5 Must-Have Culinary Herbs

Filed in Food and Wine by on August 11, 2014

Green-Number-5If you’re an experienced herb grower and user of herbal delights it’s hard to whittle the list down to only five. If you’re new to the herbal scene, then finding a short list of easy-to-grow herbs is akin to a culinary treasure. Since treasures and royalty usually go together, and my personal opinion is that whoever provides daily nourishment for a family deserves a crown and royal status, then here, for all you kitchen kings and queens, is an herbal treasury.

My short list: mint, a tea herb and so much more; sage, a familiar one to use beyond stuffing; basil and oregano, two delightful companion herbs for artisan pizza (and many other ways); and dill, an old favorite and not just for pickles. All of these herbs are easily grown in your home garden or in pots on the patio. And, you can freeze or dry them for winter use.

Let’s take a quick look at each one.

Herb-MintThe mint family, Lamiaceae, is a baker’s dozen of species. Mentha, is just one of the sub-groups that we know as mint. From Anise Hyssop to Catnip, any plant that has a square stem is a member of this large family. For most of us, the familiar flavor of spearmint or peppermint is what we imagine (is there no word for thinking of a taste, other than to “visualize” it?) when we think of mint.

Spearmint and peppermint are easy to grow; in fact, they can be considered invasive once they get established. Plant seeds or pick up a few starter plants from your local nursery. You might want to cut both ends off a large coffee can (if you can find a metal one) and push it all the way into the ground and then plant your seeds or plants in it. Mint spreads by stolons, stems that grow across the soil surface or just below it, and can easily take over an designated space. The can will help contain it. These mints like moist soil and part-sun to shady locations. Hardy perennials, mints will come back year after year for your culinary enjoyment.

Mints are lovely in tea and the amount you use depends on personal preferences. Generally, four teaspoons of fresh mint (yes, you can use it fresh), or two of dried make a calming, memory enhancing, nausea fighting beverage. Muddle (mash with the back of a spoon) a half of a lime and ten mint leaves in a tall glass, then add 2 tablespoons of sugar, 1 1/2 ounce of rum, 1/2 cup of club soda and a cup of ice cubes for a refreshing summer drink, the Mojito.

Herb-SageEveryone who has eaten a traditional holiday bird has most likely also tasted the sage-flavored stuffing that usually accompanies it. Sage is also in the Lamiaceae family, of the genus Salvia. Sage is a fairly sturdy perennial though it may succumb to extreme winters. Ideally, leaves will reemerge from the roots and woody stems if given some winter protection. The elongated leaves are fuzzy with dimples on the back. Be sure to wash your fresh sage thoroughly since dirt tends to cling to the fuzz and dimples.

Sage butter is a quick and easy way to jazz up pasta. Drizzle it on gnocchi or dumplings for a gourmet quality side dish. Simply wash and roughly chop three tablespoons of fresh sage. Saute for only 2 to 2 minutes in 1/2 cup of melted butter. Toss this with 1/2 cup of freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese and the equivalent of 8 servings of cooked spaghetti. Add salt and pepper to taste and you have a meal ready in no time.

Sage benefits from being cut back nearly to ground level in the fall. I once mowed my sage row with the mower deck lower than recommended. I was afraid I had killed it but it came back the next spring, better than ever. And, the old sticks of dried sage from the year before didn’t get in the way of harvesting the new.

If you make pizza from scratch you’ll appreciate having both basil and oregano in your garden. A small fistful of the two herbs scattered across the sauce will elevate this favorite menu item from all right to artisan.

Herb-BasilBasil, you guessed right, is another member of the Lamiaceae family, this time of the genus Ocimum. It is an annual which means you’ll have to plant the seeds every year. If allowed to flower, the plants will produce seed but you must gather them in the fall since they won’t successfully “volunteer.” As soon as the leaves get large enough to be worthwhile, they can be picked and used. My favorite way to eat them, when cherry tomatoes are in season, is to pick a small red orb, wrap it in a basil leaf and eat it al fresco, right there in the garden. Food doesn’t get any fresher than that!

The next best way to use basil is to blend 3 cups of freshly washed basil along with a few cloves of garlic, some olive oil and a handful of pine nuts. Season with salt and pepper. Presto! You have pesto! Freeze this singularly delightful puree in ice cube trays or small jars. To serve, use the pesto fresh or thaw the cubes and toss with cooked spaghetti along with freshly grated cheese. It also makes a great topper for crostini. Just spread it on toast rounds and broil briefly to brown the top. Stir it into cottage cheese for a quick lunch or add chopped olives for gourmet tapenade.

Herb-OreganoIf you’re not tired of the Lamiaceae family yet, then here’s a fourth member, oregano, genus Origanum. Oregano is frequently used in Italian cooking and is a good companion with basil in any dish that uses tomatoes. Another simple way to use this easily grown perennial is to tie it in a bundle along with parsley, sage, and other savory herbs. This “bouquet garni” is immersed in cooking liquids to flavor soups, stews and meat dishes and then removed prior to serving. Dried oregano is also used with other herbs in mixtures called “herbes de provence,” either tied within a cheese-cloth packet or sprinkled into cooking as mixed herbs. Fresh oregano can also easily spice up a salad.

We’re down to the last of my easy-to-use herbs, and it’s not of the Lamiaceae family. Dill belongs to the celery and parsley family though no one would compare its flavor to that of celery or parsley. Dill may seem like a perennial since if you get it started it seems to come back dependably. But dill is an annual and readily drops its seeds from which the new plants emerge the next spring.

Herb-DillDill seeds and whole heads or umbels are used to flavor cucumber pickles but the leaves, dillweed, are also excellent additions to sauces, dips, salads, omelets, stirred into butter. Leave can be used either fresh or dried but fresh packs the most flavor. The Greeks have come up with an extraordinary way to use lots of fresh dill: Tzatziki sauce. Combine a cup of yogurt, one diced fresh cucumber, one tablespoon olive oil, 1/4 freshly squeezed lemon, 2 small cloves of garlic and a tablespoon (or more) of fresh dillweed, chopped. It’s a refreshing sauce to accompany grilled vegetables, serve as a vegetable dip, top an omelet or eat with with traditional Greek falafel (deep fried garbanzo bean balls).

Get familiar with these five must-have herbs and soon you’ll be off exploring the extensive treasury of flavors from the herb world.

by Nancy Leasman, a writer (and herb lover) from Long Prairie, MN.


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