It is the varying aromas and flavors that herbs and rhizomes possess which make them indispensable to our cooking. Their characteristics and flavor profile—from raw to cooked, infused and toasted-- are instrumental in highlighting our cooking. We are drawn to and inspired by these flavor enhancers: delicate, assertive, bracing, subtle, sharp, sweet, cleansing, rich, astringent.
The versatility and limitless possibilities of herbs and rhizomes is our inspiration and our deadfall. Flavors and colors clash. Aromas drown out each other. Using herbs in conjunction with themselves or other ingredients is a balancing act. We make mental notes of flavors which combine well as well as those that are less harmonious. For instance, we have been making rhubarb chutney with lime, ginger and star anise. The flavors blend and marry well. We use it with roasted and cold foie gras, sweetbreads, scallops, lobster and even pureed as vinaigrette. Its compatibility with rich ingredients led us to pair it with Pierre Robert—a triple crème bloomed rind cheese. The pairing failed miserably, the mistake was the ginger. Gingers sweet spice and heat along with its floral aroma clashed with the bloomed rind of the cheese. Yet, when we made the same chutney without the ginger and with the addition of golden raisins the chutney and the cheese were a delectable combination. Our tactile error has taught us to look at all flavors in a dish, not just the predominant base. Herbs can have the same effect of the ginger to that chutney—star one minute, scapegoat the next.
We use herbs singularly for intense effects, in conjunction with one other, and as an amalgam of flavor in herbal purees. The distinct flavors of lovage, parsley, chives and basil—to name a few herbs—all have the intensity to be in the forefront of a dish even as a background flavor. Lovage is intense and medicinal, but when combined with grapefruit and honey in a gastrique, and cooked into a jam its flavor mellows and ties the other flavors together. Freshly sliced parsley is clean and refreshing. It cleans and awakens the palate. Even in a lightly cooked form as in parsley puree or broth it accentuates the other ingredients around it.
Understanding and using herbs and rhizomes in varying forms allows us to expand and focus our own repertoire. These ingredients form their own culinary spectrum which we have the ultimate pleasure drawing from—enhancing and refining the food we cook.