Tomato sauce and pesto come to mind for most people, but basil is the most versatile herb of all. It has a rich, slightly peppery flavor of mint and cloves, and it’s delicious raw or cooked.
Basil makes a sensational garnish and comes in many different flavors, such as Thai (anise) and opal basil. It’s the no. 1 herb for salads, stews, marinades—or just about anything. Never store basil at a temperature below 50 degrees or it will turn black. Blanch basil in boiling water for three to five seconds to retain the nice color when making pesto.
Chives are a member of the onion family. They are usually chopped fine and sprinkled on top of many foods, from baked potatoes to vichyssoise. Chives can be used whenever raw onion is called for, especially in delicate recipes that could be overpowered by the onion flavor.
Chives are wonderful in omelets, soups, salads and vegetables and should be added at the last minute of cooking. Use them as decorative garnish or as you would string to tie together veggies, cheeses or asparagus. Combine chunks of cucumber, tomato, feta cheese, minced chives and a splash of olive oil for a tasty peasant-style salad.
Dill is a member of the parsley family and a distant cousin to the carrot. It is best known for its flavor because the “crown” is used in pickling. Dill “weed” are the leaves, which are used in a variety of ways—but should not be used with a heavy hand.
Use scissors instead of a knife when mincing to preserve the flavor. Use it raw or add at the end of cooking because heat diminishes the flavor. Mix dill with butter, cream cheese, cottage cheese or yogurt to make a spread or dip. Add fresh dill to your favorite potato salad recipe. Combine dill with lemon butter on broiled fish.
This tropical perennial with grass-like leaves is 4 to 6 feet tall and exudes a lemon aroma when rubbed between the fingers. The grassy leaves may be steeped in hot water to make a hot lemon drink, and they are also used in flavoring fish stocks or curries, but they should be removed before serving. The lower stalk is the most important part of the herb, because it’s where the flavor is concentrated.
The lower stalk can be peeled, finely chopped or pounded to release its flavor for stir-fry dishes, fish or poultry sauces. It is used extensively in Thai, Vietnamese and other Asian dishes.
Marjoram is a mild, fragrant herb and a close kin to oregano, although its flavor is subtler and sweeter. Marjoram is an important seasoning for sausage or for scenting lamb before cooking. Add marjoram to your favorite soup, stew, salad or omelet recipe, or use it as a substitute for oregano in pizza and lasagna recipes. Try it sprinkled over roasted veggies too.
Mint comes in a variety of flavors such as peppermint, apple mint, orange mint, lemon mint and chocolate mint, but the no. 1 seller is spearmint. It’s an important flavoring in Middle Eastern, Indian and Asian cuisines and in dishes featuring fatty cuts of lamb and pork.
Mint is famous in the South for cool mint juleps, and a spring of mint in tea or water makes a refreshing drink on hot summer days. You can also add mint to your favorite fruit salad or green salad recipes, and mint makes a lovely garnish for desserts.
Here’s a neat culinary trick: steep 1/4 cup chopped fresh mint leaves in warmed milk for 20 minutes, strain out the leaves, and use the mint-flavored milk to flavor homemade ice creams, custards or sauces. And another one, for mint glaze: steep 3 sprigs of crushed mint in 1/8 cup of heated cider vinegar for 6 minutes, then add ½ cup honey. Use this mixture to glaze duck, goose, lamb or ribs.
Opal basil has lovely, deep purple leaves that are full-flavored and fragrant. The leaves add brilliant color and a peppery basil taste to oils, vinegars or jelly. It is a striking, fresh addition to salads, pestos and pastas. Opal basil’s flavor blends well with many other herbs, especially lemon thyme, Italian parsley, chives and garlic. It is delicious paired with eggplant, peppers, carrots, steamed broccoli or onions. Use it anywhere you would use green basil.
Rosemary is a beautiful evergreen herb native to the Mediterranean. It’s a member of the same family as mint, and its pungent, somewhat piney flavor also enhances sweetness.
In French cooking, rosemary is a traditional ingredient in bouquet garni, as is thyme. Add rosemary to the dough when baking bread or making dumplings or cookies. To release the aromatic oils, crush or mince rosemary leaves before sprinkling or rubbing them into roasting meats such as beef, chicken, fish or lamb. Always use rosemary sparingly or it will overpower other flavors.
Rosemary can be infused into butter, oil or wine and used as a marinade or for basting. The upright variety of rosemary makes a great skewer for meat or seafood. Toss rosemary onto the charcoal in the grill to add extra flavor.
Sorrel looks somewhat like spinach but has a very sour lemony flavor. It has been a European favorite for centuries. It is also known as dock, patience and sour grass. Sorrel is high in vitamin C, which explains its citrus taste. Chefs puree sorrel into a cooked green sauce served over fish fillets. Add sorrel to your favorite soup recipe to liven it up, or try a little sorrel on your sandwich instead of lettuce. Add fresh, young sorrel leaves to salad.
Thyme (pictured) tastes delicately green with a faint clove aftertaste. There are a number of varieties and flavors. Even though its leaves are small, they have a very peppery flavor and should be used with a light touch. Its flavor blends well with lemon, garlic and basil.
Thyme is essential to clam chowder and Cajun gumbo. Add a little minced thyme to stuffing and meatloaf. Rub thyme over pork roast or whole poultry before cooking. Because thyme will not lose its flavor in slow cooking, it’s a good choice for bean and lentil dishes. Or baste fish with fresh lemon juice and minced thyme.
For a quick vegetable dip, combine 1 cup sour cream or yogurt with a little minced fresh thyme, chives, basil and dill.
Edible flowers are primarily used for garnish, although many of the edible flower varieties have wonderful flavors, textures and colors that enhance many dishes. It seems odd to eat a flower, but we do it every day when we eat cauliflower or broccoli. All flowers of fresh herbs are edible flowers, so their taste may resemble the taste of the herb on which they grow.
A scattering of edible flowers makes food look as wonderful as it tastes. Edible flowers can transform a simple green salad into an exquisite edible bouquet. Chive blossoms and calendula petals help to create a charming salad. Borage sprigs and flowers can be floated in cool summer drinks. The peppery flavor of nasturtium leaves and flowers are good in sandwiches as well as salads. Add minced nasturtium petals to your deviled egg mixture or omelet recipe to add color and zest.
Minced edible flowers can be added to cheese spreads; herb butters; and batters for waffles, pancakes, and crepes. Dip squash or zucchini blossoms in cornmeal or flour batter and fry. Pansies and roses are beautiful when crystallized in sugar and used to garnish cakes or pastries. Freeze flowers in ice cube trays and pop into drinks. Red sage flowers are a delicate and sweet garnish for desserts.