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Natural Awakenings

Essential Culinary Herbs: The Must-Have Ingredients

Feb 28, 2011 05:45PM

As any good cook knows, herbs are often the essential ingredients that coax the finest flavors out of any meal. In most cases, fresher is better, and even the smallest garden can provide a selection of pot-to-pan varieties. Here is a short list of must-haves.

Basil, Sweet (Ocimum basilicum)

Basil comes in several varieties, but sweet basil is the most common. The leaf tastes sweet and spicy, overlaid with a clove-like perfume, and is used most often with tomato dishes, pizzas, salads and vegetables, often in combination with garlic. Fresh is far superior to dried. The sweet basil plants vary in size, as well as leaf size and color. Many cooks like to grow green-leafed and red-leafed basil side-by-side.

Bay (Laurus nobilis)

This aromatic herb is widely used to flavor fish, stew, rice, stuffing, curry and soup. It also is a favorite among those on low-salt diets. Bay is most often used as whole, dried leaves that are removed before dishes are served. The leaves are shiny and dark green. This evergreen shrub can grow to the height of a tree in semi-tropical climates, but most northern gardeners grow bay in pots that they bring indoors in winter.

Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)

Chives can be used fresh, frozen and freeze-dried, but fresh chives have the best flavor. Use snipped, chopped chives anytime you want to add the taste of onion in a milder form. When cooking, add fresh or freeze-dried chives at the end to preserve the flavor. Bright, dark-green chives grow in clumps and have slender, grass-like leaves. They produce purple, lavender or pink globe-shaped flowers.

Cilantro/Coriander (Coriandrum sativum)

Cilantro is the leaf of the coriander plant. It is best used fresh, and people either love or hate its citrusy-peppery flavor. Cilantro goes well in tacos, soups, stews, chicken dishes, rice, salads and tomato dishes and sauces. Leaves or whole plants are harvested young, because they lose their flavor when the plants grow tall and bloom. Cilantro produces small, white flower clusters. Fertilized flowers eventually mature into nutty coriander seeds.

Dill (Anethum graveolens)

Dill has a bright, grassy flavor with a savory bite. Young leaves offer a light version with a faint undertone of licorice, with dill seeds carrying a stronger flavor punch. Leaves taste best fresh, but seeds are fine when dried. Dill adds to soups, omelets, seafood dishes, potato salads, dips, breads and pickles. The dill plant grows light green, threadlike leaves and parasol-like clusters of small, yellow flowers. Fertilized flowers mature into dill seeds.

Lemon Verbena (Aloysia triphylla)

Lemon verbena’s lemony taste is not bitter, and can be cooked without losing its flavor. For low-salt diets, it serves as a welcome flavoring substitute, often used in fruit salads, candies, jams and jellies, vegetable salads and dishes, stuffing and cottage cheese; it goes well with meat and poultry. Lemon verbena also makes a delicious tea. In northern winters, the semi-tropical plant must be brought indoors to keep it alive.

Marjoram (Origanum majorana)

Marjoram—also known as sweet, knotted, pot or winter marjoram—is a mild, sweet-flavored herb that tastes like a lighter, sweeter version of oregano. It can be used fresh or dried, with the whole dried leaves offering much better flavor than the ground version. Fresh marjoram leaves are excellent with potato, pasta or chopped salads; they work well with pork and veal and in stuffing for poultry. Marjoram’s small, oval, slightly furry leaves are light green on top and graygreen underneath. The tiny flowers cling to green balls the size of pearls that grow on marjoram’s wandering stems.

Mint (Mentha)

Mints come in endless variations, and all are spreading plants that will take over a garden. Grown in pots, they make well-behaved subjects that produce an abundance of stems that can be used fresh or dried, whole or chopped. Mint makes a great accent herb in condiments and is a perfect touch brewed into winter and summer teas or chopped into fruit or grain salads. Leftover stems from purchased bunches will root readily in water. Most strains of peppermint are heavily blushed with red; spearmint is usually bright green.

Oregano (Origanum vulgare)

Oregano can be used fresh or dried. It has a warm aroma and robust flavor that is popular in Italian, Greek, Spanish and Mexican dishes. It is frequently added to vegetables, (especially peppers and tomatoes), soups, stews, meat pies, pasta sauces, shellfish dishes, stuffings, dumplings, herb scones and breads, as well as fish, roast beef, lamb, chicken and pork.

Parsley (Petroselinum species)

There are two main varieties of parsley: curly-leaf and Italian or flat-leaf. Both are best fresh, and have a celery-like flavor. Curly parsley often looks best on the plate, although flat-leafed types typically have a deeper, more rounded flavor that stands up to cooking. Parsley is especially good in omelets and other egg dishes, mashed potatoes, soups, pasta sauces, vegetable dishes, salads and tabouli. It also enlivens sauces. Parsley grows as a circular rosette of stems and mature plants produce rounded clusters of white flowers.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

The aromatic evergreen rosemary has a pine-like, slightly lemony flavor and aroma. It blends well with other herbs and spices, especially garlic and thyme, and can be used as a seasoning for soups, stews, eggs, tomato sauces, vegetables, roasts, fish, poultry dishes and marinades. It makes a delicious tea, hot or iced. Rosemary plants grow gray-green, needle-like leaves that remain evergreen in mild winter climates. Rosemary flowers present in pale blue or pink.

Sage (Salvia officinalis)

Sage lends its smoky flavor to many dishes and can be used fresh or dried, with leaves that are whole, crumbled or rubbed. Sage, along with garlic and cracked pepper, makes a good seasoning rub for meats and complements seafood, sausages and beans. It also is useful for flavoring sauces, dressings, stuffings and savory breads. The sage plant grows long, narrow, oval, gray-green leaves with a pebbly texture; showy blue sage flowers grow on upright spikes.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)

Fragrant thyme can be used fresh or dried and has a slight lemony-mint aroma and taste. Thyme is often used in soups, chowders, stews, sauces and stuffings. It also goes well with lima beans, potatoes, squash, tomatoes, eggs and croquettes, as well as a variety of meats, poultry and fish. Thyme is a small, stiff plant with oval, grayish-green leaves; its lilac flowers grow in small clusters.

Sources: The New Food Lover’s Companion; The World of Herbs and Spices;;

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