Friday, December 26, 2008

An Herb Primer

Here are notes on the herbs that we use most often at the restaurant.


Most of the culinary basils have some mint, licorice, or cinnamon flavor components. Each basil varies in flavor, but they are all wonderful. Basil and tomatoes are forever joined in my cooking vocabulary. I don’t understand one without the other. Basil is always included in my herb marinades. Basil is generally cut in ribbons (called a chiffonade) or chopped. It grows easily from seed once the ground warms up. Pinch it back liberally to keep it from blooming. See also Thai basil.


A tender herb with delicate fernlike leaves and a slight licorice flavor, chervil does not tolerate heat, so we use it most in spring and in the fall. Chervil is a classic component of fines herbes and works very well with fish and poultry. Chervil is generally plucked from the stems. I love to steam salmon with chervil and if I have it in stock, chervil goes into our herb mayonnaise for fish. Sow early and late in the season in not too direct sunlight. I find it works great on the back side of my pea trellis.


Chives are a workhorse for me, always featuring in my herb marinades. I love them for their delicate onion flavor and beautiful blue-green color. Also a classic component of fines herbes, chives are usually sliced into thin rings. I often use them to bring a bit of color to light colored foods. Once established, chives are care free and easily self-seeding (to the point of being a pest!). Even if you only have a coffee can on the windowsill, you should have some chives. We also use the blossoms for garnish and I often shred the blossoms into omelettes.


Nothing screams “Fresh!” to me like cilantro (whose seeds are called coriander). The most commonly used fresh herb in the world, cilantro (also known by its Hindi name Dhania) features in all my Latino cooking, in Indian chutneys (dhania chatni, for example), and as a primary flavoring ingredient in salsas. Salsa and cilantro are so linked in my culinary vocabulary that if I did not have fresh cilantro on hand, I probably would not make salsa. Use sparingly as cilantro has a pronounced flavor and be aware that as much as ten percent of the population finds cilantro disgustingly soapy tasting (this is believed to be a genetic issue). Cilantro is most often plucked from the stems and chopped or used whole as garnish. Cilantro does not tolerate heat well, so grow in the early and late seasons. Grows trivially from seeds.


Dill is a favorite herb. When I think dill, I think cucumbers, sour cream, and salmon. An inoffensive herb, dill can be used in fairly large quantities. It is especially good with eggs, fish, and poultry. Dill is plucked from the stems and optionally chopped. Readily sown from seed, dill reseeds without any effort on your part.

Garlic Chives

Garlic chives are an onion relative with bright green, flat leaves with a pronounced garlic flavor. I use them in generic herb marinades and also any time that I want garlic flavor plus bright green coloring. They are a classic in the chicken mousse that is stuffed into Chinese dumplings. Garlic chives are generally sliced into thin rings as are chives. I always add them to my herb marinades because I have them everywhere now. I never had any success germinating them from seed, but I was able to buy a small pot at a greenhouse and divide it about 12 ways. Now that I have them growing, they self-seed like crazy to the point of being weeds. Go figure.


Lavender is not much used as a culinary herb in the US, but it is often found in herbes de Provence from the south of France. The leaves are slightly musty as is sage, so I use them sparingly in herb mixes and chop them very fine. The blooms I sometimes steep in cream to flavor desserts.


Lemongrass is a grass that grows in clumps and has a delicate citronella flavor that is very difficult to mimic with other lemon flavorings. Easy to grow, but very tender, lemongrass wants heat and moisture. Harvest individual stalks from the outside of the clump and strip away any of tough outer leaves. Cut off the top of the stalk about five inches above the roots and discard the tops. Slice the cream colored lower part of the stalk into rings for marinades and chop the rings finely if you are using the lemongrass in a finished dish. At first frost, harvest all your lemongrass and freeze it. You can try to bring it inside, but I have never had any luck at this.

Lemon Verbena

We grow this tender herb in pots outside the restaurant door. It has a wonderfully intense lemon flavor and even more pronounced fragrance. I use it in herb marinades and for garnishes, but mostly for flavoring desserts such as panna cotta.


There are many, many kinds of oreganos and marjorams on the market and they all vary slightly in flavor. The flavor is very assertive, so use a light hand with this herb. Strip the leaves from the stems and chop finely. I mostly use oregano in flavoring Greek dishes and in general herb mixes. I do not like oregano in tomato sauces. It reminds me too much of crappy pizza sauce.


I think we’re all familiar with parsley and its bright flavor. We only use flat leaf parsley at the restaurant. Not only is it easier to chop, but it has more flavor than curly parsley. Although it is a biennial, it is pretty useless in its second year—all its effort is going into bolting. Replant every spring.


Rosemary is a classic Mediterranean herb and a natural with lamb and in meat sauces. I love to roast chickens and potatoes with rosemary. It’s a very assertive herb, so use it sparingly. Depending on what I want to do, I either include whole sprigs in bouquets garnis, strip the leaves, or strip the leaves and chop them very fine. If you’re lucky, you can grow rosemary in our climate. There are two cultivars that can tolerate some cold, Arp and Alba. Arp has much better flavor than Alba. Over a period of years, I was able to select a strain of Arp that consistently wintered over for me (on a southwest-facing wall) and ultimately got four bushes to be about five feet tall. Then we remodeled the house and the bulldozer got them before I could move them. A sad day that was.


Sage is one of the classic Southern poultry herbs along with thyme. Sage features prominently in my poultry dressings, in dirty rice, in my Southern style sausage, and I stuff it into the cavities of chickens that I roast. Sometimes I put whole sage leaves under the skin of chickens to be roasted. Sage is also prominent in Northern Italian cooking and I love it with veal and in white beans. Sage is one of the few herbs that I like better dried than fresh. I generally chop the fresh leaves fairly fine.


Tarragon is another of the classic fines herbes from France. It goes well with both poultry and fish and is a key flavoring ingredient in sauce tartare and in sauce Béarnaise (which I detest). An assertive herb with a definite licorice flavor, tarragon wants to be used sparingly. Strip the leaves from the stems and chop finely.

Thai Basil

One of my darling herbs, Thai basil tastes to me like a cross between mint and black pepper. What a fun flavor profile! An indispensable garnish for many Thai dishes, Thai basil is easy to grow from seed, once the soil gets warm. Strip the leaves as for any other basil. Since the leaves tend to be very small, I often leave them whole. Thai basil is a catchall name for a variety of basils, most of which have purple stems and small dark green leaves.


Were I asked to choose five flavorings to bring to a deserted island, the first four are no contest: salt, pepper, thyme, and garlic. I like thyme so much that I cannot think of cooking without it. And it is the one herb I can count on year round. It’s always in the garden, even under the snow. Thyme is one of the quintessential poultry herbs and I rarely roast a chicken without a healthy sprinkle of fresh thyme leaves and a bunch of sprigs stuffed into the body cavity. Thyme leaves are easily stripped from the stalks by pulling from the root end to the tip. There are scads of cultivars, each with its own flavor. Plant a bunch and try them out. My all-time favorite was a variegated thyme (lemon yellow margins on dark green leaves). Sadly, it died without me being able to divide it. I don’t use dried thyme. It can be really strong and bitter.

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