Herbal Lore: From The Kitchen
It seems like that for all of us, once we reach a certain age we start recognizing just how many of our “old ways” are being lost to history. I know this is not exactly a new trend, or one that has occurred only over the last hundred years or so, but has likely occurred in every generation of humans to exist since the dawning of self awareness. I think our only effective means of defeating this, is for us to pick up those dropped balls when we find them and pass them down to others in a younger generation. In fact this blog post was inspired by just such a conversation with a fellow patron at a local coffee house a few evenings ago. I was explaining to her that the way I made my soup stock was somewhat like making an herbal infusion. By simmering freshly minced herbs and crushed spices in a pot of broth to draw out the individual flavors and mingle them in the stock. I could tell by the look on her face that I was going to have to elaborate on things more.
I suppose since I have owned and used them for more than 30 years, the term mortar and pestle is a natural one for me. With all of the cooking I do, they are simply an organic part of my day to day life. However the more often I explain my recipes, the more I realize they do not seem so common place for the rest of the world. Yet if you think outside the box for a moment, you just may see you have a few alternative mortars and pestles right there in your kitchen drawers. At just a glance at this image you may think it's simply a knife for cutting and a spoon for dipping, but there is potential for more uses than just the obvious ones if you look a little closer. It's a good thing I learned this years ago before I owned my first dedicated mortar and pestles, because with all the moving around this year mine are still in a box somewhere still waiting to be unpacked..
The bowl of the dipping spoon actually makes a good improvised mortar, and the handle of this particular knife, a Fiddleback Gaucho model and one of my favorite knives to use in food prep, makes a nice pestle in a pinch. There are often other options available in the average kitchen as well. The round handles of some wooden spoons can serve as a pestle if needs be. In some cases I have simply used two metal spoons, a larger one for the mortar and a smaller one for the pestle. This technique adds a whole new dimension to the phrase spooning.
Since the whole point of this exercise is to draw out and mingle the flavors of the individual spices, I usually grind multiple dried herbs and spices together rather than doing them individually. In this instance I have combined Green Pepper corns, Mustard seeds, Fennel seeds, and dried Rosemary leaves. I have found over time that Green Pepper corns work well using the mortar and pestle method, they tend to be softer than the black ones. In my experiences the black ones are much more efficiently done in a pepper mill, because when doing them in a mortar and pestle it is best to do just a couple or few at a time. In large quantities they have a tendency to go shooting out of the mortar when the pressure is applied.
For soup making, this doesn't have to be a long, drawn-out, and time consuming process. It isn't necessary to grind all of the spices into a fine dust. The primary goal is really just to crack open the hard outer hulls, and crush the inner seeds a bit. This allows the broth access to the softer insides, so that it can pull out the flavor. In the above image you can see how the spices are only very coarsely ground. It is not shown here, but rubbed sage is also always added into my chicken soup stock. I feel they go very well together.
Once you have the fresh herbs minced and the spices crushed, you just rake and tilt them in the broth. The broth can be store bought or home made. This is some I made from boiling some chicken. I prepared the herbs as the poultry simmered, then added them after the meat was removed. That way the herbs simmer while the meat cools, is boned, and is being cut to size for the soup. Being as they are all dried and lighter than the water, they will float at first. Even after you stir them into the broth. Just bring the broth to a very low and gentle rolling boil, and simmer it for a while, and then they will absorb water, gain weight, and settle. Then the mixture will want stirring occasionally, to keep any of the pieces from staying on the bottom, to keep them circulating through the liquid.
Once you have the herbed broth made, you can start adding the other ingredients of the soup and seasoning to taste. I prefer to work my way from the hardest and longest to cook ones to the softest and quickest to cook with some time in between. So the carrots and potatoes go in first, then the mushrooms and onions, then the pasta and meat which are already cooked, the pasta having been boiled in another pot and then drained and rinsed before being added. Thus the potatoes absorb some of the herbal flavors and salt and become less boring.
As you can see, the particles of the herbs float on top of the broth and coat the other ingredients of the soup. So the visual texture is a feast to the eyes, and the aromatic scent uplifts the spirit at the same time the soup itself is providing nourishment. For you see from my perspective, dining is not only about temporarily filling a hole in our gullet, it is about nourishing ourselves: mind, heart, and body, soul and all.