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If you have them to hand, youíll probably use them. Most grow well in pots in a sunny spot.
Select an herb:
Dried oregano, Sicilian and Greek
Basil is the sunshine herb. As much as I endorse using seasonal produce, a little bunch of basil in a pot on the windowsill brings a touch of summer into the kitchen no matter what the season. Itís one of those herbs that can be used in abundance, but it retains more flavour and a better colour when added towards the end of cooking. Itís especially good scattered over a hot dish of food just before you take it to the table Ė the warmth draws out the heady scent and sends it wafting around the room. Irresistible! The leaves bruise easily, so tear them into small pieces, rather than cutting them with a knife.
Basil has a deliciously musky scent, which is even more pronounced on a hot sunny day as the leaves seem to drink up the sunlight. Unusually, it is one herb that likes to be watered in full sunlight, but it will rot if overwatered in poor weather. Itís the key ingredient in authentic Genovese pesto, which can be spooned through hot pasta or rice, or stirred through a summer minestrone.
Thai basil has a subtle aniseed flavour and in addition to multiple Asian dishes, it is also good with eggs and with fish.
The delicate feathery fronds of chervil look pretty as a garnish, but the mild aniseed flavour with a hint of liquorice works with many dishes, especially eggs, fish, and slightly sweet vegetables, such as carrots. Chervil is generally used raw, or added at the end of cooking, as it loses its fresh potency if subjected to heat.
Chives have a mild, sweet onion flavour and are a standout with sizzling butter in omelettes and fish dishes. Like onion, they oxidise once cut, so snip them just before using. Theyíre easy to grow in a container, preferring a rich soil and a sunny spot. The mauve-coloured flowers can be used in omelettes and salads. Use whenever a mild onion flavour is called for.
Corianderís pungent mown-grass, citrusy aroma and oily, lemony taste flavours foods around the globe. Itís not the easiest herb to grow because in warm weather it tends to bolt and go to seed Ė a good thing if you want to harvest the seeds, but a bother if itís the leaves youíre after. The trick? Keep it well picked, and encourage it to grow into a sturdy plant, rather than a long spindly one. Coriander seeds have an intoxicating citrus fragrance and are best ground as required, because they quickly lose their fragrance once in powder form. The long tapering root of the herb, also great for cooking, also contains a lot of flavour. The roots are chopped or pounded and used in soups, curries and pastes. They can be stored in a sealable plastic bag in the freezer but donít freeze the leaves as they will go soggy once thawed. Coriander is also known as cilantro and Chinese parsley.
Donít be tricked by this feathery herb. A little sprinkling of it adds a mild aniseedy, herby freshness to food, but a double dose can annihilate other flavours. Itís good with smoked salmon or other oily fish, or foods of equal strength, such as feta, or used sparingly with delicate foods, such as cucumber. It also works with buttery potatoes and beetroot served with yoghurt or crŤme fraÓche. Itís classically used when pickling cucumbers and gherkins.
Dried oregano, Sicilian and Greek
These particularly sweet and fragrant forms of oregano, which become more potent once dried, should be stored in a container away from light. Rub it between the palms of your hands to release its fragrance just before adding to food. It is usually associated with southern Italian cooking, especially in tomato dishes. Look for imported dried Sicilian oregano.
Fennel has a sweet anise aroma and taste. It can be used in conjunction with fennel bulb, or treated as a herb in its own right. Itís great with fish and shellfish, offering a fresh sweetness that keeps the palate clean, and in salads with white beans or chickpeas and olives, cucumber and tomatoes with a garlicky dressing.
Marjoram is often overlooked for oregano, the latter being easier to find in its dried form. But marjoram is more heavily scented, with musky, spicy notes and a sweet herbal taste. It goes well with meats, but vegetable dishes, too, benefit from its spicy warmth. Chop up fresh marjoram and add it to meat mixtures to make hamburgers, meatballs, stuffings and sauces. Itís also excellent in marinades for roasts or barbecued meats, in pasta stuffings and sauces and vegetable dishes with tomatoes, green beans, white beans and salads. Itís easy enough to grow in a pot in light soil in a sunny spot, and cuttings are easily taken by removing a Ďheelí from the plant in late summer. Start the cuttings in pots before planting out.
If ever there was a Miss Popularity contest of the herb kingdom, mint would win by a country mile. Itís in our toothpastes, mouth fresheners, chewing gums, lip balms, hair gels, aftershaves and perfumes. Its nose-tingling minty freshness seems welcome anywhere, but it really shines in food, cutting through strong flavours and waking up jaded palates. Use it wherever you fancy a fresh minty taste, but donít chop it until youíre ready to use it because it will darken. When making mint sauce, chop mint with sugar to help it keep a greener colour.
Vietnamese mint is not mint as we know it. The pointy green leaves are tinged with purple and carry quite a kick. It doesnít refresh in the way that English mint does, but is oddly pungent and hot and cool at the same time.
Parsley is like your favourite handbag Ė it can go anywhere, anytime. Welcomed for its overtly fresh mown-grass aroma and breath-freshening taste, parsley is at home in practically any savoury dish. Italian, or flat-leaf parsley, has tenderer leaves and a fresher finish than grandmaís triple-curled favourite. Parlsey stalks are powerfully flavoured and can be used to enhance soups and sauces, but the leaves should be discarded before chopping parsley, as they are tough. Is it true that if you chew parsley after eating garlic it will freshen your breath? Probably. Youíll just have to try it! All the recipes in this book call for the flat-leafed variety, though regular parsley can be substituted if the former is not available.
Rosemary is ideal for meats and vegetables cooked on the grill, roasted in the oven or sizzled in the pan. Itís also used in breads, lends its scent to soups and pasta dishes and is used extensively in marinades. It can be added at the beginning or towards the end of cooking, depending on whether you want the rosemary to fully impart its flavour to the dish and fuse with the other ingredients, or whether you want the finished dish to smell heady and pungent. Both ways are delicious. A few sprigs added to poached fruit offers an intriguing spicy hint, and a sprig of rosemary sizzled in butter until crisp served on top of a slice of sticky homemade gingerbread accompanied by poached pears is extraordinarily good. Dried rosemary is a poor substitute. It becomes brittle and the leaves turn into sharp little spikes, and once itís past its best, it becomes musty and useless.
Sage is an underrated herb. When fresh, it is strongly herbal, spicy and warming, and is most commonly associated with cooked dishes, especially meat, but just a little added to a salad of green beans, feta and tomatoes, or white beans, olives, tomatoes and olives, can be a revelation. It turns gorgeously crisp when sizzled in butter, adds layers of flavour to blander meats, such as veal and chicken, and, dare I say it, gives stuffings a bit of oomph Ė and this was nearly its downfall. Whoever first put dried sage in a packet stuffing for chicken has a lot to answer for! Sage is easy enough to grow Ė just cut it back at the end of autumn, and, about every four years, take cuttings and start off new plants (the plants eventually get tired and leggy). You can dry your own sage just by hanging a bunch of it in a warm spot Ė and it will be infinitely better than the pungent medicinal stuff sold in packets as rubbed sage.
Most soft-leaf herbs start growing again in early spring and are prolific during spring and summer. Tarragon starts its season a little later. If you want to grow your own, itís easier to start with a plant from a nursery rather than with a cutting, which can take some time to grow. Make sure it is French tarragon and not the Russian variety, because although the latter may look luscious and hearty, it lacks the aniseeedy scent and taste and the tongue-numbing properties of French tarragon and is useless from a culinary perspective. Grow it in a warm, sunny spot in well-drained, sandy soil. Cut it right back in late autumn, and every three years or so, break up the roots and divide them and replant it to stop it becoming root-bound and strangling itself. Tarragon is a potent herb and has a surprising mouth-numbing kick when eaten in quantities. Itís more suited to cooked, rather than raw, dishes (if using it in a salad, add just a little to begin with). It makes a stupendous match with roast chicken, and is good in omelettes and egg dishes. Itís one of the few soft-leafed herbs to dry well, and it makes one of the best herb vinegars.
Thyme is usually associated with wintry dishes and slow-cooking, which mellows its warming savoury flavours. But it can be an attention-grabber with summer foods, too, strewn over tomatoes before theyíre roasted, sizzled on the barbecue with chicken and meats, or tossed through potatoes and green beans.
Lemon thyme is another beast altogether, welcome anywhere you fancy a herby, savoury, nose-tingling essence of lemon. Thyme is easy enough to grow Ė it just chugs along slowly, and as long as you donít overpick it or let it get too scraggly itíll keep on popping up new growth throughout the year. If it does get away on you, give it a good haircut. Itíll soon start sprouting new leaves again.
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© 2010 Julie Biuso