Add flavor and flair with herbes de Provence

I love herbs. Fresh or dried, they are an instant way to boost flavor without adding fat or salt. Their varieties and flavors baffle the mind, and they can perk up dishes ranging from the simplest eggs to the finest steak to ice cream and hundreds of foods in between.

One of my favorite herb combinations is one I only recently discovered. It was love at first taste, and now I use it on everything from seafood to spaghetti: herbes de Provence, named after the southern region in France.

These herbs, sometimes labeled “herbs from Provence,” are dried and can be found bagged or bottled with others in supermarkets or even stores like Target. Herbes de Provence are a blend of herbs, but like so many other creations in cooking, the combination creates a culinary synergy that’s magic in your mouth.

Herbes de Provence generally are a mix of dried thyme, basil, marjoram, savory and fennel. Some blends contain additional herbs such as lavender, rosemary and parsley. Bottles cost anywhere from a few dollars for a house brand like Target’s Archer Farms (it’s quite good) to nearly $20 for “gourmet” versions found at specialty retailers and online.

You can also easily make your own blend, but you may end up paying more because you’ll have to buy a quantity of each individual herb. Still, if you already have a bevy of dried herbs you need to use, or just like to experiment with your own blends, begin by mixing about 1 tablespoon of each ingredient listed above or a combination of them in a bowl. Then all you have to do is store it in an airtight container and it will be ready when you are.

Like other herbs, they will best flavor food when used in the latter or last stages of cooking. If you use them early in a recipe that takes hours, the herbs can end up overpowering the dish, or making it bitter if too many are used. You can also sprinkle herbes de Provence on meats or fish that are headed for the grill or oven, or simply on top of a ripe tomato that has been drizzled with good olive oil and salt.

I encourage you to experiment. Buy a bottle for a few bucks and use as much or as little as you want, starting on a food that is already familiar to you. I think you’ll find yourself reaching often for herbes de Provence for their magical ability to flavor food without added salt or fat, not to mention its green visual appeal. It gives that adage “season’s greetings” a whole new meaning.

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