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Culinary Herbs

As a budding cook (before all and sundry became known as “chefs,” much in the same twist that made cashiers “sales associates”), a key piece of received wisdom pertaining to the higher levels of culinary achievement was the use of fresh—not dried—herbs. Many kitchens I worked in as a lad had not caught the wind on this front, having in stock as the only fresh herb curly parsley for garnishing plates. Like kale, curly parsley unfairly became synonymous with plastic, corporate cooking and unimaginative plate presentations. However, now more than ever, kitchens all up and down the gamut of sophistication are using fresh herbs and small farm and garden magazines often tout boutique herb production as the highest return on investment available tothe grower of limited means.

So, you’re a well-meaning and reasonably well-educated person in the kitchen. You want to achieve the optimal flavor in your cooking, and you know that dried herbs, used with poor judgment, can result in musty and overpoweringly “processed” tastes in your meal. But which herbs go (or do not go) with which foods? Specific recipes call for specific things, of course, that’s easy enough. What about ground rules when you strike out on yourown, though? Here are mine, applied to some very common Western culinary herbs.

My favorite in all its varieties, especially lemon thyme. This herb is a little bit of a headache to process, but well worth the trouble. Being, in essence, a shrub in miniature, it is quite hardy and stands up to long cooking without becoming bitter or losing its wonderful earthy perfume. Works in almost any application, but especially well with roast chicken or beef, soups and classic French sauces. Also—and this is a personal peeve, so take me with a grain of salt—the dried form of this herb is perhaps the most odious impostor when contrasted with the fresh article.

Another very hardy herb, but a loud, almost shrill, conversational partner in the pan with other ingredients. A member of the mint family, this herb has the same powerfully aromatic volatile oil as the parent plant. For this reason, rosemary must be paired with ingredients that can hold their own against it; pork roast, beef roast, steak, potatoes (this last does not do battle with rosemary but rather submits gracefully, avoiding a clash on your palate). It is used occasionally with shellfish to good effect, acting as a skewer and leaving behind its essence. Actually using the leaves in combination with fish, however, is generally viewed in a dim light, as the flavor of the fish will be lost. Be sure to mince the leaves very finely if they are to be left in a dish. Otherwise, if using as part of a marinade or in a sauce, simply put the whole sprig in at the beginning and pluck out at the end. Dried rosemary is like pine needles and the ground article is too powerful and musty to be much use. Use it fresh.

All things being equal, probably the best-loved culinary herb in the world. Easy to grow, prolific in yield and synonymous with the brilliant simplicity of Italian cooking, basil is a friend to everyone. It comes in many, many strains, more and more of which are appearing in the “kitchen garden” sections of seed catalogs. Basil is an herb that enhances nearly everything it touches and works harmoniously with any number of flavors. Even the dried form is pretty good, especially in tomato sauces. Be careful, though, when using the fresh leaves, not to bruise them or cook them any longer than you absolutely must. Sharpen your knife before cutting and toss the leaves in just as the dish is finishing for the best flavor. If you have to cook the dish longer than 10 more minutes, use dried.

Watch it. This willowy looking little customer packs a punch and the flavor of it is not something most people are used to. It’s a great accompaniment to fish and chicken, or for use in egg and butter sauces. Don’t use much and use the same caution as applied to basil—the small leaves bruise easily and this turns them bitter. It can stand longer cooking than basil, though. It weathers the drying process very well, and for some reason, seems to reconstitute in a sauce almost perfectly.

As mentioned earlier, an herb that many people do not even consider a culinary player due to its legacy as a hackneyed garnish. However, that’s a grievous error. The flat leaf variety is a marvelously versatile player in cooking and straddles almost every European cooking style as jack-of-all-trades. The flavor is strong but mellow, with a bit of the acid tang that celery brings. Very easy to grow, so easy that using the dried stuff should never be necessary. Also known to freshen breath, so long as you don’t mind the green in your teeth.

As much associated with Italian and Greek cooking as basil, if not more so due to its indelible signature on pizza. A very pungent flavor and one of those herbs where the dried form and fresh form are apples and oranges, neither for better or worse. The fresh form, I find, is best used somewhat as you would use rosemary with shellfish—as a basting brush or accent to be removed when the cooking is done. If you do use the leaves as an ingredient, it should be in a dish with some backbone—think tomato, briny cheese, garlic, bread (it would make a beautiful finish to a bread-based soup with romano or feta cheese). Gets along famously with fresh black pepper.

Sure, for pickles and havarti. This herb shares some of the character traits of tarragon—not terribly familiar as a flavor outside the aforementioned venues and therefore not easily identified by many. In a dish, it takes charge and can overshadow other flavors with ease. The dried form works well, chiefly because very few people can make use effectively of very much of the fresh form at one time. Works well, like tarragon, in butter sauces and with beets, potatoes and onions.

A nice alternative (cousin) to oregano, but very perfumed. Do not use on pizza, it does not pack the requisite gritty wallop. This herb goes well with some Mexican dishes (there is a Mexican strain as well as a Mediterranean strain) and as an accompaniment to firm grilled fish.

So there you have it. It’s a lot like pairing wine. The worst that can happen is your whole dinner tastes like one herb if you mess up, which is not that bad. If you bear in mind that herbs which feel and look somewhat thorny are the ones to throw in the pot first and the ones that feel and look somewhat flowery go in last, you’re off to a good start. Bonne chance, mes amis.