Cooking With Fresh Herbs
Fresh herbs add brightness and flavor to almost any dish. Here's a cheat sheet on 10 basic herbs and how to use them to your best advantage.
Bought too much of one fresh herb? Try freezing the leftovers—first spread out on a cookie sheet so the leaves won't stick together, then transfer to an air-tight container. Grab a few sprigs from the freezer when you're ready to use again. Frozen herbs will retain their flavor for several months.
A key ingredient in Mediterranean food, basil is a summer herb that can be grown year-round in a sunny window. It has a wonderfully pungent flavor and perfumy aroma. Wrapped in a slightly damp paper towel, fresh basil can be stored in the refrigerator for four days. Or preserve a bunch of fresh basil by placing it stems down in a glass of water with the leaves covered by a plastic bag (try this with any leafy herb). Use it in Summer Tomato Soup, classic Pesto or Grilled Fish with Lemon, Mint and Basil.
Cilantro is a "controversial" herb—some love its distinctive flavor, others describe it as "soapy." Cilantro is called coriander in Europe, as it is the same plant that produces coriander seeds. The leaves are widely used in Asian, Caribbean and Latin American cuisines. It can be found year-round in the produce section of supermarkets, sold in bunches. Look for those with even-colored leaves and no sign of wilting, and store it in a plastic bag for up to one week in the refrigerator. Try it in Seared Prawns with Mint-Cilantro Chutney, Cilantro-Tequila Grilled Chicken or Mahi Mahi with Cilantro Pesto.
A member of the green onion (scallion) family, this herb has slender hollow stems that should be bright green. They have a mild onion flavor and can be used in a variety of dishes, but make sure to add them at the end for optimal flavor. Store chives in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to a week. Chive blossoms are lavender flowers that can be used as a pretty, edible addition to salads. Chopped finely, they are always a great addition to Mashed Potatoes, adding a burst of color and flavor. Or spruce up seafood with a Meyer Lemon-Chive Vinaigrette.
Peppermint and spearmint are the two most widely available species of this bright-flavored, sweet-smelling herb. Peppermint leaves have purple-tinged stems and a peppery flavor; spearmint is milder and more frequently used in cooking. Mint is plentiful during the summer but available in grocery stores year-round. Don't limit your use of mint to drinks and dessert garnishes; it is delicious in a variety of sweet and savory dishes. Lamb with mint is a classic pairing—try Grilled Marinated Lamb with Mache and Mint—and mint also tastes great in Pesto.
Most commonly known as the pizza herb, oregano has a pungent flavor and aroma that goes very well with tomato-based dishes. It's in the same family as marjoram, which has a milder and sweeter flavor. Oregano is most often used dried, but fresh Mediterranean oregano can be found in Italian markets and some grocery stores. Try it in Greek Caponata or a Prosciutto-Mozzarella Panini.
Part of the mint family, rosemary is native to the Mediterranean but is now grown throughout the United States and Europe. Its needle-shaped leaves have flavors of lemon and pine. Fresh rosemary is available in grocery stores year-round. Store it in a plastic bag or upright in a glass of water in the refrigerator. Rosemary adds great flavor to roasted meats and a wide variety of other dishes—try Popcorn with Rosemary-Infused Oil and Rosemary Peach Lemonade.
There are two common types of parsley: curly and flat-leaf (Italian). Curly-leaf is often used as a garnish, while flat-leaf has more flavor. Parsley is sold in bunches and should be wrapped in slightly damp paper towels and stored in the refrigerator for up to a week. The flavor and aroma of dried parsley bears little resemblance to the fresh. Fresh parsley has a mild peppery flavor and can be used to brighten up a wide variety of dishes, like Boiled Parslied Potatoes and Lentil, Bean and Parsley Salad.
Sage is often thought of as a "wintry" herb because of its warming, musty flavor. Though dried sage (rubbed and powdered) is common in most spice racks, bunches of fresh sage are usually available year-round in grocery stores. Look for gray-green leaves with a fragrant aroma and refrigerate, wrapped in a slightly damp paper towel, up to four days. The herb is often used in stuffings and sausages. It also pairs very well with winter squash—try Butternut Squash Ravioli with Sage Brown Butter.
Widely used in French cooking, tarragon is an aromatic herb with a distinct anise flavor. It should be used sparingly, as it can easily dominate other flavors in a dish. Fresh tarragon is available year-round. It's an integral ingredient in classic sauces like Béarnaise and works well with chicken, fish and vegetables. It's even wonderful in cocktails, like this Siberian Sling.
Thyme is another staple herb of French cuisine. Thyme sprigs are part of the classic bouquet garni, used to flavor soups, stews and roasts. Its tiny gray-green leaves have a minty, slightly lemony aroma. Fresh thyme is sold year-round in grocery stores. Use it in Strip Steak with Brandied Mushrooms and Fresh Thyme, Soft Polenta with Lemon, Thyme and Carrots, and even an Apple and Thyme Martini.