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erbs are natures little surprise packages, prized for their aroma and flavour as well as for their medicinal and curative properties. And, a little goes a long way! For cuisine with character there’s nothing quite like a sprinkle of herbs to bring a distinctive appeal to foods. From the Mediterranean flair of oregano to the citrusy tang of kaffir lime leaves their versatility is supreme!
Excellent for slow cooked recipes, customarily a bouquet garni comprises of parsley stalks, a sprig of thyme and a bay leaf but you could tailor the contents to suit your recipe. Some suggestions – add celery to poultry, a rosemary sprig for lamb or other meats and fennel to add flavour to a fish dish. This bunch is useful when you want to relish the taste but don’t want the herbs to show up in the finished dish.
BASIL is a delicious, delicate and aromatic herb used extensively in Thai and Italian cuisine to pep up curries, stir-fries, sauces, sandwiches, soups, pizzas, salads and pastas. Sweet Italian basil is also the main ingredient of pistou from the South of France and its Italian cousin pesto made just over the border. Basil is in top form when married to tomatoes, as in the famous salad from the island of Capri – Insalata Caprese, made with tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, basil and fruity olive oil. It also pairs well with garlic and other Mediterranean vegetables such as aubergine and fennel. The flavour is elusive, reminiscent of licorice and cloves but distinct adding its own particular stamp to a wide range of dishes. Also known as Asian basil, sweet Thai basil is a spicy, edgier cousin to the basil that comes from around the Mediterranean. Its a must-have for Thai stir-fries, Vietnamese pho, spring rolls and other South Asian dishes. When using basil add to dishes at the very end of the cooking time or use raw as heating destroys the flavour. The leaves bruise easily and are best used whole or torn, rather than cut with a knife.
PARSLEY is the workhorse of the herb world and at a pinch adds colour or texture to any recipe. No refrigerator should be without parsley. Parsley’s mild and grassy tone allows the flavours of other ingredients to come through. Curly parsley is less assertive than its brother, flat-leaf parsley (often called Italian parsley). Flat-leaf parsley is preferred for cooking, as it stands up better to heat and has a more robust flavour, while the more decorative curly parsley is used mainly for garnishing. Reach for either when a dish needs a little burst of colour. Sprinkle a little persillade – a mixture of chopped parsley and garlic, on roasted lamb, grilled meats, fish, chicken and vegetables as they do in France. Add lemon or orange zest and you get gremolata, a blend used in Milanese cooking. Parsley adds a pleasant fresh flavour to salads, sauces and stuffing, and has a particular affinity with white fish and potatoes. It combines well with other herbs like basil, bay leaves, chives, dill, oregano and thyme. Use parsley stalks for stocks, the leaves in salads and the finely chopped herb as a garnish.
ROSEMARY has a wonderfully fragrant tea like aroma and piney flavour. It blends well with olive oil and garlic to season lamb, pork, poultry and game; roasts, stews and marinades. Its slightly pungent taste can also enliven light fish, tomato based sauces, hearty beans and vegetable dishes like red potatoes, peas, zucchini and squash. Rosemary is also a nice addition to focaccia and pizzas.Use a light hand as the herb can be overpowering. Its usually used whole tucked under pieces of meat or vegetables, so that it can be removed before serving.
Since ancient Roman times, DILL has been a symbol of vitality. In the Middle Ages, it was thought to provide protection against witches and was used as an ingredient in many magic potions. In the kitchen its unique pungent green taste, works well in cold yogurt soups, potato salads and with zucchini and cucumber (including pickles). Dill’s feathery leaves lend a fresh, sharp flavour to cottage, cream and goat cheeses, creamy sauces, dressings and marinades and is a dandy partner to mustard. It has an affinity with many egg recipes and fish, especially oily fish such as herring, salmon and mackerel. Add to the dish just before serving as its delicate flavour diminishes with cooking.
Though this herb is native to Siberia and western Asia, TARRAGON is primarily used in France and is one of the four fines herbes of French cuisine. Tarragon is particularly suitable for egg and cheese recipes. It pairs well with poultry specially chicken cooked with mustard. It can be used to pep up a green salad or in dressings and mayonnaise. It is first-class finely chopped up and stirred into cream and egg based sauces to serve with salmon or trout. Tarragon is also an essential component of béarnaise sauce. Fresh, lightly bruised sprigs of tarragon are often added to white wine vinegar, lending a sweet, delicate licorice-like perfume and flavour. Fresh tarragon isn’t always easy to find, but when you do get it, the bittersweet, peppery taste it imparts can change your dish around. Heat diminishes its flavour, so add tarragon toward the end of cooking, or use it as a garnish. And, a little goes a long way.
MINT isn’t just a little sprig that garnishes your dessert plate. It is extremely versatile and can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes. In the Mediterranean and Middle East, mint is treasured as a companion to lamb, breads, taboulli, marinated vegetables and is often used in fruit and vegetable salads. Back home, mixed with plain yogurt to make raita, its a soothing accompaniment to fiery dishes. In Thai cooking, mint is added to some soups and highly spiced curries. Also delightful with chocolate or lemon based desserts. Though there are many varieties – peppermint, spearmint, lemon mint, apple mint, pineapple mint and even chocolate mint; spearmint is the most commonly used in cooking. You can add it to a bevy of preparations – lamb, peas, potatoes, carrots, ice cream; and drinks – tea, mint juleps and mojitos. Spearmint with its fresh familiar flavour has fuzzy, bright green leaves very different from the darker stemmed, rounded leaves of peppermint which has a stronger zest.
CELERY is not just a good taste on the palate this herb is packed with vitamins and minerals. The leaves, root and stalks are used since centuries in Italian cuisine. It has a distinct flavour sharp and savoury which makes it an excellent garnish for soups, stews and stuffing and is scrumptious in salads too. With apples and walnuts celery is a key ingredient in Waldorf and other cold-slaw type salads. It complements vegetables like potatoes, carrots, beans and poultry. You’re also likely to come across the familiar taste of celery as a seasoning in tuna or chicken salad sandwiches.
LEMONGRASS, a stiff grass native to India with a citrus aroma and bright lemony flavour note, plays a starring role in many South-east Asian particularly Thai, Vietnamese, Khmer, Laos, Philippine, Malaysian, Indonesian and Sri Lankan kitchens, as well as in African and Latin American dishes; adding its unique tang to everything from curries to cold drinks. Lemon rind may be suggested as a substitute but it lacks the intensity and liveliness of fresh lemongrass. This herb is also valued medicinally as a remedy for a wide range of ailments, from stomach troubles and fever to depression. Likewise it has applications in aromatherapy and perfumery and shares similar insect-repelling properties as its botanical cousin citronella. Lemon grass can be used dried and powdered or fresh. To store, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for two to three weeks, or freeze for up to six months. Infuse teas, broths, soups and braising liquids by bruising the stalks with a pestle or the side of a knife to release lemongrass’ aromatic oils, and add to the recipe. Discard the stalks before eating as they tend to be woody or eat around them. Only the fleshy bulbous ends (the bottom three to four inches of the stem) of lemongrass are edible. This part is very finely chopped or minced and added to marinades, stir-fries, salads, spice rubs and curry pastes especially those with poultry and seafood. Lemongrass holds up to long cooking and gains intensity the longer it’s heated. So add to the start of cooking, browning it along with the other aromatics or near the end, depending on the flavour magnitude you want to achieve.
The canonic fines herbes which form a mainstay of French haute cuisine comprise of finely chopped parsley, chives, tarragon and chervil. These are employed in seasoning delicate dishes such as chicken, fish and eggs, which need a relatively short cooking period and also used in a beurre blanc sauce for seasoning such dishes. Fines herbes are also eaten raw in salads.
A mezzaluna is a tool specially designed for chopping herbs. It has a sharp crescent shape blade with a handle at either end and is used in a rocking motion. Some types have two or even three blades to speed up the process.
Harvesting, Storing and Freezing
The best time to harvest herbs is just before they bloom and in the morning after the dew has evaporated, prior to the sun warming their leaves. Be very gentle while handling them so you don’t end up bruising or injuring the stems or leaves. The oils that give herbs their distinctive aroma and flavour are volatile and can be destroyed if ill treated. Select just enough herbs which are to be used fresh, dried or frozen the same day. If you must store them loosely wrap herbs in a damp paper towel, then seal in a zip-top plastic bag filled with air and refrigerate for up to five days. Check your herbs daily, as some of them lose their flavour after a couple of days. Else, keep herbs bouquet-style when in bunches – place, stems down, in a jar with water covering an inch of the stem and enclose in a large zip-top plastic bag. Change the water every other day. Most herbs will stay fresh for up to a week this way.
When you’re ready to use your herbs wash them under cool – not cold water and pat dry between paper towels.
Freezing fresh herbs are an excellent way to store them for use later. Most usually will keep for up to three months.
Wash the herbs while handling with care, blot dry and remove leaves from stalks. You can freeze them whole or chopped packing them into airtight containers or freezer safe bags. Chopped herbs to be used in stews, soups or stocks could be filled to half in ice cube trays and topped with water. When frozen remove the cubes and store in freezer bags. To use just add the appropriate number of iced cubes to the recipe and heat until melted.
Chefs tip; Delicate herbs that are successful frozen include basil, chives, tarragon, coriander, dill, parsley, lemongrass, mint, thyme and sage.
SAGE is native to the northern Mediterranean coast, where it’s used frequently in the kitchen. Sage’s long, narrow leaves have a distinctively fuzzy texture and musky yet smoky aroma with a flavour redolent of eucalyptus and cedar notes. And a little goes a long way. It is commonly used for fatty meats as it aids digestion. Italians love it with veal, while the French add it to stuffing, cured meats, sausages and pork dishes. Americans, of course, associate it with turkey and dressing.
THYME is a headily scented herb valued for the antiseptic properties of its edible oils as well as for its culinary usefulness. This congenial herb pairs well with many other herbs, particularly rosemary, parsley, sage and oregano. Thyme works well as an all-purpose seasoning especially in slow cooked dishes adding an earthy, woodsy, sweetly pungent flavour; which is welcome with pork, lamb, game, duck or goose. It’s much beloved in Cajun and Creole cooking and the primary component of Caribbean jerk seasoning. It harmonises well with Mediterranean vegetables – aubergine, zucchini, bell peppers, tomatoes; and also keen in stuffing, pates and terrines. A tasty addition to baked fish, plain lentils and scrambled eggs too. As thyme leaves are so small, they often don’t require chopping.
BAY LEAVES are available fresh, dried, whole leaf or ground dried leaves and is one herb that is used mainly dried rather than fresh. The leaves have a heady aroma and add a distinct pungency to food hence going best with strongly flavoured dishes. Its also widely used in Indian kitchens. Add a bay leaf or two to stocks, broths, marinades, pates, terrines, stews, sauces, stuffing and curries. Bay leaves are often used to line the grill pan when cooking fish and may be threaded on to kebab skewers. Some recipes call for bay leaves in apple pies. Store a bay leaf in a jar of rice or sugar and it will impart its flavour to that ingredient.
These tufts of aromatic spikes with edible flowers, CHIVES are the mildest member of the onion family. Thinly slice or finely snip with scissors to maximise their taste. Chives are great in quesadillas and on baked potatoes, egg dishes, cooked vegetables or as a garnish for salads and soups. Chives also make for a delicious spread when added to to soft cheeses and butter and in a dip with yogurt. Toss chives into a dish at the last minute, because heat destroys their delicate onion flavour.
Garlic chives or Chinese chives have a mild garlic nip and are used in Oriental cooking. They are a great proxy for garlic salts and dried powder.
OREGANO is a wild, hardy member of the marjoram family with a more robust punch. It has a heady warm aroma and a pleasant slightly lemony flavour. The Greeks love oregano sprinkled on salads, while the Italians shower it on pizza and slip it into tomato sauces. Add chopped oregano to vinaigrette, or use it in poultry, meat or seafood dishes when you want to take them in a Greek or Italian direction. Also used widely in Mexican and Spanish cuisine.
MARJORAM is a close cousin of oregano having a mild, sweet flavour and aroma with perhaps a hint of balsam. It’s said to be the meat herb but it compliments most foods except sweets. Marjoram goes particularly well in Mediterranean style vegetable dishes like ratatouille or in casseroles and tomato based sauces. Its also a good addition to salads and marinades and is the classic topping for pizzas in Greece where its also widely used as a flavouring for lamb.
CORIANDER aka cilantro or even Chinese parsley has an unmistakable piquant taste with a faint undertone of anise and an intense aroma. Chances are you’ll either love or hate this versatile herb. Besides beings used extensively in Indian cooking as a garnish or as a spice mix in dals, salads, curries, chutneys, vegetable and meat dishes its also used to enliven Mexican, Latin, South American, Middle Eastern, Vietnamese and Thai cuisines. Kebabs, meatballs, stir-fries, salsa, tacos, soups, fish, stews, chicken, rice, salads and tomato based sauces can all be garnished with fresh coriander. Its often sold with its root intact. The root has a more intense flavour than the leaves and can be used in curry pastes whereas the leaves make for an excellent garnish.
CURRY LEAVES native to South India and Sri Lanka are used in Indian, Malaysian, Sri Lankan, Singaporean and Pakistani kitchens. The leaves have a strong, warm and spicy aroma when bruised or rubbed and impart a distinct flavour to the dish which simply cannot be replicated by any other ingredient. Curry leaves may be added whole to the curry, soup, stew, chutney or sauce in which case it is usually removed before serving. Alternately they could be finely chopped or minced and added just before taking the dish off the heat. Curry leaves are a classic ingredient of the ‘tadka’ – fry mustard seeds in ghee/ oil, add asafoetida and curry leaves and cook for a few seconds before stirring them into rice, dal or lentil recipes.
KAFFIR LIME is a profusely fragrant tropical citrus tree native to South East Asia and while the rind of the dark green fruit is sometimes used, the leaves are indispensable in Thai cooking and cannot be substituted. Kafir lime leaves have an unmistakable citrus smell that is released when the leaves are torn or shredded. Along with lemon grass and galangal, kaffir lime is a foundation ingredient of most Thai soups and curries, giving them a complexity of flavours. Also a popular flavouring in Indonesian, Malaysian, Burmese and Vietnamese kitchens.
The use of culinary herbs is featured in one of the first recorded cookbooks from the first century epicure – A Discourse of Sallets which went into great detail of 73 herbs and their uses.
Using them dry
Although fresher is mostly better, dried herbs can be convenient and more readily available. Oregano, marjoram, rosemary, bay leaves and thyme retain their punch when dried. Dried herbs have a more concentrated flavour than fresh so a much smaller quantity is required. Each herb varies but a good rule of thumb is a third to half of fresh herbs.
When using dry herbs in cooked dished allow for enough time for them to rehydrate and soften. Dried herbs do little for uncooked dishes but work well in marinades for meats and fish and are good in slow cooked stews and soups.
Store dried herbs in sealed air-tight jars in a cool dark place as light lessens flavour and shortens shelf life.
Herbs at Dorabjee's
All the above fresh herbs and more are available at Dorabjee’s. We also stock a wide variety of dried herb brands in our stores.
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