Herbs have played a vital role in man’s life since the middle ages. They were widely used to create pleasant fragrances and wonderful culinary flavors, and were recognized for their curative powers attributed to supernatural causes thousands of years ago. In olden days, herbs were also used to dye leather and fabrics as well as air fresheners to purify the air in their banquet halls. They were even used as a cleansing and purifying agents, especially in drinking water for long ocean voyages.
Some herbs were still being regarded as sacred herbs and used in many religions. Voyager and settler from different countries brought herbs with them, resulting in the widespread growth and use of herbs all over the world. The focus of this article will be on the various herbs used in culinary purposes with perhaps a future article on how to grow them at home.
Herbs on the Dining Table
Culinary herbs are the fresh or dried leaves of herbaceous plants that are in small portions to impart flavor and aromatic quality to food. This main characteristic distinguishes them from vegetables. There are more than hundreds of varieties of plants that are grown for this purpose. Oil is contained in the herb leaves which, when crushed, heated or chopped, release its flavor. Prolonged cooking, however, reduces the flavor and aroma of most herbs so it is best to add them in the last five minutes of cooking or use as a garnish before serving. Different herbs are popular in different cuisines. Thai food uses lots of cilantro and lemon grass while Middle Eastern cuisine favors the use of oregano, dill and mint.
Basil, parsley and oregano are widely used in Italy, especially in pasta dishes, while the French love to use chervil, fennel and tarragon. Herbs are best used when fresh, however, dried herbs are also widely used. Dried herbs lose much of their volume in the drying process and, as a result, are more concentrated in flavor. Therefore, less dried herbs should be used when the recipe originally calls for fresh herbs. There is little doubt that a few fresh herbs added to a simply prepared dish can end up making the preparation a “masterpiece.”
What follows is a list of botanical herbs that are commonly used in popular dished.
Arugula ( Eruca vesicaria sativa)
This herb is often mistaken for being a slad plant. The English call it rocket and the French call it Roquette. It is native to the Mediterranean, a member of the mustard family, and has a peppery mustard and slightly bitter taste and aroma. The leaves are plucked when they are young, are highly perishable and should thus be consumed within two days. It adds pizzazz to soups, vegetables and meat, and is widely used pasta dishes and as a pizza topping.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
There are several types, but the most popular are sweet basil, which has a spicy aroma and is widely used in Italian cooking, and Thai basil, the leaves of which have a spicy aniseed odor with hints of citrus and mint and is used in Thai and Southern Asian dishes. Basil is one of the main ingredients of many Mediterranean dishes as well, and its sweet, clove-like spiciness goes great with tomato dishes. Its flavor is strong enough to stand on its own and is often paired with garlic. Basil should be torn, not chopped, and is usually added at the last minute to hot food to preserve the flavor.
Bay Leaf ( Laurus nobilis)
Also known as laurel leaf and bay laurel, this is one herb that is decidedly better used dried than fresh. Add nicely to stuffing, stews, stocks, curries and marinades, and to various fish and rice dishes and especially soups. Bay Leaf is also used to replace salt in some dishes. One or two bay leaves are added at the start of cooking and are removed before serving.
Chives (Allium schoenprasum)
Chives is a member-herb of the onion family. It has a mild flavor of onion but without its strong pungency, usually added to pasta and sauces, soups, salads, dips and spreads. Potato salad and baked potatoes taste great when chives are added to them at the end of the cooking process to preserve flavor. It’s best used fresh.
Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum)
Cilantro, also known as coriander or Chinese parsley, delivers a fresh flavor with a hint of citrus. Some describe it as “soapy.” Its leaves, stem and root are all edible. However, its fresh leaves and the dried seeds are what are commonly used in cooking. The plant that produces its flat leaves is the same plant that produces coriander seeds (a spice). Both leaves and roots are used for flavoring and garnishing, adding great flavor to various meat dishes and going well with lime juice and chili. Popularly used in Mediterranean, Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines, cilantro is also widely used in Caribbean, Mexican, Latin American, Chinese, African and Southeast Asian cuisines – practically all over the world.
Dill (Anethum graveolens)
Dill has feathery leaves and a unique spicy green taste. Its light aroma faintly resembles liquorice. This herb produces a cluster of flowers from which dill seed is obtained. Dill seeds add flavor to cabbage dishes, potato salad, pickles, salmon dishes, stew and cooked root vegetables. Dill leaves go well with chicken, fish, creamy sauces and especially in salads, and is used as a garnish for vegetable dishes. Chop and add immediately before serving dish.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
Its leaves are similar to those of the dill herb. Fine and feathery, it has a pleasant, liquorice flavor and is usually added to salad, soups and fish dishes.
Lemon Grass (Cymbopogon citratus)
The lower stalk of this tropical grass has a citrus, lemony flavor and is highly valued in Southeast Asian cuisine. Also widely used in Sri Lankan and Caribbean dishes, it can be used fresh, dried or powdered and gives soups, simmered dishes, salads and curries a burst of lemon herb flavor.
Mint comes in many varieties like apple mint, peppermint, spearmint, lemon mint and even chocolate mint. This great seasoning for lamb and vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, tomatoes. It also goes well with steamed fish and salads, soups, sauces, plain meat, fish and poultry, and it’s also used to make teas and infusions. Mint is highly recommended for chocolate or lemon-based desserts. For better flavor-enhancement, add at the end of cooking.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare)
Also known as wild marjoram, this herb is available in fresh dried or ground leaves and is a member of the mint family, with a warm, aromatic scent. Its robust taste is used to flavor meat, fish, poultry, vegetables and sauces and complements stuffing, dumplings and breads. A very popular seasoning fro soups, pasta sauces, stews and shellfish, oregano are popular in Mexican, Greek, Italian and Spanish cuisines.
Pandan (Pandanus amaryllifolius)
This herbs sword-like leaves have a very pleasant grassy and nutty aroma and are basically used to flavor savory Southeast Asian dishes as they are widely available in most Asian markets. Pandan leaves are also used to wrap chicken and rice. The leaves are often steeped in coconut milk before adding to the dish. They are also used to flavor desserts and beverages.
There are at least three dozen varieties of parsley but the culinary world usually uses but two types. Italian parsley or the flat leaf parsley is stronger in flavor and is normally used in cooking, while the curly parsley is most commonly used as a garnish. However, the tow can be used interchangeably. Parsley has a very distinct taste and aroma, although mild as compared to other herbs. Available in fresh or dried leaves, its superb in omelettes, scrambled eggs, pasta and vegetable dishes, sauces and mashed potatoes. Parsley also goes well with other herbs like basil, garlic, oregano, thyme and mint, to name a few.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
This is a small, perennial evergreen shrub that belongs to the mint family and is the most versatile of all herbs, matching well with practically any dish. Available in fresh leaves, dried or ground, rosemary has a pin-like fragrance and putaste. It is a popular herb native to the Mediterranean but is now produced all over the world. This herb has an aromatic flavor that brings to life fish, pork and poultry dishes, vegetables, roast lamb, meat stews, tomato sauces, marinades and baked goods.
Sage (Salvia Officinalis)
This perennial herb also belongs to the mint family and is also native to the Mediterrean. Sage should be used sparingly because of its overpowering, smoky fragrance and musty, minty flavor. One of the most popular culinary herbs, sage is available in fresh, dried, crumbled or ground leaves and enhances the flavor of stuffing, seafood, meat, vegetables and breads.
Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus)
This is an essential herb in French cuisine, a perennial herb that has a fresh and anise-like flavor. Exceptional, divine, subtle and sophisticated are some adjectives used to describe the flavor of tarragon. Although available in dried form. Fresh tarragon is much more preferred and used to create fine aromatic sauces for meat, poultry and seafood dishes. Tarragon leaves and branches are also often used to flavor vinegars.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
This popular herb has a rich aromatic flavor and comes in many varieties. It is used to flavor just about anything (soups, roast, casseroles and slow-cooked foods) and is popularly used in French and Caribbean cuisine. Thyme is usually included in seasoning blends for meat and poultry, and is often used in fish sauces and chowders. It also goes well with lamb. veal, eggs, tomatoes and croquettes.
These are just a few of the bountiful herbs that Mother Earth has made available to us. Take out to experiment and master the art of seasoning with fresh herbs and in no time, you will be creating masterpieces of your own and surprising everyone with your culinary talents.
Author: MC Locsin – published in enrich magazine 9/12