Mysterious Herbs Inspire Culinary Adventures

Nov 9, 2012

Some of America's favorite international cuisines—Thai and Indian come to mind—are defined by the variety and intensity of their herbs and spices. We love our herbs and spices, and, if the blogosphere is an indication, they are no longer confined to restaurant kitchens.

In fact, herb gardening is hotter in the U.S. than ever before. Back in 2007 a National Gardening Survey estimated that 13 million households grew herbs and spent a record high $451 million doing so.

Chef Paul Wooten, a lead culinary instructor at Culinard, the Culinary Institute of Virginia College in Mobile, Alabama, knows his herbs and spices. But he started wondering about all those herb growers and their increased attention to everyday cooking with essences that are, in many cases, as old as recorded time.

"The chemicals that create the aroma of herbs and spices are volatile; that is, they're small and light enough to evaporate from their source and fly through the air, which allows them to rise with our breath into our nose, where we can detect them," said Chef Wooten. "But when you heat them, the herbs and spices liberate more of their aroma molecules, so their aroma fills the air."

Early cultures knew nothing of molecules or evaporation. They used herbs and spices for their magical aromas, which became important in sacrificial fires, religious ceremonies and offerings to the gods. (Now I understand why I feel so close to heaven when I'm near the kitchen of an Indian restaurant.)

Wooten

Understanding this link with a mysterious culinary past, Chef Wooten, who previously served as executive chef at some of Atlanta's top restaurants and helped Emeril Lagasse open his Gulf Coast Fish House in Biloxi, recently had the chance to not only talk herbs and spices with more than 100 herb gardeners, but to cook for them as well.

The occasion was a seminar, "Classic to New Age: Culinary Adventures with Herbs," sponsored by the Gulf Coast Herb Society of Mobile. In addition to lecturing about various herbs and spices, Wooten, along with six student volunteers from Virginia College in Mobile's Culinard cooking program, prepared a simple but sumptuous menu for the group: Mediterranean Cuscus Salad (including mint, basil, thyme, oregano, chives and parsley), Summer Roll with Shitake Mushrooms, Fresh Gulf Crab and Cucumber Cilantro Sauce (with mint, basil, and red peppers), and, for dessert, Orange Panna Cotta with Lavender Essence.

"I think learning something new about the food you enjoy is a good way to increase your enjoyment of it," said Wooten. "Also, I loved that our students from Culinard had the opportunity to help. It's not only real–world work experience, but they got to see how passionate people who grow food can be about eating it."

Staff and students at Culinard in Mobile also provide annual volunteer cooking services for local charities such as Ronald McDonald House and Girls Just Want to Have Fun.

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