For as long as humans have been cooking, we have been cooking with herbs. In our eternal effort to make foods more agreeable, prehistoric cooks plucked a few leaves from wild plants and added them to the fire or stew pot in a practice that was already ancient when later generations took the first bold steps towards agriculture and civilization. Herbs and spices are so fundamental and essential to the art of cooking that I often wonder if preparing food without them can properly be called cooking at all.
We are going to take a detailed look at the use of culinary herbs, with side trips into their cultivation, harvesting, drying, and storage, but first we must settle one burning issue: the proper pronunciation of the word herb. The question is, should one pronounce the h or not? Is it pronounced hurb or urb?
At the risk of incurring the wrath of many of my readers, I hereby state categorically that there is only one correct answer to this age-old question-both are correct. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, you heard it here first, both hurb and urb are correct pronunciations of the word herb. Like so many other words, the difference in pronunciation is a regional difference, so in order to avoid the scorn of your friends and family I strongly suggest you pronounce it like your parents and neighbors pronounce it.
Generally speaking, most Americans (90 percent more or less) pronounce it urb while most other English speakers prefer to pronounce it hurb. Historically, the word is descended from the Old French word herbe, and we have adopted several "h" words from French. The initial h is always silent in French, and English speakers have retained the silent h in many French words (honor, honest, hour, and heir for example) while pronouncing it in others (haste and hostel).
Linguists believe that in English the h in herb was originally silent, as evidenced by the fact that the word was frequently spelled erbe in older English texts. American colonists brought this pronunciation with them from England and have held onto it over the years. One account I have read suggests that pronouncing the initial h in England came about as a reaction to the fact that certain "lower" classes of English speakers habitually drop all initial h sounds (à la Eliza Doolittle), so cultured English speakers began pronouncing initial h sounds so as not to be confused with the rowdy masses.
To further confuse matters, Americans also say herbal with a silent h, but choose to pronounce the h in related words such as herbaceous, herbivore, and herbicide. Go figure. Regardless of how you pronounce it, rest assured that your pronunciation is correct.
Now that we have finally put to rest the eternal question of how to properly pronounce the word, let's take a crack at defining it.
To a botanist, an herb (or a herb if you prefer to pronounce the h) is any plant that has fleshy stems and doesn't produce woody matter. Obviously, this includes jillions of plants that have nothing to do with cooking. To the layman, an herb is any plant that is used in cooking or for medicinal purposes, and since I don't know the first thing about the medicinal uses of plants or their curative powers, whether real or imagined, we'll stick to the culinary herbs here.
As I have already alluded, the term herb used in the culinary sense doesn't really have a technical definition, so different people's definitions will vary. For the purposes of this article I will define a culinary herb as a plant whose leaves or stems are used to flavor foods. Notice that this definition excludes several herbaceous plants (such as lettuce and other salad greens) because they are foods themselves rather than a flavoring for other foods. Get it? This definition also excludes parts of plants other than the leaves and stems, including roots, tubers, seeds, flowers, and fruits. These all play major roles in the foods of the world, but they're not in this essay.
So, you would like to grow your own fresh herbs. I don't blame you, considering the price of fresh herbs in the supermarket. And you obviously agree with me the dried herbs are a poor substitute for the fresh thing.
Growing your own herbs is easier than you might expect. Most of them form small, compact bushes that don't take up too much room in the garden, and most are small enough to be grown indoors in containers if you like. Following are a few general rules that apply to most of the herbs we use in our kitchens.
Keep in mind that most of the herbs we use in cooking are native to the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and other tropical and subtropical climates. Therefore, most of them require full sun and well-drained-even sandy or rocky-soil. As a general rule, culinary herbs don't require fertilizing, and most will thrive in soils that might be too nutrient-poor for other plants.
Many of the culinary herbs are treated as annuals in northern climates, even though they may be grown as perennials in their native regions. These may be potted and brought indoors to protect them from frost, or simply replanted in the spring after the last freeze of the season. Most can be started from seeds that are readily available from garden centers and mail-order sources, but I prefer to transplant seedlings I buy at my local nurseries.
The scope of this book isn't broad enough to cover in detail the horticultural requirements of every culinary herb. For that I suggest you buy a good book on growing herbs.
I have three rules concerning the use of fresh herbs:
- Fresh Herb Rule #1-Always use fresh herbs if possible
- Fresh Herb Rule #2-Use frozen herbs if fresh herbs aren't available
- Fresh Herb Rule #3-Use dried herbs only if fresh or frozen herbs aren't available or if you find yourself adrift at sea on a small raft with nothing but dried herbs
Fresh herbs should always be used if at all possible because any attempt to preserve herbs by any means invariably results in a loss of the essential oils that give every culinary herb its unique flavor. Frozen herbs are the next best alternative, and the use of dried herbs should be considered a measure of last resort.
Fresh herbs may be obtained from your own garden or window box, from a growing number of supermarkets and produce specialists, or from your neighbor's herb garden if you aren't above a minor breach of culinary etiquette and misdemeanor criminal activity.
Frozen herbs, although available commercially on a limited basis, are best procured by freezing fresh herbs obtained in one of the three manners described above. Since most fresh herbs will lose their texture and color as a result of freezing and won't typically serve as an attractive garnish, it is best to chop them prior to freezing. Many sources recommend freezing pre-measured amounts (such as 1 tablespoon, or 15 ml) in ice cube trays with just enough water to cover, and you are certainly welcome to use this method if it appeals to you. However, the water may be an unwelcome addition to your dish, especially if you are using the herbs to flavor a sauce or gravy. I recommend simply freezing the chopped herbs in plastic freezer bags or small glass jars with tightly fitting lids. Empty herb bottles from your supermarket and baby food jars are ideal. You will probably be surprised at how much of the original flavor of the herb is preserved intact by freezing fresh herbs, and they will retain most of their flavor for up to a year in your freezer.
Some fresh herbs dry better than others. Examples of herbs that are well worth the effort of drying include thyme, rosemary, oregano, marjoram, and sage. Don't bother drying (or buying already dried) parsley, basil, chives, cilantro (coriander leaves), dill, or any of the more subtly flavored herbs. You will achieve a better taste and save considerable money by adding finely chopped sawdust to your favorite recipes. If you must dry fresh herbs for reasons of practicality or economy, hang them tied together in bunches upside down in a cool, dry, dark place. The typical coat closet makes a pretty good place to hang your herbs. Once they are dry and brittle (2 to 4 weeks for most herbs) you can then rub them between your hands over a large piece of paper or inside a paper bag to collect the dried flakes. Store these in small airtight containers, preferably in the refrigerator or freezer. Avoid the temptation to dry them in the oven, microwave, or food dehydrator because even a small amount of heat will destroy many of the essential oils and your efforts will be rewarded with large quantities of that sawdust stuff we've already talked about.
Cooking with Herbs
As I hope I have already made abundantly clear, you should use fresh herbs whenever possible. And when using fresh herbs, feel free to adjust the amount you use based on the potency of the herbs, and on your own preferences. The flavor of even the freshest herbs will vary based on the time of year, their growing conditions, and even the time of day they were harvested. Personally, I am partial to the unique flavors of several fresh herbs and I tend to use more than your typical classically trained French chef might. As with all matters of taste, this is another case of "to each his own."
Most herbs are best added to a dish during the last five or ten minutes of cooking, or even as a last-minute garnish. Heat is very unkind to the essential oils that give herbs their taste, and prolonged cooking will reduce even the most pungent herb to a mere shadow of itself. Dried herbs can tolerate a little more time on the fire because they must undergo a rehydration process before they begin to lose their unique flavors, but the same rule applies-the less time they are cooked, the better.
The standard rule of thumb for substituting dried herbs for fresh is one measure of dried herbs for three measures of fresh. This is because dried herbs have lost much of their volume in the drying process, and their flavors are therefore more concentrated. Keep in mind, however, that dried herbs lose their flavor over time, and the older they are, the weaker they are. In other words, it might be necessary to substitute more dried herbs for fresh based on their age and condition. Let your taste buds be your guide.
Finally, most herb guides tell you which herbs go well with which foods, and that is something my listing of culinary herbs will not attempt to do for a couple of reasons. First is that many (or maybe even most) herbs go well with almost everything. For instance, one reference source I have lists beef, chicken, fish, shellfish, lamb, chicken, duck, turkey, liver, pork, rabbit, cauliflower, cucumbers, green beans, mushrooms, peas, potatoes, spinach, summer squash, and turnips as foods that go well with rosemary. Couldn't the editors of this book saved themselves quite a bit of time by simply stating that rosemary goes well with practically everything?
The second reason I will refrain from such guidance is because I don't want to give the impression that there are rules governing the use of herbs. If you like a given herb and you enjoy a certain meat or vegetable, then I bet you are going to enjoy the combination of the two, and I wouldn't want to do anything to discourage experimentation in the kitchen. After all, that's what great cooking and great cooks are all about.
The Dictionary of Culinary Herbs
I have given the Latin names whenever possible to avoid confusion with other similar plants. For example, several genera and species of plants are marketed as some sort of tarragon (Russian tarragon and Texas tarragon to name just two), but if you want the real thing, be sure to buy plants labeled Artemesia dracunculus.
As a reminder, please note that for the purposes of this article a culinary herb is a plant whose leaves or stems are used to flavor food. Other parts of plants used in cooking are dealt with in other titles in this series.
Angelica (Angelica archangelica) - This "herb of the angels" is a member of the parsley family and is grown extensively in Europe. The pale green celery-like leaves and stalks are often candied and added to desserts as a garnish, and used to add a licorice-like flavor to liqueurs and sweet wines. The plant grows to as much as 8 feet (2.4 m) in height and dies after blooming, although it can be grown as a perennial if blooming is prevented by removing the flower stalk. This is one herb that will tolerate shady locations.
Arugula (Eruca sativa) - Although the leaves of this plant are usually treated as a salad green, the spicy, peppery flavor of arugula is also a valued addition to soups and vegetable dishes. Also known as rocket, it is popular in French (where it is known as roquette) and Italian (rucola) cooking. It has become near universally available in the United States in recent years, and is easily cultivated from seed.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum) - Also known as sweet basil and the royal herb, the name is derived from the Greek basilikon meaning royal, and legend has it that in ancient times only members of the royal class were allowed to harvest it, preferably with a golden scythe. It is an annual which may be grown as a perennial if protected from frost, and is a member of the mint family. It does well as a potted plant on a sunny window sill, and fresh cuttings can be rooted in a glass of water in just a few days. Hundreds of varieties exist, including opal basil which is dark purple in color, and cinnamon, lemon, and even chocolate basil, all of which have a flavor and fragrance reminiscent of their namesakes. Basil is used the world over and plays a particularly large role in the cooking of the Mediterranean and Southeast Asia. It should be dried only as a last resort because it loses most of its flavor, but it freezes exceptionally well. Perhaps the best way to preserve the taste of basil is to make pesto Genovese, a puree of fresh basil leaves with olive oil, garlic, pine nuts, and Parmesan cheese which will keep for several months refrigerated, and almost indefinitely in the freezer. A dwarf variety (Ocimum minimum) is considered the sweetest and mildest, and is preferred by the Genovese for making pesto.
Bay Leaf (Laurus nobilis) - Also known as laurel leaf and bay laurel, the leaves of a small evergreen laurel tree native to the Mediterranean have long been associated with honor, glory, and triumph. Greek athletes were rewarded with a wreath of laurel leaves, Roman emperors and poets were immortalized in stone wearing such wreaths, and sayings such as "to earn one's laurels" and "resting on one's laurels" derive from this plant. They impart a lemon-nutmeg flavor to foods, and are usually used whole and removed before serving. Two varieties are commonly available; the shorter, more oval Turkish variety are much preferred over the longer, narrower California variety.
Borage (Borago officinalis) - A European native, the flowers and hairy leaves have a flavor reminiscent of cucumber and are used in salads and teas and to flavor sauces and vegetables. Young leaves can be cooked like spinach, and should be finely chopped when eaten raw because of their hirsute nature.
Bouquet Garni - A bunch of herbs tied together, wrapped in cheesecloth or enclosed in a tea infuser, and used to flavor soups, stocks, stews, and sauces. Any combination of herbs and aromatic vegetables may be considered a bouquet garni, but the classic trio is parsley stems, thyme, and bay leaf. Unlike other herbal combinations (see Fines Herbes and Herbes de Provence), a bouquet garni is meant to be removed from the dish before serving.
Burnet (Sanguisorba minor) - Also known as salad burnet, the leaves of this compact evergreen perennial are often added to salads in Italy, where some say that a salad without burnet is like love without a woman. The small, saw-toothed leaves have a nutty, cucumber-like flavor and may be used in soups or cooked like spinach.
Catnip (Nepeta cataria) - Prized for centuries for its minty, camphorous aroma, catnip isn't as popular in the kitchen as it once was, although it is still used in Italy to season soups, salads, vegetables, and egg dishes. The plants are easy to grow in partial shade to full sun, and are readily available through commercial nurseries.
Calamint (genus Calamintha) - The pleasantly minty, thyme-like flavor and aroma of these members of the mint have are used to flavor vegetable and mushroom dishes in Tuscany, Sicily, and Sardinia, where the dried leaves are also used to brew teas. They are easy to grow, and like most natives of the Mediterranean, they prefer full sun and sandy soil.
Comfrey (Symphitum officinale) - Comfrey isn't found in many kitchens these days, but it was valued in the Middle Ages as much for its culinary uses as its supposed ability to cure a variety of ailments. The large hairy leaves may be added to salads and sauces, or battered and deep-fried.
Celery Leaves (Apium graveolens) - Although the stalks of the celery plant are usually treated as a vegetable, the leaves of the same plant are often used as an herb and form the foundation of many traditional dishes, such as Belgium's anguilles au vert (eels in green sauce). Celery leaves have the rare ability among herbs to retain much of their flavor even after prolonged cooking, and are therefore frequently added to soups, stews, and bean dishes.
Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium) - Also called cicily or sweet cicily, chervil has dark green, curly leaves and is a member of the parsley family. It is a self-sowing annual that prefers a little shade. Its flavor is like parsley with a hint of anise.
Chives (Allium schoenprasum) - Like all members of the onion family, chives have long, hollow leaves with a mild, onion-like flavor. Though they are available fresh year round in most parts of the United States, the perennial bulbs are easy to grow just about anywhere.
Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) - Know to Americans by its Spanish name, the rest of the English speaking world knows cilantro as coriander or Chinese parsley. The same plant that produces coriander seeds (a spice) also produces the flat leaves that look almost exactly like flat-leaf parsley, but with a flavor that can't be mistaken-some people describe it as "soapy." The leaves, stems, and roots are often used in Caribbean, Latin American, and Asian cooking, and only the fresh herb should be used as it loses all its flavor when dried. Easily grown from seed, buy seeds or plants that have been bred for their foliage rather than their seeds or your plants will bolt to seed and produce very few leaves.
Costmary (Chrysanthemum balsamita) - Also known as alecost because it was used in making ale, the silvery leaves of costmary have a strong lemony, minty aroma. They are used-sparingly-in soups, stews, stuffings, and salads. The 4-foot-tall (1.2 m) perennial isn't particular with regard to soil, but it does prefer full sun.
Cuban Oregano (Plectranthus amboinicus) - Even though this plant is probably native to India, it also goes by the names Spanish thyme and Indian borage. The thick, fleshy, fuzzy leaves are usually variegated and have a strong oregano-like flavor with overtones of sage. The plant is extremely tender so must be brought indoors during the winter, and like the coleus species which it resembles, it does very well in containers.
Culantro (Eryngium foetidum) - This herb, popular in the Caribbean and Central America, is also known as recao in Spanish, false cilantro, spirit weed, and Mexican coriander. It has long, spear-shaped leaves with jagged edges and tastes very much like cilantro, only stronger and more bitter.
Curry Leaf (Chalcas koenigii) - The leaves of the curry plant resemble small, shiny bay laurel leaves and have a mild flavor reminiscent of lemon and lime. Widely used in India where they are known as meetha neem or kari patta, they are available both fresh and dried in Indian specialty shops. The dried version may be substituted for the fresh, but the flavor is far inferior.
Dill (Anethum graveolens) - The feathery leaves of this annual plant lose their anise-like flavor rapidly when cooked, so use them raw in salads or as a garnish, or add them immediately before serving if using them in a warm dish. The seeds of the same plant which self-sows readily and grows to a height of 3 to 4 feet (1.5 m) are used in pickling and give the "dill" to dill pickles.
Epazote (Dysphania ambrosiodes) - Also know as wormweed and stinkweed for its strong, kerosene-like aroma, it is used fresh in Mexican and Southwest American cooking, and dried in beverages. It is believed to have carminative powers, meaning that it helps to expel gasses from the body, and is therefore often added to bean dishes.
Fennel Leaves (Foeniculum genus) - The fine, feathery leaves of the fennel plant resemble those of dill, and can be used in much the same manner even though the plant is cultivated primarily for its seeds and edible bulb. All parts of the plant have a pleasant, licorice-like flavor, and the leaves are a welcome addition to salads, soups, and fish dishes.
Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) - Although the seeds are usually used as a spice, the leaves of the fenugreek plant may be eaten raw in salads and are prized for their celery-like flavor.
File Powder (Sassafras albidum) - The ground leaves of the sassafras tree, a member of the laurel family, are also known as gumbo file (pronounced FEE-lay or fee-LAY). Used by the Choctaw Indians and in Cajun and Louisiana Creole cooking, they act as a seasoning and thickener. The bark of the roots of the same plant used to be used to make root beer, and the flavor of the ground leaves is faintly reminiscent of this old-fashioned favorite.
Fines Herbes - A mixture of chopped fresh herbs, the classic combination is chervil, chives, tarragon, and parsley, although a variety of other herbs may be included. Unlike a bouquet garni, fines herbes lose their flavor quickly and are best added to a dish shortly before it is served. The term is also used to describe finely chopped parsley and refers not so much to the herb as the degree (or "fineness") to which it is chopped.
Garlic Chives (Allium tuberosum) - Similar in appearance to regular chives, garlic chives have longer, wider, and flatter leaves with a pronounced garlic flavor and aroma. Also called Chinese chives or ku chai, they may be used raw or cooked. Like regular chives, the flowers may also be eaten and make an attractive and flavorful garnish.
Geranium (genus Pelargonium) - The leaves of various scented geraniums may be used to flavor baked goods, jellies, candies, and teas. Available flavors include rose, lemon, lime, orange, apple, and mint. They are tender perennials and do well in containers.
Herbes de Provence - More of a marketing strategy than a classical French concept, herbes de Provence is a mixture of herbs said to be representative of the herbs used in southern France. The mixture usually contains basil, rosemary, lavender, marjoram, sage, thyme, and fennel seeds.
Houttuynia (Houttuynia cordata) - The leaves of this Japanese native are used to flavor soups, fish, and pork dishes in Japan and throughout Southeast Asia. It has a strong flavor similar to cilantro with distinctly fishy undertones, and is called "fish mint" by the Vietnamese. It requires lots of moisture and prefers to be planted at the edge of a pond or stream.
Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) - The fuzzy leaves of this member of the mint family yield a bitter extract that is used in candy, throat lozenges, and cough syrup. The three-foot (1 m) plant is a hardy perennial that thrives in poor soil.
Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) - The dark green leaves of this hardy perennial have a strong mint and licorice flavor and can be used to flavor salads, fruit dishes, soups, and stews. It is also a flavor component in some liqueurs.
Kaffir Lime (Citrus hysterix) - The leaves and dried skin of the fruit of this citrus are used in Thai, Indonesian, and other Southeast Asian cuisines. The leaves have a unique figure-eight configuration resembling two leaves joined end to end, and can be found fresh and dried in many Asian specialty shops.
Lavender (Lavendula angustifolia) - The leaves of this herb have a bitter, pine-like flavor and aroma and are best used sparingly in soups and stews, although the flowers have a more subtle, slightly lemony flavor. It is a hardy evergreen perennial that prefers dry alkaline soil and full sun.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) - A small perennial herb that will grow in just about any soil in full sun, the leaves have a strong lemony flavor that is widely used in teas and salads and as a garnish for fruit salads and fruit soups. It can also be used with fish and poultry.
Lemon Grass (Cymbopogon citratus) - The lower stalks of this tropical grass are highly valued for their fresh lemony flavor in Southeast Asia. Fresh lemon grass has become widely available in the USA in the past few years, and freeze-dried, powdered, and pureed versions are also available. For the best flavor, use only fresh lemon grass. Although only the most tender central portions of the stalk are used, they are nonetheless woody and are usually chopped very finely or cooked whole and removed from the dish before serving. Store-bought fresh stalk may often be rooted in a glass of water before transplanting to the garden where they will grow and multiply rapidly even in moderate climates, although the plant is tender and will not survive frost conditions. Use it for a taste of authenticity in almost all Southeast Asian soups, curries, and stir-fried dishes.
Lemon Verbena (Aloysia citriodora) - Another lemon-scented herb often used in teas and sachets, the overpowering flavor of this herb is best used in moderation in salads and desserts. Also called simply verbena, it is a tall, tender perennial that does well in containers.
Lovage (Levisticum officinale) - The French call it celeri batard (false celery) because of its many similarities to celery, and it's also known as sea parsley, smallage, smellage, and wild parsley. This tall (up to 8 feet, 2.4 m) perennial has an extremely strong flavor of celery and may be used as a celery substitute. The leaves may be added to salads and stews, and the slender hollow stalks may be braised like celery or candied like angelica. This is also the plant that provides us with the spice celery seed.
Marjoram (Origanum marjorana) - Also called sweet marjoram, it is usually considered sweeter and milder than its close relative oregano-the two plants are very similar and often confused. Native to the Mediterranean region, marjoram is usually used to flavor meats and stews, and has a particular affinity for lamb and veal. Its flavor dissipates quickly when added to hot foods, so add it at the end of cooking for best results.
Micromeria (genus Micromeria) - The leaves of this genus have flavors and aromas similar to mint, thyme, and savory. Often called Emperor mint, it is used in Italy and the Adriatic region to flavor soups, salads, and egg dishes, and in stuffing for chicken and wild game. Finely chopped leaves are often added to pasta sauces and sprinkled over meats before grilling. They prefer full sun and sandy soil.
Mint (genus Mentha) - According to Greek mythology, the nymph Mentha angered Pluto's wife Persephone who turned her into the fragrant herb. In addition to peppermint and spearmint, dozens of different varieties of mint are available to the home gardener. Most of these have undertones of other foods such as apple, lemon, orange, pineapple, and even chocolate. Fresh mint is often used in Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Southeast Asian cooking, and can also be used to make teas and infusions. Stalks of fresh mint will root readily in a glass of water, and it grows so rampantly that it might be a good idea to get permission from your neighbors before planting any in your own yard.
Mitsuba (Cryptotaenia japonica) - Also known as trefoil, Japanese parsley, and Japanese chervil, mitsuba is highly valued in Japanese cooking for its subtle flavor with hints of celery, sorrel, and cloves. It is used to season mushroom and egg dishes, and is often battered and fried for tempura. The compact perennial is native to the woodlands of Japan and prefers a shady location.
Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) - This close relative of tarragon and wormwood grows throughout North and South America, Europe, and Asia. Its aroma is a subtle mixture of juniper, mint, and pepper, and it has a similar taste. It was very popular during the 18th and 19th centuries and was used to add a bitter flavor to beer, the role played by hops today. It is used in marinades, stuffings, and soups, and in Japan, where it is known as yomogi, it flavors rice cakes and soba noodles. The small perennial is easy to grow in the home herb garden if provided full sun and a rich soil.
Myrtle (Myrtus communis) - All parts of this native of the Mediterranean region have a pleasant aroma which evokes juniper, rosemary, and allspice. It is used to flavor meats, and is especially effective when paired with wild game. Its popularity faded after the Middle Ages with the introduction of herbs and spices imported from the Orient, but its leaves are still used in Italy as a wrapping for cheese. Grow this tender perennial in partial shade, and protect it from freezing temperatures in cooler climates.
Nasturtium (genus Tropaeolum) - All parts of the members of this genus are edible except for the roots. The leaves and stems have a peppery flavor and may be used as a substitute for watercress. The beautiful yellow and orange flowers also have a peppery flavor and make an eye-catching addition to salads. They can also be finely chopped and used to flavor butter and sauces. The immature flower buds can be pickled and used like capers.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare) - Greek for "joy of the mountains," oregano was virtually unknown in the United States until soldiers returning from Italy at the end of World War II raved about it. Also known as wild marjoram, oregano can be used interchangeably with marjoram even though it is slightly more pungent and bitter.
Pandan (Pandanus amaryllifolius) - The sword-like leaves of the pandan tree have a pleasant grassy, floral aroma and are used primarily to wrap foods for cooking in southern Asia. They are often available in Asian markets and must be pounded before use to release their flavor. They are also used to lend a delicate fragrance to rice dishes.
Parsley (genus Petroselium) - Although there are at least three dozen varieties of parsley, the ones we encounter in the kitchen are usually the curly parsley (P. crispum) and the flat-leaf parsley (P. hortense or P. neopolitanum), also known as Italian parsley. Classified as a biennial, parsley grows during its first season, then flowers and dies during its second season. However, it may be grown as a hardy evergreen perennial if the flower stalk is removed before the plant comes into bloom-I have had a few plants of both curly and flat-leaf varieties survive in my garden for several years. Even though most pundits claim that the flat-leaf variety has a stronger flavor, I can't say that my experience bears this out. Many professional chefs buy only the curly variety because it can be used both for cooking and garnishing. The stems have even stronger flavor than the leaves and are used in bouquets garnies and to flavor roasts and large cuts of meat. The leaves, stems, and roots of the plant are all rich in vitamins A and C. Fresh parsley is now available nearly everywhere, and should always be used in place of the dried herb which has virtually no flavor and bears little resemblance to the real thing.
Perilla (Perilla frutescens) - Better known by its Japanese name shiso, the leaves of this annual herb are prized in the cooking of Japan, Korea, and Indochina. Two varieties are available. The leaves of green perilla have frilly edges and a flavor reminiscent of cinnamon, cumin, and citrus. They are served with sushi and sashimi-they are said to combat parasites found in raw fish-and are featured in many rice and noodle dishes. Red perilla is milder in flavor and bears little resemblance to the green variety, with its jagged, purple leaves. Its primary use in Japanese cuisine is in pickles and as a coloring agent.
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) - The odd looking, round, fleshy leaves of purslane are often added to salads in India and the Middle East, and it is featured in the Lebanese salad fattoush along with parsley and mint. It has a mild lemony flavor and is valued primarily for its crisp, crunchy texture. It is eaten both raw and cooked.
Rau Ram (Persicaria odorata) - This herb goes by many names, including Vietnamese cilantro, Vietnamese mint, and laksa leaf. It is extremely popular in the cooking of Vietnam and Southeast Asia, and is frequently included in the platter of fresh herbs served with most Vietnamese meals. It is immediately recognizable due to the purple chevron on the elongated leaves. With a flavor similar to cilantro and citrus, it is used in all types of dishes and is valued because it retains its flavor after cooking better than cilantro does. Cuttings are easily rooted, and this tender perennial prefers wet feet and full sun.
Rice Paddy Herb (Limnophilia aromatica) - The shoots and leaves of this tender perennial are used extensively in Vietnamese cooking where it is known as rau om and rau ngo. The delicate flavor has notes of citrus and cumin, and is used to season fish, soups, and vegetables. It is a challenge to grow because it prefers a location by a stream or pond, but it is becoming increasingly available in American supermarkets, especially in locations with significant Vietnamese populations.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) - One of the most versatile of all herbs, this Mediterranean native complements just about everything from meat, poultry, and seafood to fruit, eggs, and baked goods. The long, slender, silver-green leaves have a sharp pungency reminiscent of pine and citrus. It is one of the few herbs that retains much of its characteristic flavor when dried, and should be used sparingly whether fresh or dried. An evergreen perennial that is available in a variety of cultivars ranging from miniature, ground-cover, and shrub varieties, it grows in just about any soil in full or partial sun. Use the fresh twigs to flavor grilled meats by throwing them directly on the hot embers, and peel the leaves from the stiff branches to use them as skewers for brochettes of seafood and fresh fruit.
Rue (Ruta graveolens) - The grey-green leaves of this hardy perennial are often suggested for salads, sandwiches, and fruit desserts, but many people experience an allergic reaction similar to that provoked by poison ivy, so I suggest you leave this out of your culinary herb garden.
Sage (Salvia officinalis) - One of the most popular of culinary herbs, the fuzzy, grey-green leaves of this perennial Mediterranean native can be used fresh, dried and crumbled, or dried and ground (aka "rubbed"). Although it loses much of its potency when dried, both the dried and fresh should be used sparingly because the powerful musty, minty flavor can be overpowering. Many species of the genus Salvia are used as ornamental plants and the home gardener should be aware that not every plant labeled "sage" is suitable for culinary use.
Savory, Summer (Satureja hortensis) - This annual herb with needlelike leaves has a pungent flavor reminiscent of thyme and rosemary. It is more subtle than its cousin winter savory, but should still be used sparingly. It requires full sun and well drained soil.
Savory, Winter (Satureja montana) - The perennial version of summer savory, winter savory has a much more pronounced flavor and should be used sparingly. It will grow in just about any soil in full sun.
Scallions (Allium cepa) - Also known as green onions and spring onions, scallion isn't a species unto itself, but the immature form of several varieties of the common onion. Although they may be eaten cooked, scallions are prized for their potent flavor and are usually used raw. Both the green and white parts are edible, and the green foliage is much milder than the white bulb portion of the plant. They are an essential component of and garnish to many stir-fried dishes of Asia, and are equally at home in French and Mexican dishes.
Sorrel (genus Rumex) - The species of this member of the buckwheat family have leaves shaped similar to spinach, but are easy to distinguish because of their tart acidity caused by high concentrations of oxalic acid. They can be eaten raw in salads or cooked in sauces and soups. Rumex scutatus, also known as French sorrel, sour dock, and sour grass, is preferred. The more common Rumex acetosa is also known as dock sorrel and spinach dock. All are evergreen perennials that do well under most conditions.
Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata) - The leaves of this compact perennial have a flavor reminiscent of celery and anise. They are used in breads and baked goods, and are said to reduce the tartness of gooseberries and rhubarb when cooked together. They add an unusual sweet spiciness to egg and cheese dishes, soups, and salads.
Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) - The fresh, anise-like flavor of this perennial herb is used to great success in many classic French preparations such as sauce Béarnaise and fines herbes. Although it retains some of its flavor when dried, fresh tarragon is much preferred. Tarragon branches and leaves are often steeped in vinegar, and tarragon vinegar imparts the unique flavor of the herb to any dish it is used in. Since the plant seldom (if ever) sets seeds, it must be propagated by cuttings or root divisions. Beware of other, inferior imitators such as "Russian tarragon" and "Texas tarragon."
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) - Several varieties of thyme are available to the home gardener, including broad-leafed English thyme, narrow-leafed French thyme, low-growing wooly thyme, and the citrusy lemon thyme. It is one of the basic herbs used in French and Caribbean cooking, and is used to flavor just about everything. It is a hardy, long-lived perennial that does well in full sun and almost any soil.
Vietnamese Balm (Elsholtzia ciliata) - This perennial is native to the temperate regions of southern and central Asia where it is used to flavor fish, eggs, vegetables, noodles, and rice dishes, and is frequently included in the platter of mixed greens served at almost every Vietnamese meal. In Thailand it is served as a vegetable. Not widely available in the West, it can be found in markets where there is a sizeable Vietnamese population. It is often cultivated as an annual, and store-bough cutting are easily rooted in water for planting in the garden.
Watercress (Nasturtium offinale) - Watercress grows wild throughout the northern hemisphere, and is a valuable food product in many parts of the world. Often used as a salad green and valued for its mild peppery flavor that doesn't overpower foods, it is also used purely as a flavor component in soups and sauces. An aquatic plant that will grow on land given abundant moisture, the flavor and tenderness of plants grown this way doesn't compare to those grown fully submerged, and is therefore not recommended for the home gardener.
Welsh Onions (Allium fistolum) - Very similar in appearance and use to scallions, Welsh onions are often mislabeled with that name in supermarkets. Even the name Welsh onion is a misnomer as these perennials are native to Siberia. They are also called Japanese bunching onions and are the largest onion crop grown in Asia. They are used as scallions and are considerably milder in flavor that their close cousins.
Woodruff (Galium odoratum) - Also known as sweet woodruff, the common name belies its natural habitat of the woodland forests of northern Europe, and the species name tells us why it is valued in the kitchen. The leaves and flowers of the low-growing hardy perennial have an aroma of freshly mown hay laced with a touch of vanilla, and have been used to flavor traditional beverages such as the German Waldmeisterbowle, or May wine, for centuries. It can also be used to flavor marinades for chicken and wild game, and is often added as a flavoring agent to sorbet and sabayon.
Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) - This attractive, wooly, grey perennial has long been used for cooking in parts of Europe, but its primary use has been to flavor beverages such as absinthe and vermouth. Because its oils are potentially toxic, products containing more than a trace amount of wormwood extract are banned from sale in the United States.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) - A popular plant in the perennial border because of its attractive yellow flower heads, the leaves are often used in salads, soups, teas, and occasionally egg dishes. Also known as milfoil, its intense bitter, peppery, perfume-like flavor is best used in moderation.
Yerba Buena (Clinopodium douglasii) - A close relative to summer and winter savory, yerba buena means "good herb" in Spanish, a term used generically by Spanish colonists to describe any minty herb. It is used to flavor beverages and soups throughout its native range in Central America. It is sometimes called Indian mint.
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50 Fundamental Recipes
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