Well it’s been close to two weeks since my last entry, but the delay was due to my learning the use, care and storage of some pantry basics for a well stocked kitchen from which is my
on-line cooking school from America’s Test Kitchen. Those basics included a section on herbs so I thought that since summer has ended and fall has begun, sharing a bit of basic knowledge about some commonly used herbs may be helpful to a beginner cook such as I am for those approaching holiday menus.
I thought it would be interesting to begin with a bit about how the use of herbs, not only for cooking, but for medicinal purposes, has been used for ages by mankind, too. I found this short timeline from,
to share with you:
- Herbs have been used since prehistoric times. In France, check out the Lascaux cave paintings which depict herbs. Carbon dating traces those drawings back to between 13,000 and 25,000 B.C.
- Ancient Romans and Greeks crowned their leaders with dill and laurel. The Romans also used dill to purify the air.
- In the 5th century B.C., Hippocrates, the famous Greek physician, listed approximately 400 herbs in common use.
- Around 65 A.D., Pedanius Dioscorides, a Greek physician serving with the Roman army, wrote “De Materia Medica,” in which he described the medicinal uses of many herbs. Even today, it is considered one of the most influential herbal books.
- In the Middle Ages, herbs were often used to help preserve meat as well as covering the rotting taste of meals that couldn’t be refrigerated. Herbs also helped mask the odors of people who bathed irregularly, if at all. This period was not favorable to the progress of herbs in medicine. In fact, the Catholic Church began burning herbalists, having associated them both with witchcraft and paganism.
- Many of the early settlers grew herbs for seasoning their food, as well as, for their medicinal properties. American Indians often used herbs for tanning and dyeing leather.
Hopefully some of you found that a bit interesting and the section on the Middle Ages didn’t gross you out too much! So let’s move on some of the most commonly used herbs in cooking.
, “There are over 100 different varieties of basil with such exotically enticing names as, Dark Opal Basil, Magic Blue Basil, Red Holy Basil and even, Christmas Basil. If only I had the time to experiment with those basil variations <sigh>!
Genoa Basil, is the type of basil that most home cooks may be used to using both fresh and dried because of its versatility. Because of those qualities, it has always been my “go to” herb, personally. This type of basil is characterized by its notable licorice and slightly citrus flavors.
When prepping basil, such as slicing & chopping, use a method known as, “Chiffonade” to avoid bruising the leaves. Chiffonade simply means taking basil leaves, stacking them, rolling them tightly and slicing them gently into thin strips with a chef’s knife. Then you’ll have perfectly cut strips of fresh basil leaves for your recipe.
Fresh raw basil works best in a recipe such as a Caprese Salad (which is a very easy salad consisting of slices of tomatoes and mozzarella, then drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and topped with strips of fresh basil) so you can taste the sweet, fresh, licorice flavor which complements the Caprese Salad. If you are preparing a long cooked recipe, such as tomato sauce, add basil towards the end of the cooking process since prolonged cooking with fresh basil will dull its flavor. You will also notice the perfume of the basil much more if you use that tip.
These wonderful, aromatic leaves are often used to flavor sauces, stews and marinades. They work well to flavor poultry, pork and beef, as well. Bay leaves can also be used to lend a wonderful fragrance and taste to cooking water when preparing pastas, potatoes and beans.
There are two types – Turkish and California bay leaves. Chefs and home cooks prefer the milder, but simultaneously complex flavoring that the Turkish variety lends to recipes than its Californian “cousin”. But use them sparingly – one or two leaves will tend to do in most recipes.
If you are using fresh and using them sparingly as mentioned above, bay leaves can be stored in your freezer. Simply place them in a Ziploc-type storage plastic bag; be sure to remove any air from the bag and the leaves will last in the freezer for you until called for in your next recipe.
Cilantro (also known as Chinese Parsley):
Well, I’m sure we’ve all heard that this could be called, “the love it or hate it” herb. It can be too pungent for some tastes and it has often been described as, “soapy” among other descriptions.
I found the following humorous exchange between Julia Child and Larry King from a 2002 CNN interview when Julia turned 90 years old (I have the full interview transcript if anyone is interested in reading it) on how she detested cilantro:
CHILD: “I don’t like cilantro.”
KING: “What is that?”
CHILD: “It’s an herb that it has a kind of a taste that I don’t like.”
The interview continues, of course, regarding other topics, but I found it interesting that Julia Child’s palate found cilantro unpalatable to her.
Now, on the flipside, the herb can be described as “fragrant,” with a “stimulating, piquant finish”, also. Cilantro leaves are indispensable for Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Indian, South Asian, Mexican, Latin American, Chinese, African and Southeast Asian cuisines.
Cilantro can be confused easily with flat-leaf parsley in appearance if not clearly marked by your grocer, so be sure to sniff carefully – your nose will DEFINITELY tell you the difference! Cilantro leaves are best when picked young. The stems are as flavorful as the leaves so they can be chopped along with the flavorful leaves for your recipes, thus leaving little to no waste.
And as mentioned when cooking with basil – freshly chopped cilantro works well when sprinkled over a salad or perhaps as a finish to a completed chili recipe; once a longer cooked meal involving cilantro approaches its finish, stir in the cilantro. That will bring out the flavor and fragrance of this unique and often maligned herb.
Literally translated, Oregano means, “Joy of the Mountains”. It is widely used in Latin, Mediterranean, and Mexican dishes with its strong flavor that has been described as having an “earthy” quality, but with a “peppery” finish to it. Mexican oregano has a flavor distinct from other varieties and is worth seeking out for Mexican recipes.
I think for some beginner home cooks this herb brings to mind using it in tomato sauces and especially using it when preparing pizza. Aside from that obvious pairing, oregano (either fresh or dried; check what your recipe calls for!) does work well beans, chicken, eggplant, fish, lamb, mushrooms, peppers, pork, potatoes and sausages.
When preparing to use oregano, keep in mind that fresh oregano bears up well at the start of a recipe, such as a chili, and you’ll want to keep only the flavorful leaves. Dried oregano is a bit mellower and it does add a more familiar, flowery component to your recipe as compared to using fresh oregano. It is interesting to note that of all the dried herbs, oregano has one of the highest antioxidant levels. Just one teaspoon of dried oregano leaves has as many antioxidants as three ounces of almonds and ½ cup of chopped asparagus!
Marjoram is a cousin to oregano and like oregano is a member of the mint family, but its flavor is more subtle than oregano’s. The round, light green to light gray-green leaves possess a pleasant, pervasive quality with a warm, slightly bitter taste. Its sweet, minty flavor resembles a mix of oregano and basil, and is well-suited for lamb, poultry, beef, fish, stuffing and tomato dishes.
Mint is an incredibly vigorous herb. It comes in a wide range of flavors, some with fruity overtones. The mint family includes hundreds of species, but the variety most commonly used in the kitchen is spearmint and it could be described and both “subtle” and “vivid”. Bruising the mint as one might do when making a Mojito helps to awaken its lively aroma. This herb adds complexity to salsas, sauces, rubs, marinades and is used best as a finishing herb in most recipes.
In ancient times parsley wreaths were used to ward off drunkenness. Chewing parsley will help with bad breath from food odors such as garlic. I have to admit that for years, I was never a fan of parsley. It simply never interested me because it reminded of chewing grass for some reason. Plus, growing up, I never saw parsley as anything else but a curled up sprig of green-gray color to garnish my plate when dining out with my parents.
Once I started to use fresh parsley, the flat-leaf variety (also called, “Italian Parsley) as a finishing herb, I began an appreciation for its bright, clean, fresh taste. I still think it is an underutilized herb, but it is becoming much more widely used as home cooks become more familiar with how to use it as more than just a garnish.
There are more than 30 varieties of parley, but the most common are curly-leaf and the more pungent Italian or flat-leaf parsley as I mentioned above. The flat-leaf has more flavor than curly parsley and is preferred for cooking, while dried parsley has little flavor at all. And although the leaves are most commonly used, the stalks are good for adding flavor to stocks. So don’t throw away the stalks – they can be stored in your freezer in an airtight container to add flavor to stocks.
When using this amazingly, pungent, woodsy herb, all I can advise is RESTRAINT! When used sparingly in both its fresh and dried forms, it lends a lively aroma to recipes involving lamb, salmon, pork, spinach, mushrooms and a host of other ingredients. If used “heavy-handedly” it will overpower the taste of most, if not any, recipe so again restraint is advised.
Now those notes of caution were not meant to scare of the home cook at all. Italian cooks are particularly fond of this pungent herb with its needle-like leaves in their recipes. They often use it to flavor meats and tomato sauces. Rosemary stems, stripped of their leaves, can also be used as skewers for kabobs. Dried rosemary is an excellent substitute for fresh. If using dried rosemary, finely crumble it before adding it to a dish. This will help to release the aromatic oils of this herb.
Do we really want think of sage as, “The Thanksgiving Herb”? I say this because it seems most familiar as it is widely used to flavor seasonings and stuffing used around the holidays for poultry (For example, “Bell’s Seasoning” and “Stovetop Stuffing Mix”).
But this herb is not a “one hit wonder”. Sage derives from a hardy, evergreen shrub grown in the Adriatic Sea region. Strong and highly aromatic, this gray-green herb has been used in cooking since the Middle Ages and the ancient Romans prized this pungent herb for its medicinal properties. Its fuzzy, oval, gray-green leaves provide a heady flavoring to veal, eggplant, roasts and beans. Fresh sage is less bitter than dried sage, but both forms should be used lightly as it can easily overpower a recipe.
This herb, with its distinctively assertive flavor, garnered the name, “little dragon” originally in the Far East. It is believed to have been brought to Europe sometime in the 13th century and became very popular in both French and English cooking.
Tarragon is excellent with seafood, fruits, poultry, eggs and most vegetables, as well as sauces, particularly béarnaise sauce. Tarragon can easily dominate other flavors, and care should be taken when using tarragon. Tarragon leaves (discard the stems as they are not edible) should be used fresh, as the aroma of dried tarragon is usually very weak. French or German tarragon is sweet and aromatic, reminiscent of fennel, anise and licorice. The French variety is most often used in cooking.
One of the most important culinary herbs of Europe, thyme delivers a floral, earthy flavor to all types of food, including potatoes, beef, poultry and venison. Also, thyme was believed to have certain medicinal properties and was used to help treat chest and respiratory problems. That belief may lend credence to the “menthol-like” aroma attributed to this versatile herb.
It may take a bit of “time” to prep thyme, but it is very easy to do so with some patience. When using fresh thyme, merely grab the stem and gently run down its length with your fingertips thus releasing the buds. The tips of the steps will be more delicate than the lower part of the stem which is woodier. Chop/mince the buds and the delicate tips of the thyme stems for your recipe.
Whole bundles of thyme can be used to flavor soups, stews and other recipes requiring longer cooking. Wrap them in cooking twine; add to your recipe and then remove once the cooking process is complete. You will notice the incredible perfume the thyme leaves lent to your dish immediately!
Once again, I hope you found this posting to be informative and a bit entertaining. As always, I invite you to follow my blog by looking for the small, black box located at the lower right corner of your screen that says, “Follow”. That will allow you to receive further postings if you wish.
And as I always say, I invite your questions, comments, tips and debates that you would like to share. All of your thoughts are most welcome. Thank you!