Herb or spice?

When is a plant a herb and when does it become a spice? Some plants can even be both herbs and spice.

Both herbs and spices can be spicy and are added to enhance flavour to cuisines. Generally herbs are used fresh or dried and arise from the foliage or flowers of herb plants. Spices are derived from whole or powdered seeds, roots or bark of food plants and herbs. They are usually used in dried form.

Some herbs offer double use… with their foliage being useful in cooked and cold dishes, followed by spicy seeds or roots later in the season. These plants really earn their space in our gardens producing plenty of interesting flavours for cooking.

Here are some that I really enjoy using.

Dill. Image: Barbara Segall

Dill (Anethum graveolens) is a hardy annual with delicately flavoured, finely cut leaves with clusters of yellow flowers in summer. It does best on well-drained soil but in hot summers and dry weather it goes to seed quickly. So I like to sow it little and often, so that there is a continuity of foliage through the summer. When it does flower and go to seed, I snip the flower heads off and let them dry in brown paper packets or in colanders on the windowsill.

The leaves are traditionally used with smoked salmon or any fish dish, but they will also enliven a salad with their aniseed flavour.  Some varieties are noted as being particularly good for leaf production such as ‘Sari’.

The seed, ground, is a good substitute for salt and I use it in chutneys and for pickling onions and gherkins.

Fennel. Image: Martin Mulchinock

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) comes in two colour-ways, a bright and fresh green and a lovely rich bronze. The leaves are great as flavouring for soups and salads, and partners for fish dishes. Fennel seed is aromatic and has an aniseed flavour. I use it in pickling and to make a spicy tea. They are also good in Asian-themed cooking.

Fennel is a perennial that dies back in winter and shoots up again in spring. I pick leaves as and when I need them during the season, and harvest the seed in autumn when they are ripe.

coriander seed drying
Coriander seed drying. Image: Barbara Segall

Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) is a herb that I used to dislike. Some people actually have a gene that disposes them to find coriander quite repulsive. Fortunately, my dislike is not genetic, so I am thrilled that I have come to enjoy it so much. It is a short-lived annual that goes to seed swiftly in hot, dry conditions. So once again I make several sowings of coriander. I start to sow the seed in spring in light well- drained soil.

Its toothed, delicate foliage is packed with flavour but if you are using it in cooked dishes, always add it towards the end of the cooking time. It will add a real punch to a salad and is often used to flavour hot and spicy dishes.

The bead-like seeds are delicious, crushed and stir-fried with vegetables and in cooked meat dishes. Stir-fried, sliced mushrooms with crushed coriander seed is one of my favourite vegetable sides. Pick the seed heads before they are fully ripe and dry them in a warm, airy site where they will ripen. I store them in airtight jars, once I have cleaned them and rubbed off any chaff.

Caraway flowers. Image: Barbara Segall
Caraway flowers

Caraway (Carum carvi) is a biennial herb producing feathery foliage in the first year and flowering in its second year, when it produces a crop of black crescent-shaped seeds. The foliage, like that of dill and fennel, is aniseed in flavour and useful in salads and in marinades. The small white flowers, clustered on the top of the flower spikes, are attractive in themselves but it is the seeds that follow that are the spicy prize offering of this herb. The aniseed bite transforms baking, bread-making and biscuits and they are used to flavour Middle Eastern dishes. They are also used in the production of the liqueur Kummel.

sweet cicely seeds
Sweet cicely seeds. Image: Barbara Segall

Sweet Cicely (Myhrris odorata) is one of the prettiest perennial herbs in the garden. Its fern-like soft foliage appears in early spring just in time to team up with early rhubarb harvests. I use handfuls of leaves in a little water and freshly squeezed orange juice to barely cook rhubarb straight from the garden. I never add sugar as the sweet cicely foliage does the trick in reducing the sharp acidity of rhubarb. The foliage is also good in soups and stews. I think its delicate heads of white flowers are attractive, but it is best to cut them back and prevent it seeding. This keeps flavour in the leaves and the plant then continues to produce fresh new foliage.

After flowering the leaves have less flavour and the massive seed heads turn black as they ripen. They taste of aniseed or liquorice and can be used as sweet substitutes, as they once were in Tudor times. The roots are also useful boiled and then seasoned with oil and vinegar.

Nasturtium. Image: Barbara Segall

Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) is useful if you need to avoid salt and pepper. The leaves add a peppery taste to salads and make a good foil to soft cheeses. The flowers are also edible, although they need to be thoroughly checked for lurking insects. I use flowers and leaves in salads (variegated white and green leaves add an extra visual zing), and often use the flowers as a colourful envelop to enclose a mouthful of soft cheese.

The plants are decorative in the garden, trailing and spreading where they like and they are good in hanging baskets.

The seeds are useful in pickling and as substitute for capers. If you are using them to make capers, collect them when they are green and keep them in a brine solution for 24 hours. Drain and pour sufficient hot, spiced vinegar to cover the nasturtium seeds. Let the liquid cool before bottling.


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