Herbs and spices are great ways to add flavor and aromatics to your dishes. Herbs are those aromatic plants that give their leaves, stems and flowers to make our dishes delectable. Whether you like to use them fresh or dried (I like them fresh for most recipes), they are an essential part of the home kitchen. The following are some of my favorites (I’ve alphabetized to make things easier):
Basil: Although most of us think of the green kind (sweet basil); there are tons of types of basil. There’s chocolate, cinnamon, garlic, and lemon). For this discussion, we’ll chat about sweet basil. It has delicate green leaves and small white flowers. It’s aroma is strong and some say peppery. When purchasing, make sure that there are no flowers on the basil and that the leaves are bright and green. If you cannot get sweet basil, you can substitute with Opal (purple basil). The most common uses for basil are in pesto and Caprese salads.
Bay Leaves (sweet laurel): These tough leaves have a balsam scent and a peppery flavor. Dried bay leaves are more commonly used because fresh leaves can be bitter. Bay leaves are an essential element to the bouquet garni and the court bouillon. Add them at the beginning of your cooking cycle and remove them once you’ve achieved the desired flavor.
Chervil (Sweet Cicely): It has hints of licorice on the nose, but is a bit more gentle than parsley. This herb does not do well with heat, so it should be added at the end of cooking. I really enjoy it as a garnish and with goat cheese.
Chives: Chives are related to onions and are commonly used as a garnish (I’m thinking of baked potatoes). they are composed of long, thin hollow stems and grow purple flowers. Chives are incredibly easy to use. Just chop them up and add them to scrambled eggs, any type of potatoes and seafood. You can substitute with garlic (Chinese) chives. These are flat and taste a bit more like garlic.
Cilantro (Chinese Parsley): I fall into the camp of people who love cilantro. My mind (and tongue) do not comprehend how people can dislike them. Apparently, there is a gene that triggers a soap like taste when some people eat cilantro. Too bad for them and good for me. Cilantro is the plant that gives off coriander seeds. I find it interesting that cilantro and coriander taste completely different. Cilantro has a pleasant sharpness and is almost lime-like. Perhaps why it is so good in guacamole. While cilantro does not do too well when heated, it is a great addition right before eating stews. Use only when bright green and skip the stems.
Curry (Leaves…not powder): They come from a tree in the Himalayas and India. The flavors are of…well…curry infused with citrus. When you use them, make sure the leaves are fresh, bright green. Skip dried curry leaves since they are pretty bland.
Dill: I always love the look of dill. It reminds me of delicate lace. Its leaves are miniscule and feathery. Dill tastes a bit like parsley with hints of licorice and anise. You can use both the seeds (oval, flat, brown seeds) and the leaves in the cooking process. Dill is great with seafood and artichokes.
Lemongrass: Its name describes it quite well. “Citronella grass” has a powerful nose of lemon. It looks similar to scallions. Use the bottom part of the base and the white leaf stalks. These work wonders in beef based soups and are used commonly in Southeast Asian dishes such as Tom Yum Goong.
Marjoram: This is a nice substitute for thyme. It is slightly sweeter, but with a more powerful scent. You can use it fresh, but with this herb, its aromas and flavors become more powerful when dry. Little known fact…oregano is wild marjoram.
Mint: If you have ever grown mint, then you know it is like a weed and can take over your entire garden. There are a lot of different species, but the most commonly used is spearmint. It goes incredibly well with fruits, chocolate and is an essential ingredient in one of my favorite cocktails; the mojito.
Oregano: I had tons of oregano at my house when I was little. You already know it is known as wild marjoram. It’s a bit peppery. My (ex) step dad (who is Greek) used oregano in everything; tomatoes, feta, chicken, soups…everything. We used it fresh and dried. This is still one of my favorite herbs. For a simple salad, dice up fresh tomatoes, feta and cucumber. Drizzle it with good olive oil and sprinkle with dry cilantro. It makes for an amazing summer salad.
Parsley: I think the entire world is familiar with parsley. At home, I use both curly and Italian parsley. Curly has a more sharp than Italian. Italian parsley has flat leaves and a coarser flavor. This is an essential ingredient in a bouquet garni. Also, great in this artichoke, pancetta and parsley recipe.
Rosemary: This herb is like me, it grows wild in warm weather. It resembles a Christmas tree with its needle like leaves. It even smells a bit like pine. I absolutely love rosemary. I use it fresh in my roasted chicken, stews and lamb chops.
Thyme: It comes from a small plant and has tiny green leaves and purple flowers. It sometimes reminds me of sage (but in a good way – I’m not a fan of sage). I love to use it with fish dishes (especially white fish in the sous vide machine).