Some savory alternatives to salt

`TAKE one bay leaf'' is a good rule of thumb for herb seasoning in soups, stews, casseroles, and similiar dishes. But cooks today want more from their herbs than a mild flavor boost for long-cooking dishes. Holly H. Shimizu, curator of the United States National Herb Garden in Washington, works every day planting, growing, and propagating hundreds of herbs of all kinds. She admits to taking her job home with her - that is, if you consider cooking with herbs as part of the job. At any rate, Ms. Shimizu has hundreds of ideas for using herbs in recipes and some that are especially good as salt substitutes.

Like many professional cooks, Shimizu usually prefers fresh herbs to dried in most recipes - ``Although there are some times when dried are better,'' she says. Certain herbs such as chives, parsley, French tarragon, mint, basil, lovage, and sorrel keep well in the freezer. Put them into individual plastic bags or small plastic jars and freeze them.

For those who can't grow their own, fresh herbs are getting to be more widely available in supermarkets across the country. Often expensive, you'll find thyme and oregano, tarragon, and several others carefully packaged in individual plastic bags by several companies.

``There are really no strict limits as to which herbs to use for certain dishes; a good guideline is not to mix two very strong herbs together,'' Shimizu advises. Here are some of her other tips:

One strong and one or more milder flavors will complement both the stronger herb and the food.

In general, the weaker the flavor of the main staple item, the lower the level of seasoning required to achieve a satisfactory balance of flavor.

Leaves should be chopped very fine, because the more cut surface exposed the more flavor will be absorbed.

Scissors are often the best utensil for cutting fresh herbs.

Be conservative in the amount of a herb until you're familiar with its strength. The aromatic oils can be strong and objectionable if too much is used.

The flavoring of herbs is lost by extended cooking. Add herbs to soups or stews about 45 minutes before completing cooking. But for cold foods such as dips, cheese, vegetables, and dressings, herbs should be added several hours or overnight before using.

Dried herbs should be kept in plastic bags, boxes, or tins, rather than cardboard containers. Keep out of sunlight because it will bleach both color and strength from the herbs. To avoid high humidity, don't place too near the stove.

Here are some blends that can be used as an alternative to salt. They can be placed in salt shakers and used at table or when cooking. Saltless Surprise 2 teaspoons garlic powder 1 teaspoon each basil, oregano 1 teaspoon powdered lemon rind or dehydrated lemon juice

Put ingredients in blender and mix well. Store in glass container, label well, and add rice to prevent caking. Pungent Salt Substitute 3 teaspoons basil 2 teaspoons each summer savory and celery seed 2 teaspoons each cumin seed, sage, and marjoram 1 teaspoon lemon thyme

Mix well, then blend to a powder in a mortar and pestle. Spicy Saltless Seasoning 1 teaspoon each cloves, pepper, and crushed coriander seed 2 teaspoons paprika 1 tablespoon rosemary

Mix ingredients in a blender. Store in airtight container.

Here are two recipes for herb blends that can be made in advance and kept on hand for use in cooking: Basic Herb Butter 1 stick unsalted butter 1 to 3 tablespoons dried herbs or 2 to 6 tablespoons fresh herbs 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice White pepper

Combine ingredients and mix until fluffy. Pack in covered container and let set at least one hour. Any of the culinary herbs and spices may be used. Herb Vinegar Heat vinegar in an enamel pan and pour into a vinegar bottle. Add one or several culinary herbs (to taste). Do not let vinegar boil. Let mixture set for two weeks before using. Any type of vinegar may be used, depending on personal preference.

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