I am aware that many people don’t use herbs in cooking or are unsure with what to use and why they are using them. So after my last post I thought I might give you a little introduction to cooking with herbs and to those that I chose to plant in my kitchen garden.
What’s so great about herbs?
While herbs are great for adding an extra dimension to your dishes they also are great for your health. Herbs and spices have long been used in remedies and for preserving food. It is only now that we are starting to understand the full health benefits that they hold and how they can help with many of the most common diseases we suffer from today such as heart disease, arthritis, diabetes and cancer.
Why use fresh herbs over dried?
Quite simply because you get more nutrients from them (as with fresh vegetables) and often get more flavour. In making tea with fresh Lemon Verbena leaves I find the taste to be much more citrusy. One thing I love about having fresh herbs is that they can lift any salad. Most people know about adding basil to tomato salad or mint with yoghurt and cucumber salads, but I also like to chop any herbs I have lying about into everyday salads to give them a lift. Have an experiment.
Should I cook with fresh herbs in the same way that I cook with dried herbs?
Yes and no. You can add the same herbs to the same dishes but while dried herbs and fresh woody herbs (sage, thyme and bay leaves) should be added at the start of the cooking process, fresh tender leaf herbs (such as basil, chives, coriander, dill, and parsley) should only be added at the end. 1 teaspoon of dried herbs generally is the same as 1 tablespoon of fresh herbs.
Curly leaf and flat leaf parsley are the most common forms of parsley out there. Flat leaf has a bit more flavour and is more peppery than the curly variety but the texture of curly leaf parsley is sometimes more desirable in certain dishes.
I often use parsley to neutralise the garlic I add to dishes. In fact parsley is a great breath freshener if you chew on some after a meal. Parsley is also good for cutting through rich dishes with lots of cream or egg. Parsley pretty much goes with everything and it’s great for decorating dishes. Heston Blumenthal has even paired Banana and Parsley check out his recipe here.
It is not only the leaves that are useful but also the stalks which you can use to make a bouquet garni for flavouring casseroles, stocks, sauces and soups. A bouquet garni is a little bundle of herbs that you tie together (or put in a little muslin bag) – think Bridget Jones and the blue string incident – and it acts a little bit like a tea bag in that you use it to infuse the dish and remove it at the end of cooking. It often includes parsley, thyme and a bay leaf although there is no set recipe and vegetables and pepper corns are sometimes added .
While it looks quite like parsley and is sometimes termed “chinese parsley” it is not. Coriander is a herb which does not keep and doesn’t freeze very well (unlike parsley) tending to lose its taste.
I use it mostly with Indian cooking where you tend to add it as a garnish at the last minute as it loses its flavour when cooked. There is nothing better than a lamb curry, daal (lentil stew) and raita (yoghurt based sauce) with plenty of coriander.
It also goes really well with Mexican cooking as coriander pairs excellently with avocado, chicken, fish and shellfish, peppers and salsa.
Coriander is also linked with many health benefits like most fresh herbs ranging from antioxidant properties to being useful in treatment of type 2 diabetes.
Dill has a fairly distinctive taste being a mix of fennel, anise and celery. It is most commonly added to fish or pickles. I mainly associate it with Scandinavian cooking where it is added to almost everything you eat: soups, grilled and boiled fish, gravlax, potatoes and vinegars. However it is not only the Scandinavians who love Dill: in Eastern Europe it is often added to hot and cold (creamy) borsht. They use it in salads (much like I describes above) or in creamy dressings and sandwich spreads. Dill sauce is also used for poultry, eggs and potatoes.
In Asian cooking Dill is also commonly used and in India they believe it has good digestive properties and is also often given to mothers after childbirth.
The Greeks also use Dill pairing it with yoghurt and cucumber in Tzatziki – Yum!
Feeling a bit braver with Dill yet? Next time you are preparing poultry, fish, eggs, salad or a creamy sauce add a bit and see what you think.
I reckon basil is the most used herb in western cooking thanks to the popularity of Italian food although the plant originally comes from Asia and plays a major role in their cuisine too.
The Italian basil I chose is the most commonly sold in the supermarkets and is known as sweet basil while the Greek basil is much more peppery and has a stronger flavour. I’d use the Greek for salads but the Italian one more for cooking or pesto.
One tip I learnt off an Italian ex was to never cut basil with a knife but rather tear it to release the aromas. Obviously this isn’t practical when making pesto but I try to stick to it when making salads.
Basil pairs excellently with tomato and most vegetables, as you probably know, but it also goes great with other fruit such as pineapple or strawberries.
Another basil tip to be aware of is when picking your basil never pick the tips of the shoots but select the larger leaves from below allowing further regrowth.
Basil is another well noted antioxidant and various studies have been done linking it with cancer preventative properties. Basil is also good for high blood pressure.
I planted Lemon Verbena as I love using it to make teas, you just pop a few leaves in some boiling water and drink it as is. Lemon Verbena is also great to use in cooking as it adds a lovely citrus taste to dishes without the acidity. You can add it to marinades, dressing or sauces and it pairs great with fish and poultry. I’ve also seen it being used in jams to add a freshness or summery aspect.
Verbena is galactagogue (which means it promotes lactation) so it is great for breastfeeding mums. I tend to drink it as a tea in the evenings after dinner as it aids digestion and has certain sedative effect. I’ve also heard that it has antibacterial properties and is effective against yeast infections. It is also good for menstrual cramps making it a good standard for any woman’s garden.
Another soothing tea which tastes so much better fresh and helps with digestion. German chamomile, which I planted, produces daisy like flower which you should trim and make the tea out of. This one is not recommended for nursing or pregnant woman, however, as it can cause contractions. The flowers can also be added to salads or can be made into an herbal beer.
Funnily enough I’m not a big onion fan but I love chives as its much more of a delicate taste which cuts nicely through rich dishes with eggs or cream, for example, I’ll add lots of chives to my scrambled eggs. You can add chives to any dishes which you would normally put raw onion into such as salads. They are also great for decoration or even snipped into mash or soups.
Like other allium family members, chives possess thio-sulfinites anti-oxidants. Thio-sufinites breaks down to allicin when chives are processed. Studies show that allicin reduces cholesterol production and has anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-fungal properties. Allicin is also a vasodilator compound which is great for those with high blood pressure.
Thyme (silver leaf and lemon)
Thyme is a lovely fragrant herb which I associate mainly with Provençal dishes. It goes great with with Mediterranean vegetables, pork, lamb, fish and game. I love thyme with eggs in omelettes or in mushrooms dishes.
You can use it in stews, stuffings, marinades, omelettes or even in scrambled eggs.
Lemon Thyme adds a citrus dimension to dishes which is especially nice with fish and can be lovely sprinkled into salads.
Thyme goes excellently in quinoa or rice dishes. Lemon thyme and mushroom risotto is gorgeous and very easy to make. I don’t generally follow exact quantities when I make risotto but I’ll try and write it down for you. For 3/4 people I tend to sweat down one onion and a tablespoon of olive oil in a deep pan and then add a clove of crushed garlic. Once all of that is mixed and soft I add a tea cup of risotto rice and coat it with the mixture. Then add about 250g of chopped mushrooms and a tablespoon of chopped thyme and cook the mushrooms down. Risotto is a dish which once you start you have to stick with until it is ready as it needs to be constantly stirred. Keep the pan on the Next add about a ladle of stock and stir until the stock is absorbed then add another (I often add a slosh of white wine instead of one of the ladles at some point during the process). Continue in this way until the rice is cooked (it should be firm but with no hard bits remaining) and then add some grated parmesan (about 2 tablespoons) and stir through. You can add anything to risottos which is great for using up leftovers. If you have any left over vegetables or meat you can also stir it through at the end.
Tea can also be made from thyme by immersing a sprig in water.
Another herb with a lot of health benefits, Thyme has often been used throughout history to preserve food and to disinfect, the ancient Egyptians even used it in embalming. Thyme had also been linked with various anti-aging properties.
Often know as the “Pizza Herb” I only discovered it relatively recently. The British recipes I grew up with always just substituted parsley and oregano was not readily available in supermarkets. This is one of the few herbs which actually has a stronger flavour when dried. Oregano is a sweet herb with some spiciness that adds warmth to any dish. It pairs particularly well with tomatoes, aubergine and lamb.
Oregano is a great barbecue herb and goes great with grilled meat or fish and vegetables. It goes well on Greek salads and Turkish cuisine you often find it as an extra seasoning next to the salt and pepper. You can even use a large bunch as a bed on which to roast a joint. Saying that oregano is generally added just at the end of cooking, so that it retains its pungency.
In Greece and the Philippines oregano is used to treat sore throat and coughs when brewed in teas. It is another herb with antimicrobial properties I have heard it is good for fungal infections.
English mint, which I planted is apparently less invasive than other mints although those roots are sprouting out all over the place and trying to take over already. It is a sweet, spearmint type rather than a peppermint mint and is very versatile.
Mint is a common ingredient in Thai food like rolls, as well as in Middle Eastern dishes such as tabbouleh, and in traditional mint tea from North Africa. It goes well with lamb, aubergine, desserts (such as chocolate), salads, vegetables, and fruit.
It’s not unusual to see mint used in jellies, sauces and cocktails. I planted my mint thinking mainly about the cocktails. I will be watching Wimbledon and making Pimms (a traditional English gin-based drink) this summer although I seem to be drinking it mainly in tea on a daily basis (keeping it cut back so that it doesn’t take over).
Mint is a calming and soothing herb that has been used for thousands of years to aid with upset stomach or indigestion it is thought to help to speed and ease digestion. Mint also contains menthol, which is a natural decongestant and it can also be effective in tea for relieving sore throats. One health benefit which I didn’t know about previously linked with the fact that mint contain an antioxidant called rosmarinic acid. Because of rosmarinic acid’s anti-inflammatory properties it has been studied for its effectiveness in relieving the symptoms of hay fever.
When I think of sage I remember one of our first holidays with E where we went to a lovely little place in Tuscany, Italy called Villa Pia. We found it through a site called Baby Friendly Boltholes when we where desperate to get away to somewhere child friendly which wasn’t a resort hotel. Villa Pia was a lovely communal setting, they really looked after us and even provided babysitters to keep the children while we could take an on site cookery class. During this class we made everything from meatballs to various sorts of pasta. One of these dishes was a gnocchi with a fried sage butter sauce. Never had I known something so simple could be so delicious.
Sage has a lovely strong flavour which is a good herb to pair with foods traditionally considered heavy, rich, and creamy. It goes great with poultry, sausages (or stuffing), pasta, beans and certain dairy products such as cheese and cream (ravioli with sage cream sauce), as well as sweet and savoury breads.
The botanical name Salvia is from the Latin for “to feel well and healthy, health, heal” referring to the herb’s healing properties. It has a long history of medicinal use and the Arabs associated sage with immortality. The praise for sage is not unfounded: It is often used as an herbal remedy for afflictions including gas, bloating, poor appetite and excessive sweating. Sage has also been seen to be effective in the management of mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease.
So there you have it: my reasoning behind buying quite so many herbs and why I am so keep to buy more. I hope you find this post useful and I have convinced some of use to use more herbs if not for the flavour then for the added health benefits.
Thanks for reading and enjoy your weekends!