes the sweet. Heat it in oil and fry some real hot potato wedges. Make your summer movie night a blast by tossing your popcorn in Pecorino and Pimentón. And give some love to Tarragon and Dill as well to broaden your horizons.
Or, just make three different potato salads, since they all go with that. Jesus, that little root gets around.
NEXT TIME: JON BREAKS HIS FAST SUMMER SUNDAY STYLE.