Cooking School – Herbs
There’s nothing like a few herbs tossed into the pot at the last minute to enhance the flavour of a meal. There are now so many varieties readily available in most grocery stores right across the country. You’ll find common herbs like basil, rosemary, thyme, tarragon, mint, chives, cilantro and parsley. And not so common ones like savory, bergamot, bay leaf, fennel, lemon balm and angelica.
Once you’ve brought the herbs home from the store, how to you keep them from turning into mushy shadows of their former selves? If using them all up in one week is out of the question, there are a number of ways you can preserve them. First, wash and dry them. Place them in a salad spinner or between layers of paper towels and remove as much moisture as possible. Then, wrap the herbs loosely in a damp paper towel or cloth. That little bit of moisture keeps the herbs from drying out, and the paper or cloth reabsorbs excess moisture. Put them in a plastic bag and refrigerate. They should stay fresh for up to two weeks.
If you want to hang on to them longer, why not get creative? Preserve them in oils and vinegars. Place a large amount of herbs (don’t be stingy here) in a sealable container. Top up with any oil you prefer, white or cider vinegar. Store for one week, and then you can begin enjoying your handiwork. Or you can purée the herbs with a little water, pour the purée into ice cube trays and freeze them. You’ll always have herbs at the ready to add to sauce or soup.
If you do want to try drying your own herbs, there a few different ways to do it. You can place bunches of herbs in paper bags, place them in a dark area, like a closet, and wait. How long it takes depends on the amount of humidity in the air. But, it will probably take about one month. If you don’t want to wait that long use your oven. Begin by laying them out on a baking sheet and leaving them in a 180-degree oven for 30 minutes, or until dry. Some people have even had success drying them in the microwave for one minute.
Some herbs will retain some of their flavour and fragrance when they’re dried, but many won’t. As a general rule, the more pungent the herb, the more successful it is to dry. On the other hand, basil and parsley tend to lose most of their flavour. Dried herbs can be added to a dish at the beginning of the cooking process. This gives the leaves time to rehydrate and release the essential oils. Fresh herbs, however, really should be added at the last minute.
Basil with tomato, rosemary with beef … Don’t ignore the old classic matches, but you should know that there are actually an infinite number of ways to mix and match herbs with each other and with each kind of food you happen to be cooking. Here’s a list to get you started.
Mint is spicy and sweet all rolled into one leaf. There are actually many different varieties: peppermint, spearmint, apple mint and curly mint. Pair mint with lamb, peas, and any vegetable. Just one or two leaves adds a hit of freshness, and makes a nice substitute for basil. Don’t forget to use it in desserts, and even tea.
Rosemary is resinous and very pungent, yet has a hint of lemon flavour. It gives a savoury tang to beef, lamb, veal, port, rabbit, goose, duck and chicken. Add a sprig to the pan while sautéing mushrooms, potatoes, salmon, and beans.
Marjoram and Oregano are easily confused. There are only slight differences in appearance, but each does have its own distinctive flavour. Marjoram is a smaller, more compact plant with soft gray-green leaves. Oregano grows a bit larger and has green leaves resembling rosemary. It’s actually the wild form of marjoram. Use the leaves of either herb in salads or with poultry, fish, egg, vegetables and sauces. Add either to a combination of herbs along with thyme and sage.
Savory is a bit more difficult to find. It looks like thyme, except with longer and narrower leaves. It has a hot peppery flavour that goes particularly well with bean soup and grilled chicken.
Sage can be a bit bitter raw, but it has a very pleasant flavour when cooked. It is used mostly with pork and other meats, or in the ubiquitous stuffing for chicken. Try it with tomatoes, grilled tuna or other oily fish, like mackerel. The leaves are especially good fried.
Thyme is a very common herb that has a pungent aroma and tastes a bit like cloves.
Use it with all types of meat. Thyme sprinkled over figs and goat cheese, and drizzled with honey is great dessert.
Basil might be described as having a bit of a licorice taste. But, its freshness is also almost minty. Basil is extremely versatile. The obvious match is tomato. But it also goes well with cheese, poultry, eggs, fish, fruit and vegetables.
Parsley has a slightly peppery flavour. You can buy it in a curly form, but the flavour is very mild. The flat-leafed variety, usually referred to as “Italian parsley” is much more flavourful. Try it with chicken, eggs, fish, pasta, potatoes, rice, and vegetables.
Chervil tastes a bit like licorice. It makes up part of the French “fines herbes” combination (parsley, chives, tarragon, chervil), it is used with carrots, eggs, fish, and salads.
Coriander/Cilantro/Chinese Parsley – Different names, same plant. This is a very pungent herb that seems to engender words of love or derision from those who try it. It is very popular in Mexican and Thai cuisines. You can use it with chicken, fish, root vegetables, pork and dried beans.
Fennel or Anise is the triple-threat herb that tastes of licorice. The bulb of the fennel plant can be braised or served raw and paired with carrots and apples. The feathery green leaves are used as herbs in seafood, sausages, and salads. The seeds are ground and used to flavour sausages, chicken and pork.
The leaves of the Dill plant are used as a herb; the classic combination being dill with salmon. But, it goes well with cream based sauces. Or stir it into sour cream to serve on potatoes.
Bay Leaf is pungent and buttery, and, unlike most fresh herbs, can be cooked for a long time in a sauce. Many people suggest that there’s no difference in flavour between fresh and dried bay leaf. I find that the fresh leaves from my bay leaf plant are much more flavourful than the dried ones in my pantry. When it comes to bay leaf, a little goes a long way. Try a leaf in rice, soups or roasts.
Chives have a mild onion flavour. Usually used as a garnish, they’re also great in salads or mashed potatoes. Unlike onions that are added early in the cooking process, chives should be added at the last minute to get the most flavour.
Tarragon is another licorice-flavoured herb. It’s best with chicken and most vegetables and salads. If you can, buy French tarragon. The Russian tarragon doesn’t seem to be as flavourful.
Juniper Berries is what gives gin its flavour. They typically accompany venison, rabbit, lamb or beef. Use them sparingly, Juniper berries are quite pungent.