Whoa, I am about to step into a hornets nest here! As soon as I make a suggestion I know that I will offend some purist or other category of cook/chef type with my total ignorance of the subject and pronouncements of well that is a crazy combination etcetera. The fusion cooks out there do not care if an herb or spice is supposed to go together or not, they just do it and if it works, OK! Some chefs are so proud of their combination’s that they will not ever even tell you what they put into their concoction’s, so while it may taste good or bad depending on your assessment, you will never know what is in it.
“I would tell you what I used but then I would have to kill you”
So what are you going to do with an attitude like that? Move on and stay out of the line of fire I guess. I have had to learn the hard way about herbs. Just use too much of a certain type in a soup or sauce and the herb itself will let you know in a hurry. The second thing to be aware of is that your taste is simply that; your taste. The fact that it appeals to you does not mean that it will appeal to others. So the best way I have found to deal with herbs and spices is to decide which of them I need to be very careful about using, especially in large quantity.
Case in point, Mole is a fantastic Mexican dish, it has lots of subtle flavors between the various pepper types and the herbs and spices used to make it. One of the main spices is Cinnamon. A little cinnamon goes a long way and many of the mole’s that I have tasted are absolutely overboard on the cinnamon side. I have been guilty of doing that very thing.
Here are some herbs and spices to be used carefully. Heading up the list would be the peppers of all varieties. Black pepper and it’s cousin white pepper, cayenne, red pepper flakes, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg are all very powerful and too often over used. (When mashed potatoes burn your mouth; somebody got carried away with white pepper) They all have a good place but use them until you can just sense their presence unless you are trying to deliberately do a “hot” dish like Cajun.
Green herbs are a different type of animal. Some of them are also overpowering when used in quantity. A few of them like thyme and basil and savory can be used by the handful without much negative effect whereas too much oregano or rosemary will instantly fill your mouth with a bitter alum sort of taste. Some of the green herbs are best as flavoring agents all by themselves and some work in combination better than others.
Tarragon and mint are strong enough to stand out and overpower their competitors when used in combination’s, you can do it successfully but you need to be careful with the amounts that you use. For a good spring roll, mint and cilantro work in combination splendidly, but too much mint will overpower the cilantro and make the whole thing taste funny.
Remember also that the tastes that you are seeking are modified by the other ingredients you are using. The onion, garlic and herbs are subdued by a strongly flavored game or roast of venison or mutton while that same amount of herb would destroy the flavors of a mild fish. The whole point to using herbs and spices is to add subtle flavor to the item that you are cooking; not to overpower it.
So how do you learn to cook with herbs? Go out there and start! Adopt an herb of the month and try it in various dishes. Cook some plain white rice with a small amount of different green herbs each time. Taste it. Does the thyme flavored rice remind you of chicken? Does the smell of oregano as it cooks into your rice remind you of something Italian? or Mexican? Try some fresh basil mixed into your next batch of sauteed bay scallops, with a little heavy cream, Voila! “saveur magnifique.” The best way is to experiment with the known recipes and soon you will know what quantities to use and how to combine them. Also you will begin to recognize that certain cultures seem to characterize their foods by the spices and herbs that they use, so you can begin to duplicate those tastes by the herbs that you use.
Two closing points here. Fresh herbs are generally stronger than dried herbs so it takes less of them to achieve the same flavors. Secondly dried herbs loose their flavor over time so buy them in small quantities and use them up or replace them yearly. When you find your favorites, which you will soon enough, you might want to consider growing your own in an indoor herb garden, now that is truly fresh.
By the way I neglected to clarify; spices are usually the seeds or bark and herbs are the tender leafy parts of the plant. Some herbs come with the woody parts included such as thyme and rosemary. For those, you can use the whole stem in stews or stocks, but you will want to discard them before serving.