Remember me to one who lives there. She once was a true love of mine."
--Simon & Garfunkel
Whether you're going to Scarborough Fair or Safeway, if you can only bring four fresh herbs home from the market, these are the four to put in your basket - basil, mint, rosemary and thyme. (Sorry, parsley and sage...you are runners-up in Epicure's spices of life!)
I use at least one of these classic herbs regularly. And since I've become a Californian, if I could pick a fifth one for good measure, it would probably be cilantro. So let's take a minute to celebrate each of these spices.
Not surprising when you think about their respective flavors, basil, mint and rosemary (as well as sage, oregano and catnip) belong to the same plant family. All the herbs in this family readily emit their flavors and fragrances so they are easy to identify.
Basil has a rich, spicier flavor with touches of mint and clove. Basil originates from India and Asia and its 40-plus varieties differ greatly in color, size, texture and fragrance. Many varieties are used as ornamental plants. The most common cooking basils are Sweet Basil, Italian Basil (with a Mediterranean touch) and Thai Basil, which is spicier than most. Basil adds great flavor to meats, poultry, fish, beans, soups and stews. It nicely complements garlic, thyme and lemon and is excellent to sharpen the taste of mild-flavored vegetables.
In South American countries, mint is known as yerba buena, or the "good herb." Mint has a soft, subtle flavor and is the most widely used herb in the world. Before it was used for seasoning in cooking, it was used primarily as a medicinal herb. Today, it is also used as a popular flavor additive for many products.
Both basil and mint have digestion-soothing qualities and sedative, calming features. Further, mint offers sleep-inducing benefits, is a diuretic, can be used as a mild decongestant and soothes the throat.
Rosemary is easy to recognize by its woody stem and fragrant leaves, like pine needles. Its flavor is strong and refreshing and can even be bitter if used in too great a quantity. It is an ideal complement to oily foods such as fish, lamb and ribs. Consuming large, high-strength quantities of rosemary can be toxic, even fatal. On the other hand, rosemary can be used as a food preservative.
Thyme dates back to ancient Egyptian times when it was used for purifying, aiding sleep and even embalming. Garden Thyme is a flavorful, culinary herb while other varieties are used as plants and ground cover. It is widely used in Italian, French and Caribbean cuisines. Because it holds its own but does not overpower foods, it is often used to flavor stews, soups and meats, especially lamb. Like basil, thyme complements eggs, tomatoes and cheese well also. Thyme retains its flavor long after drying but is slow to release while cooking so it is generally added early in the process.
Cilantro is native to Africa and Asia but has been adopted by many cultures for their cuisines including Latin American, Chinese, African, Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean. The leaves are known by many names - coriander, cilantro, dhania, Chinese parsley, Mexican parsley. With its light parsley flavor with citrus-y accents, cilantro is used widely in chutneys, salsas, guacamole and sushi rolls. Chopped coriander is often used as a garnish on curries. Because it loses its flavor and aromas quickly, it is usually added to a dish just before serving or as an aromatic topping. Dried coriander seeds have a spicy, orange-flavored taste and are used in Middle Eastern cuisines as an after-dining breath freshener.
As with other herbs and spices mentioned in this series, be adventuresome. Try cooking with herbs you have the least experience with by trying a recipe in which the herb is featured or by experimenting with the herb/spice in one of your favorite dishes. Or, make infused oils with one of the featured herbs! Spice up your cooking...your family will love you for it!
Jacqui lives in Danville with her pug, Nina Simone, and volumes of cookbooks and recipes. Her column runs every other week. E-mail her at email@example.com.
Herb or Spice Infused Oils
Infused oils are easy to create and make great gifts for family and friends who love to cook.
1. Wash and dry your favorite herb and bruise the branches lightly to release flavor.
2. Place them in a clean decorative glass container and cover with warmed oil. (Less strongly flavored oils like sunflower and safflower oil work best; extra-virgin olive oil is also a good choice. If you begin with a mono-unsaturated oil such as olive oil or peanut oil, the infused oils must be refrigerated.)
3. Seal bottle tightly and store in a cool, dark place to infuse about two weeks.
4. Taste the oil in each bottle. If it is not strong enough, add more fresh herbs and let stand another week. If you leave the leaves intact, the flavor will become stronger as it stands, so keep that in mind.
5. Use the oil within two months. Use infused oils in salad dressings and marinades to enjoy the full flavor.
Cilantro Herb Butter (serves 4))
A quick, delicious topping for grilled fish and chicken
4 Tbsp salted butter
1/4 tsp finely grated lemon peel
2 Tbsp finely chopped cilantro
1/4 tsp finely chopped serrano chiles, seeds and membranes removed
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/4 tsp finely minced garlic
1/2 tsp grated ginger
1. Soften the butter. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix until well combined. Place on plastic wrap and roll it, forming a log about 1-1/2 inches thick and 4 inches long. Put it in the freezer to harden, and keep it frozen until ready to use.
2. To use: Cut thin "coins," about 1/4-inch thick, from the roll and place them on fish or chicken during the final few minutes in the broiler or on the barbecue, just long enough for the butter to melt (two "coins" per 4-6 ounce piece of meat should be adequate). Garnish plate with cilantro sprigs.
Osso Buco (serves 4)
3 Tbsp vegetable oil
4 veal shanks, 2 to 2-1/2 inches thick
Salt and pepper, to taste
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
4 medium carrots, finely diced or chopped
4 large celery ribs, finely diced or chopped
2 medium onions, finely diced or chopped
3/4 cup chianti (or other mild red wine)
1-1/2 cups chicken stock
4-6 large fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and diced
1 pound fettuccine pasta, cooked according to package directions
4 sprigs fresh rosemary
2 tsp lemon zest, grated
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a heavy Dutch oven or other non-reactive pot large enough to hold the veal shanks in one layer, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Season the veal shanks with salt and pepper and dredge well on both sides in flour. Sear the veal on each side 2 to 3 minutes, or until crusty and brown. Remove to a warm platter.
2. In the same pot, sauté the carrots, celery and onions over medium heat until soft and aromatic, about 6 minutes. Stir in the wines, the chicken stock and the tomatoes. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Return the veal shanks to the pot, pressing each one to the bottom.
3. Bring the liquid in the pot to a boil, cover tightly and place in the center of the oven. Cook shanks about 2 hours, or until they are about to fall off the bone and are tender when pierced with a fork.
4. To serve: Divide the fettuccine among 4 large warm serving plates and place a veal shank on each. Spoon equal parts of the sauce from the cooking pot over all. Garnish each shank with a fresh rosemary sprig and sprinkle with lemon zest.