Given that cave paintings in France dating between 15,000 and 27,000 years ago contain depictions of herbs, we can only assume that even the earliest humans found uses for the many herbs that were native to wherever on the planet they lived. Egyptian schools of herbalism existed 5000 years ago, and Europe in the Middle Ages cultivated herb gardens.
Mankind has been cooking with culinary herbs since time immemorial. And no wonder. Different types of herbs can enhance the flavour of virtually any kind of food, as well as improving its presentation. Chefs and home cooks both use herbs to create sweet and savoury dishes that range from rich tasty sauces to brightening light salads and even herb-laced baked goods. Learning to pair both fresh and dried herbs with food can elevate any dish from okay to exceptional.
Here are a few of the most common herbs and their primary uses.
Basil is one of the most common type, sweet basil, is redolent of licorice and cloves. Universally recognizable in the Italian sauce, pesto and its French cousin, pistou, use fresh basil in sauces, sandwiches, soups, and salads
It is extremely versatile. Use it in both sweet and savory dishes. An excellent companion to lamb, mint leaves are also used in fruit and vegetable salads and a bevy of other dishes and drinks - peas, carrots, ice cream, tea, mint juleps and mojitos. And of course, a little sprig will always garnish your dessert plate.
Indigenous to the Mediterranean, rosemary is a highly aromatic and pungent herb. Its pronounced lemon-pine flavour pairs well with roasted lamb, garlic, and olive oil. Rosemary is also a nice addition to focaccia, tomato sauce, pizza and pork, but because its flavor is strong, use a light hand. Chefs use rosemary sprigs to infuse hot oil or butter for cooking meat, vegetables, and other rich rosemary recipes
It grows wild in the mountains of Italy and Greece, so it was originally sprinkled on salads, showered on pizza and slipped into tomato sauces. Today this versatile herb also works well chopped in a vinaigrette, or used in poultry, game or seafood dishes. NOTE: oregano and marjoram are so similar that they are often confused. Oregano has a more potent taste and aroma while marjoram is sweeter and more delicate.
Fresh thyme is a sturdy herb that holds up well to heat and can be used throughout the cooking process. It pairs well with other herbs - especially rosemary, parsley, sage and oregano. Its earthiness is a great addition to lamb, duck, or goose, and it’s essential in Cajun and Creole cooking, not to mention being the primary component of Caribbean jerk seasonings.
Whatever you call it, chances are you either love it or hate it. A native of southern Europe and the Middle East, cilantro is a pungent herb with a faint undertone of anise. One of the most versatile herbs, you can add its distinctive flavor to salsas, soups, stews, curries, salads, vegetables, fish and chicken dishes.
Toss chives into a dish at the last minute, because heat destroys their delicate onion flavor. To maximize their taste, use thin slices. Finely snipped chives make a fine garnish. Chives are great in dip sauces and quesadillas and on baked potatoes.
With its grassy flavor, bright green color, and slender stems, dill is renowned for pickling, dressings, egg dishes and creamy salads such as potato salad. Fresh dill pairs particularly well with rich, creamy ingredients like cream cheese. Also, its seeds and flowers are edible.
Common sage is used in both fresh and dried forms. Its long, narrow leaves are distinctively fuzzy with a musty flavor redolent of eucalyptus, cedar, lemon, and mint. Italians love it with their veal, while the French add it to stuffings, cured meats, sausages. It pairs well with hearty fall vegetables and warm, comforting recipes - think Thanksgiving turkey and dressing. Use it with discretion; it can overwhelm a dish.
KEEPING YOUR FRESH HERBS FRESH
- Loosely wrap herbs in a damp paper towel, then seal in a zip-top plastic bag filled with air. Refrigerate for up to five days. Check herbs daily, as some of them lose their flavor after a couple of days.
- Store herbs bouquet-style when in bunches: Place, stems down, in a jar with water covering 1 inch of the stem ends, enclose in a large zip-top plastic bag, and change the water every other day. Most herbs will keep for up to a week this way.
- For herb plants, snip off as much as you need, and the plant will last for weeks or even months.
- To revive limp herbs, trim 1/2 inch off the stems, and place in ice water for a couple of hours.
- Wash herbs just before using; pat dry with a paper towel.
- In most cases, heat kills the flavor of fresh herbs, so they’re best when added to a dish at the end.
with thanks to cookinglight.com and masterclass.com
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