Fresh Herbs: A to Z (part 2)
Continued from: Fresh Herbs: A to Z (part 1)
Herbs can add wonderful aroma and flavor to your cooking and there is no shortage of delectable varieties to choose from.
Fresh herbs are best added to dishes just before serving to provide a burst of vibrant flavor. Many can be stored in the refrigerator in a glass of water like cut flowers for a week or more.
Dried herbs can be added either at the beginning or during the cooking process to add subtle, layered elements of flavor.
They do lose potency over time, so be sure to buy small quantities and refresh your supply about every six months.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is a lovely purple flowering plant in the mint family that grows abundantly around the Mediterranean - but the Provence is where lavender truly calls home.
The French chefs in Provence appreciate lavender's slightly sweet, lemony and delicate floral flavor and have been using it in their sophisticated cuisine for hundreds of years.
For cooking, dried lavender buds or flowers are usually the most commonly used, but some recipes call for the leaves, as well.
Lavender flowers contain the highest concentration of essential oils and are therefore the most flavorful part of the plant. Lavender is used for teas and flavored sugars, as well as candied garnishes for cakes and other baked goods.
Lavender becomes more potent when dried, so use about 1/3 of the dried flowers in place of fresh. This delicious herb pairs well with fennel, rosemary, oregano, thyme, sage and savory.
As one of the herbes de Provence, lavender makes a wonderful addition to any herb garden.
Lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla) is a deciduous perennial herb native to South America and cultivated in Europe after Spanish explorers brought it back in the 1600s.
Lemon verbena grows well in full sun and moist soil and is very sensitive to the cold - as such, it normally blooms during the summer months. As its name indicates, verbena adds a lovely lemony flavor, without any bitterness, to a wide variety of dishes.
Verbena's fresh leaves contain potent essential oils, so its citrus flavor holds up well in fish and poultry dishes, as well as desserts like sorbets and beverages such as herbal tea.
You might also recognize lemon verbena as a popular fragrance in perfume and potpourris.
In frost-free areas, lemon verbena grows well in containers or window boxes. Lemon verbena pairs nicely with lovage leaves, black pepper and dried celery.
Mint (Mentha) is a perennial herb with hundreds of varieties across some 25 different species, not to mention a number of mint hybrids. Mint grows all around the world in moist environments, and the herb is used commonly in many cuisines.
Some varieties of mint include pineapple mint, spearmint, bergamot mint, Japanese peppermint, Corsican mint and many others, while some hybrids include ginger mint and sharp-toothed mint.
Fresh mint is a favorite among chefs for its refreshingly sweet and cool flavor and aroma. Mint leaves are often added to teas and syrups, as well as to lamb dishes in Middle Eastern cuisine and Greek dishes.
Marjoram (Origanum majorana), also known as sweet marjoram, is a perennial herb that is very closely related to oregano, with which it shares similar flavors and aroma. Marjoram is very sensitive to cold climates and grows primarily in southern Europe.
Marjoram has a sweet, mild flavor with a slight hint of balsam and is a featured flavor in the French Herbes de Provence.
Fresh marjoram is a nice addition to salads or mild foods, but dried marjoram has a more intense flavor and can hold its own in heavier dishes like meat. Chefs often add marjoram to pork and veal dishes, as well as stuffings and herbed baked goods, such as scones or bread.
Marjoram's delicate flavor is best preserved by adding the herb at the end of cooking.
Hardy marjoram, or French marjoram, is a hybrid of oregano and marjoram that can survive colder climates but is less sweet.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare), also known as pot marjoram, is a perennial herb that derives its name from the Greek words for "joyful mountain." Oregano is native to the Mediterranean and Asia, and it comes as no surprise that it is incredibly popular in Italian and Greek cuisines.
Unlike most herbs, dried oregano is used more frequently than fresh because it often has more flavor - a flavor that is indispensable to a number of Greek and Italian dishes, namely Greek salad and tomato sauce, respectively.
In Italian cuisine, oregano is often paired with basil to season vegetables, sauces and meats; it also pairs well with olives and capers, and most famously, pizza. In Greece, oregano dresses up fish, casseroles and barbecued meats.
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is a green biennial herb native to Iran and commonly used in Middle Eastern, European and American cuisines alike. In fact, parsley may very well be the most popular herb in cooks' pantries around the world.
Like cilantro, parsley is used for its mildly flavored leaves. The two culinary varieties of parsley are Italian (aka flat leaf parsley) and curly leaf parsley.
Some argue that flat leaf parsley has a more pungent flavor, and it would appear that this variety does indeed have a stronger concentration of essential oils.
Curly leaf parsley is most frequently used as a garnish, and some may also favor this variety over the flat leaf variety because flat leaf parsley bears a striking resemblance to poison hemlock (although this probably isn't a problem if you shop at your local market instead of foraging for herbs in wooded areas).
Fresh parsley is available virtually year-round and is preferable to dried parsley in just about every cooking application.
Parsley is mild and delicate enough to pair well with many other herbs, including basil, chives, mint, oregano, thyme and so on.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is an evergreen-like perennial herb from the Mediterranean; it is also a member of the mint family. Rosemary is an incredibly fragrant herb used in traditional Mediterranean cuisine.
Rosemary is often paired with garlic and thyme for game dishes, vegetables, potatoes, marinades - virtually anything can be enhanced with the slightly piney flavor of rosemary.
Some chefs will use the woody stalk of rosemary to skewer kebabs for the grill. Rosemary is used both fresh and dried, and the leaves can be made into a tisane. Rosemary is also valued for its long-reputed medicinal benefits, including memory aid.
This herb is high in vitamin B6, calcium and iron.
Sage (Salvia officinalis) is a Mediterranean-native evergreen shrub otherwise known as garden sage, Dalmatian sage or kitchen sage. Sage is also a member of the mint family.
Fresh sage leaves are slightly "fuzzy" with a smoky aroma. Sage leaves come whole, dried, ground or rubbed.
Sage has a slightly strong and peppery flavor and as such should be used conservatively. This herb is incredibly popular in Western cuisine, in which it's used for everything from stuffings to sausages.
Most chefs will find that sage is a lovely accompaniment for virtually any meat and also lends itself well to savory breads and vegetables.
Sage is also known for its medicinal properties - as a stimulant, astringent and tonic.
Savory (Satureja hortensis and montana) is a perennial herb classified as either summer savory or winter savory, for obvious reasons. Savory is related to rosemary and thyme, and summer savory is often preferred over winter savory because it is a more delicate flavor.
Summer savory is popular in European cuisine, especially Bulgarian and Romanian dishes, such as stuffed cabbage rolls and stews.
Interestingly, Bulgarians don't set a table with salt and pepper but rather with salt, paprika and savory - a mixture called sharena sol.
Winter savory is used in Italian cuisine to accompany bean dishes, as well as in stuffing and poultry recipes. Winter savory has a stronger flavor when uncooked but will lose most of it if cooked for a long time.
Both winter and summer savory have a somewhat spicy flavor that is key in fricot, an Acadian stew.
Sorrel (Rumex acetosa), also known as common sorrel or spinach dock, is green leafy perennial native to Europe. Sorrel can be treated as both a vegetable and an herb, but it seems its use as an herb is more frequent.
Another variety of sorrel, called roselle or Jamaican red sorrel, grows throughout the Caribbean. Common sorrel is a lot like spinach, in both appearance and health benefits, including oxalic acid.
Sorrel tastes nothing like spinach, however; instead, it boasts a fruity flavor, somewhat comparable to kiwi or wild strawberries. The sour flavor is a result of the oxalic acid, which grows more intense as sorrel ages.
Young, fresh sorrel can be used in salads, soups or cooked lightly as a side dish.
Fresh sorrel can be tough to find in grocery stores, but if you do manage to find some, keep in mind it only stays fresh for about three days in the refrigerator.
Spearmint (Mentha spicata), along with peppermint, is one of the most frequently used herbs in the mint family. Spearmint is a perennial herb native to Europe and Asia that thrives in wet soils and lends a sweet and refreshing flavor to foods and beverages.
Spearmint is a great choice for home herb gardens because it grows in a variety of climates and soil conditions, but it is also susceptible to disease. The leaves can be used whole and fresh, dried, frozen or preserved in syrups. Spearmint also makes great flavored salts and sugars.
The flavor of spearmint is most recognizable in sweets and beverages, but spearmint is often used in Middle Eastern cuisine and is a main ingredient in the mojito, a delicious Cuban cocktail.
Morocco has its own unique cultivar of spearmint called "nana," which is used in Touareg tea (a green tea and mint flavored beverage). Spearmint is a popular flavor in herbal teas because it is well known for its medicinal and soothing properties.
Spearmint is also the herb of choice for mint jelly, which can easily be prepared by steeping fresh mint leaves in sweetened gelatin.
Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus), dragon's wort, is a perennial herb native to most of the northern hemisphere. Tarragon is also in the same family as wormwood.
Tarragon is one of the French fines herbes, and it brings an anise-like aroma to poultry and fish dishes. Tarragon is also an essential ingredient in Béarnaise sauce and dijon mustard.
Fresh tarragon is available primarily in summer and fall, but dried tarragon still imparts a lovely flavor to French cuisine, vinegar, olive oil and more.
Tarragon pairs well with parsley, chervil and chives (the other components of fines herbes) and is a very delicate and refined flavor.
France and California are the top producers of tarragon; while both varieties have a similar flavor, California tarragon is greener and more uniform.
The word "tarragon" is translated roughly to mean "little dragon" - some think this is because tarragon was once used to combat the effects of venom from reptile bites.
Thyme (Thymus) is part of the expansive Lamiaceae family - a relative to rosemary, basil, sage, savory and many others. Thyme is native to Europe, Northern Africa and Asia, and its use dates back as far as the ancient Egyptians who used it during the embalming process.
Thyme is a classic herb, especially in French cuisine, where it is included lovingly as one of the herbes de Provence and in bouquet garni. Thyme has the most flavor when used with the stem in addition to the leaves.
Fresh thyme has a slightly lemony and minty aroma and taste that blends beautifully with poultry dishes, stuffing, soups, sauces - just about anything, in fact.
Fresh thyme is usually only available during the warm summer months, but dried thyme is used year-round by many home chefs. Dried thyme, which is generally more pungent than other dried herbs, should be replaced every six months (preferably sooner) to maintain its flavor.
There are a number of thyme cultivars, including lemon thyme, orange thyme, English thyme and silver thyme. Thyme's essential oil, thymol, can also be used as an antiseptic.