Herbs: the unsung heroes behind memorable meals
“Are you going to Scarborough Fair – parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme?” – Simon and Garfunkel.
Now that Spring has (seemingly) sprung on the Highveld, gardeners everywhere are emerging from their horticultural hibernation, and weighing up priorities for the new growing season. To me, this has always been a no-brainer. Since I am more of a cook than a gardener, getting my herb garden running at full capacity is the main order of business during early Spring. Cooking without fresh herbs is like flying an F15 simulator – you go through all the right motions, yet in your heart you know that it wasn’t the Real McCoy. The herbs I try and get going first are the following:
Ocimum basilicum is one of the aristocrats among herbs, and has featured in the lore and legend of many ages and cultures. In the summer, the intoxicating scent of fresh sweet basil fills produce markets, and its brief season should be fully enjoyed. Though basil makes an excellent dried herb whose sweet-and-spicy flavor is welcome in many dishes, the result is very different when using it fresh. Fresh basil is the main component of pesto sauces and has a special affinity with tomato-based pasta sauces and fresh tomato salads (as in the classic tomato, mozzarella, and basil salad). Dried basil is good in soups, marinades and vinaigrettes, grain dishes, herb breads, and omelets. It may also be used to flavor tomato sauces when fresh basil is unavailable.
2. Bay leaves
The whole, dried leaves of the bay laurel tree (Laurus nobilis) are most useful in long-simmering recipes, such as soups and stews, where their flavor has a chance to permeate. Its warm, somewhat “woodsy” character lends itself especially well to recipes that contain tomatoes, beans, corn, and potatoes. As the name implies, the tree and its fronds have been associated with excellence since ancient times. Among its many uses is its central role in the traditional French bouquet garni. Because it releases its flavour slowly, it should only be used in dishes that cook for an hour or more. Bay leaves must be removed before serving dishes they are used in, because while cooling down they give off a bitter taste.
Anthriscus cerefolium, sometimes called “garden chervil” (to distinguish it from similar plants also called chervil) or “French parsley”, is a delicate annual herb related to parsley. It is commonly used to season mild-flavoured dishes and is a constituent of the classic French herb mixture fines herbes, along with tarragon, chives, and parsley. Chervil is native to the Caucasus, but was spread by the Romans through most of Europe. It is used, particularly in France, to season poultry, seafood, young spring vegetables (such as carrots), soups, and sauces. More delicate than parsley, it has a faint taste of liquorice. Unlike the more pungent, robust herbs, thyme, rosemary, etc - which can take prolonged cooking - the fines herbes are added at the last minute to salads, omelettes, and soups.
4. Chives (French)
Allium schoenoprasum is a member of the lily family, whose relatives include onions, scallions, and garlic. Fresh chives are easily grown in the kitchen garden - in fact, they proliferate like mad. The flavor of French chives is very much akin to that of scallions, yet more delicate, which makes them delightful to use raw when available fresh. Fresh chives add flavor to baked potatoes, potato salads, and in fact, most any fresh vegetable salad. Use dried chives in dips, dressings, soups, and sauces, where they will have a chance to reconstitute. My favourite use of chives is along with fresh white asparagus; I simply steam the asparagus and cover them with warmed double cream, after which I sprinkle them with a generous helping of chopped fresh chives.
5. Chives (Chinese)
Allium tuberosum is an Asian relative of the onion, native to the Himalaya foothills. It is cultivated in many places and naturalized in scattered locations around the world. In the north-eastern states of India, it is grown and used as a substitute to garlic and onion in cooking. It has a distinctive growth habit with strap-shaped leaves, unlike either onion or garlic, and straight thin white-flowering stalks that are much taller than the leaves. The flavour is also more like garlic than French chives. Both leaves and the stalks and immature, unopened flower buds are used as flavouring in a similar way to chives, spring onions or garlic and are used in stir fries. In China, they are often used to make dumplings with a combination of egg, shrimp and pork.
6. Cilantro (Coriander)
Coriandrum sativum is a herb that is never available in dried form, since its pungent flavor and aroma seem to dissipate almost entirely when dried. Sometimes referred to as Spanish or Chinese parsley, this is the same herb whose seeds are the spice coriander. Fresh cilantro is becoming more widely available in produce markets. Italian parsley is often recommended as a substitute for cilantro, although the effect is not the same at all. Cilantro has a unique flavor and aroma that some savor and others dislike. It is used widely in Latin American, Indian and Asian cuisines. Cilantro adds an unusual zest to pinto bean stews, Spanish-style tomato sauces for enchiladas, tacos and the like, ceviche, curried vegetable stews, and Tom Yum soup.
7. Curry leaves
Murraya koenigii is a herb native to South Asia, unrelated to the ground spice mix called curry powder. They're an essential component of South Indian cooking, adding a subtle aroma to simple dishes and complexity to highly spiced ones. Once cooked, curry leaves are edible, though most people simply push them aside on the plate. Curry leaves are often available fresh at Indian markets, and freeze well—no need to defrost before cooking with them. Avoid dried curry leaves, which have no flavour or aroma. You can grow your own, either outdoors or in a large pot near a sunny window. Just be sure you're planting a curry leaf plant and not the unrelated curry plant (Helichrysum italicum).
Anethum graveolens is a member of the Apiaceae or celery family. It is an elongated, feathery annual plant that is a favorite kitchen-garden herb. The seeds are used in pickling – especially gherkins - and may also be used as a milder substitute for caraway seeds in breads or as a topping for potato, cabbage, and casseroles. Fresh dill is available for a few months out of the year, but may be hard to come by during the colder months. Dried dill is a fairly good standby for the fresh product when necessary. Fresh or dried, dill has a special affinity with tomatoes and cucumbers. Few summer salads are more refreshing then sliced cucumbers with natural yogurt and chopped dill. Dill is an excellent herb in hot and cold soups, and makes an offbeat addition to omelets.
Foeniculum vulgare is crunchy and slightly sweet, adding a refreshing dimension to Mediterranean cuisine. Most often associated with Italian cooking, be sure to add this to your selection of fresh vegetables from the autumn through early spring when it is readily available and at its best. Fennel consists of a white or pale green bulb, from which closely superimposed stalks sprout. The stalks are topped with feathery green leaves. The bulb, stalk, leaves and seeds are all edible. It is related to parsley, carrots, dill and coriander. Fennel's aromatic taste is unique, strikingly reminiscent of liquorice and anise, so much so that fennel is often mistakenly referred to as anise in the marketplace. Fennel is a match made in Heaven when served with salmon or sea bream.
Allium sativum is almost universally loved by good cooks of all cultures. It is a member of the lily family, and therefore related to onions, shallots and scallions. Garlic has long been esteemed equally for its medicinal properties and its culinary qualities. It features prominently in the cuisines of Italy, France, India, Mexico, the Orient and the Middle East. Fresh garlic is almost always preferable, and is used in meat dishes, salad dressings, marinades, garlic butter, curries and peri-peri sauces. Garlic powder is an acceptable substitute in breading mixes for frying foods or in blended dips, where the flavor of raw garlic may be too strong.
11. Lemon grass
Cymbopogan citratus is becoming increasingly popular with chefs the world over. It is a tropical plant that can reach a height of nearly 2m. It has a pleasant lemony aroma, and can be used in a number of dishes and beverages. I first experienced it as a flavourant in ice tea many years ago, and have since learnt to use it to add acidity to rich stews and oriental soups. Lemon grass has a subtle flavor than can be overpowered by other, more potent, herbs. Chopped stems can be used to add tartness to salads, and its leaves are often used to enhance the taste and flavor of rice and pasta.
Origanum majorana is a herb so closely related to oregano that the two share the botanical name origanum, which is from the Latin meaning “joy of the mountain.” Marjoram is slightly sweeter, yet somewhat sharper than oregano, so when the two are used interchangeably, marjoram should be used more sparingly. Use marjoram in conjunction with other dried herbs to flavor vegetable dishes, Italian-style tomato sauces, bean stews, pizza sauces, soups, grain dishes, and vinaigrette salad dressings.
Mentha spigata (garden mint) is but one of a family of highly aromatic herbs. The fresh scent and menthol flavor of the mints are delightful, and they are popular and prolific kitchen-garden herbs. In Indian cuisine, fresh mint is commonly used in chutneys and in the palate-cooling relishes known as raitas, to add a refreshing note. Fresh mint is also a standard ingredient in the popular Middle Eastern tabouli. In a pinch, use dried mint as a substitute for fresh in such recipes, but the effect will not be the same. There is no substitute for fresh mint in beverages or as a garnish for fresh strawberries or melons, fruit salads, and chocolate puddings.
Origanum vulgare, a close botanical relation to marjoram, has become internationally known through its use in popular Italian dishes such a pizza and spaghetti sauces. Oregano is a splendid kitchen-garden herb. Used fresh, it is especially nice in green salads and tomato salads. In dried form, it is a widely available, inexpensive herb useful in traditional Mexican, Italian, Greek, and Spanish recipes. It’s also a common addition to salad dressings and does much to enhance the flavor of soups, grains, bean dishes, and pasta sauces.
15. Parsley (moss)
Petroselinum crispum is one of the most commonly used fresh herbs, and another that just doesn’t translate well into dried form. Fortunately, fresh parsley is easy to grow on the windowsill and is also available inexpensively year-round, so there is little reason to buy this nutritious herb in dried form. The fresh, mild herbal flavor of parsley is welcome in many culinary fields, including salads and salad dressings, soups, grain and bean dishes, casseroles, omelets, vegetable dishes, and herb breads. When buying parsley, choose the Italian, flat-leafed parsley for cooking, since it’s more flavorful, and reserve the use of the curly-leafed parsley for garnishing.
16. Parsley (Italian or flat leaf)
Petroselinum crispum neapolitanum (Italian or flat leaf parsley) is a much more versatile herb than moss or curled parsley. In general, flat-leaf parsley has a more robust flavour, while the curly variety is associated with decoration. Some claim that curly-leaf parsley has no flavour or, conversely, that it tastes more bitter, but it really depends on the particular plant, its growing conditions, and age. Both kinds of parsley may be used in cooking and when substituting one for the other, taste to determine the flavour and adjust as desired. Think, too, about the texture that would work best in your dish. Finally, don't discard the stems, which have a stronger flavour than the leaves and can be used in a bouquet garni or added to homemade stock or a pot of beans.
Rosmarinus officinalis is an evergreen shrub with slender leaves and beautiful blue flowers. It has a well-known legacy in folklore as the herb of remembrance. You’ll certainly remember rosemary if you don’t use it sparingly, since its strong, piney flavour can be overwhelming. Rosemary is traditionally used to season lamb, chicken, and stuffing. In the vegetarian realm, it may be used to flavor vegetable stews, herb breads, and tomato soups or sauces.
Salvia officinalis is a small evergreen plant with a strong, complex taste is best known as a flavoring for stuffing and sausages.Salvia and "sage" are derived from the Latin salvere (to save), referring to the healing properties long attributed to the various Salvia species. When preparing foods such as tempeh or seitan, which are used as meat substitutes, seasoning with sage can add a meatlike sensation. Sage may also be used, rather sparingly, in salad dressings, grain dishes (try it on wild rice pilaf) and soups, particularly pumpkin or squash soups. Dried leaf sage is preferable to ground sage. In Italian cuisine, it is an essential condiment for Veal Saltimbocca and other dishes, and it is also great with fish. In British and American cooking, it is traditionally served as sage and onion stuffing, an accompaniment to roast turkey or chicken at Christmas or Thanksgiving. Despite the common use of traditional and available herbs in French cuisine, sage never found favour there.
19. Salad Burnet
Sanguisorba officinalis has a pleasant cucumber-like flavor, and – as the name implies – is a winner in most salads. It also adds a lot of punch to salad dressings, flavoured vinegar and cream cheese. It is a hardy perennial, and produces new green leaves throughout the year, even in areas with harsh winters. Because older leaves become stringy, it is important to ensure that you have ample young ones available. Prune the flower buds as they appear; this will rejuvenate the plant and ensure new growth. One of Burnet’s strong points is that it combines well with other herbs, especially rosemary and tarragon. It also adds an extra dimension to ice tea and punches.
20. Summer Savoury
Satureja hortensis is an annual plant, and has a milder, sweeter flavor than the perennial winter savoury. Savoury is a useful seasoning that imparts a subtle flavor that tastes like a cross between parsley and thyme. Use it wherever a mixture of dried herbs is called for (in salad dressings, herb breads, soups, and sauces) or as a milder substitute for thyme, oregano, or marjoram. Savoury is known traditionally as the bean herb, because its flavor is thought to have a special affinity with most beans. Try it in bean soups and stews.
Rumex acetosa is a perennial herb in the family Polygonaceae. It is a slender herbaceous plant, about 60 centimetres high, with roots that run deep into the ground, as well as juicy stems and edible, arrow-shaped leaves. The leaves, when consumed raw, taste like a sour green apple candy. Common sorrel has been cultivated for centuries. The leaves may be puréed in soups and sauces or added to salads. In Romania, sorrel is used to make sour soups, stewed with spinach, added fresh to lettuce and spinach in salads or over open sandwiches. Russians use it in green borscht, and in rural Greece it is used with spinach, leeks, and chard in spanakopita. In the Flemish part of Belgium it is called zurkel and preserved, pureed sorrel is mixed with mashed potatoes and eaten with sausages, meatballs or fried bacon, as a traditional winter dish.
Artemisia dracunculis is a highly sought-after herb best known for its role in making an elegant vinegar. It has a subtle sharp-sweet, anise-like flavour. Tarragon adds a distinctive touch to fresh green vegetables and green salads. Try sprinkling some on fresh peas, green beans, asparagus, or Swiss chard. Tarragon makes ordinary mayonnaise special and adds an unusual touch to omelets and tomato dishes. Tarragon is also widely used in the preparation of fish and chicken. One of my favourite condiments is Dijon mustard flavoured with tarragon. When buying plants or seedlings, make 100% sure that what you’re buying is the prized French (dracunculis) variety, and not the Russian (dracunculoides) one which is more robust but has very little flavor.
Thymus vulgaris is a popular herb related to the mints. Even when used sparingly, it imparts a vivid flavor and aroma. Thyme is an important seasoning in classic French and Creole recipes and is good used whenever a mixture of dried herbs is called for. It is a common component of both bouquet garni and herbes de Provence.
Soups, vinaigrettes, grain and bean dishes, corn dishes, and tomato sauces all benefit from the distinctive flavor of thyme. Depending on how it is used in a dish, the whole sprig may be used (e.g. in a bouquet garni), or the leaves removed and the stems discarded. Usually when a recipe specifies "bunch" or "sprig", it means the whole form; when it specifies spoons it means the leaves. It is perfectly acceptable to substitute dried for whole thyme, as it retains its flavour better than most herbs when dried. Leaves may be removed from stems either by scraping with the back of a knife, or by pulling through the fingers or tines of a fork.
24. Winter Savoury
Satureja montana is a member of the family Lamiaceae, native to warm temperate regions around the Mediterranean. It is a perennial plant growing up to 40 cm tall. The leaves are 1–2 cm long and 5 mm broad, and its flowers are white. In temperate climates it goes dormant in winter, putting out leaves on the bare stems again in the spring. Winter savoury has a strong spicy flavour, and it goes particularly well with lighter meats like chicken, rabbit or turkey, any type of mushroom, in white sauces and potato salads. Small amounts spice salads well. It has a rich herbaceous aroma when crushed. It has a strong flavour while uncooked, but loses much of its flavour under prolonged cooking.
25. African Wormwood
Artemisia afra (Wilde-als in Afrikaans) is named after the Greek goddess Artemis and its African home. This soft aromatic shrub is a popular medicinal plant in South Africa. It is a common species in South Africa, with a wide distribution from the Cederberg Mountains in the Cape, northwards to tropical East Africa and stretching as far north as Ethiopia. The oil in Artemisiaacts as a local anaesthetic for rheumatism, neuralgia and arthritis. Artemisia afra is the main active ingredient of the spirit liqueur Absinthe that attained notoriety from its excessive use and abuse. Absinthe was the drug of inspiration for painters like Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and Paul Gauguin, and the authors Ernest Hemingway, Jack London and Oscar Wilde amongst others. African Wormwood is still widely used today in South Africa by people of all cultures. The list of uses covers a wide range of ailments from coughs, colds, fever, loss of appetite, colic, headache, earache, intestinal worms to malaria.
So why not grow your own?
Growing your own herbs in pots is both easy and productive. Most herbs do exceptionally well in pots. You just need to get a few basics right. Simply apply the nine essentials below, and I can almost guarantee that you’ll get good results.
- Don’t overdo it. Keep your initial attempt manageable by opting for a few useful herbs. The “Magnificent Seven” are all easy to grow and make good beginner subjects. What’s more, they can be used in a variety of dishes and remedies. They are: basil, chives, mint, oregano, parsley, rosemary and thyme. And if you like fragrant herbs, consider sorrel and/or sage as well.
- Choose a nice sunny spot for your potted herbs. This will improve their flavour and nutritional value. In addition, they will be able to resist pests and diseases better. It doesn’t need to be full sun. Herbs in pots do better when they get a little shade. Try to find a spot that will get at least two hours of direct sunlight a day.
- Make sure that the containers you choose are deep enough (at least 30cm), and that there are sufficient drainage holes. Don’t line the bottom of the containers with small stones or gravel. This can hinder rather than help drainage. If you are concerned that the pots may ‘leak’, rather line the bottom with an old stocking or newspaper.
- A high quality organic potting medium is a must. Ask your local garden centre for a recommendation.
- To grow your own herbs from seed, or to start with seedlings, can be quite a lengthy and time consuming process. It is much easier to buy seedlings from your garden centre, and to transplant them into bigger pots.
- Try to resist the temptation to grow more than one herb in a small container. Just like humans, herbs don’t like overcrowding and they prefer familiar company.
- Water your herbs regularly, but do not over water! Herbs hate having wet feet. Don’t let them wilt, or suffer regular dry spells either. You must try to maintain a balance. Press your finger into the soil up to the first knuckle. If the soil feels dry, water the herb. If the soil is moist, wait until the next day to water.
- Use a good quality organic fertiliser and feed your herbs on a regular basis. Herbs grown in pots prefer a lower dose – about half the recommended strength – once a week. The nutrients in a water soluble fertilizer are easier for plants to ‘digest’, and it saves time as you can feed your plants whilst watering them.
- Use your herbs as much as possible and prune them regularly. This will encourage bushy growth.