Herbs, if you use a little or a whole lot they transform your everyday dish adding a unique freshness and aroma while being amazingly beneficial for our bodies too.
While living in India I was already familiar with a few varieties that my mother would use in her everyday kitchen like coriander, dill, mint, bay leaves, and on rare occasions, basil. However, when I moved to the Middle East and began cooking my meals regularly I gradually developed a full appreciation for these fragrant and delicate group of ingredients. With nationalities from all over the world, this region is blessed with a treasure of produce leaving a novice or an accomplished cook plenty to experiment with at reasonable rates. Also for the people of this region herbs are an important part of their everyday meal and this in turn opened my mind and palate to a whole new world of food.
As I began experimenting in my kitchen I was thrilled to discover that just a few sprigs of a herb could bring so much magic to an otherwise mundane dish. On our travels around the globe, my favourite thing was to head to the botanical gardens and just walk past the herb bushes gently brushing the tops taking in that amazing fragrance or to sink my head into a bunch of freshly bunches excited to discover new varieties at the local markets.
Varieties and types.
We have finally started to notice that there is real curative value in local herbs and remedies. In fact, we are also becoming aware that there are little or no side effects to most natural remedies, and that they are often more effective than Western medicine. – Anne Wilson Schaef
Parsley, Chives, Tarragon, Sage, Rosemary, Oregano, lavender, the list is endless especially once you start looking beyond the supermarket and more into local or indigenous herbs.
Have you heard of Loveroot, Horsemint, Wild mint, Sagebrush, Juniper, Wild Onion, Lemon Myrtle, dandelion, comfrey, sage, chamomile, juniper berries, or mugwort?
For centuries herbs have held an important place both in our sacred, medicinal, and culinary world. The early Christians, ancient Egyptians, Indians, Saxons, Celts, Native Americans, Africans, and the Aboriginals of Australia all have used herbs in religious ceremonies for protection, cleansing, healing, and for their nutritional value.
Herbs can be used in both savoury and sweet dishes. Roasts, bread, stuffings, stews, marinated meats, and pasta would be examples of the savoury group. While summer drinks, cocktails, and baked treats like cookies, cakes, or shortbreads are the sweeter dishes that they could be added to.
One could also categorize them into hard and soft varieties. The harder woodier, varieties being Rosemary, Thyme, Oregano, Majoram, and the softer tender leafy varieties are coriander, parsley, mint, basil, etc.
A well-crafted cocktail isn’t complete without the right garnish. This final flourish – often citrus or fresh herbs – enhances the drink’s taste, smell, and look. Claire Saffitz
It is best to taste and understand the flavour of a herb as one uses it. Rosemary for example has a woody flavour and is perfect for roasted vegetables like potatoes or the hardier winter varieties of pumpkin.
It also brings excellent depth to chicken, lamb, and beef roasts.
Mint is best paired with chocolate, mixed in chutneys, and cool drinks. Thyme is used when a dish needs that citrus zing. Blackberry or Pork works so well with Sage. Dill in stuffed fish, mixed with dals and adds lightness to rich curries. Lavender pairs well with fruits when baked or added to a simple lemonade.
The French have used herbs cleverly for centuries in the form of a bouquet garni that is a bundle of herbs added to casseroles, stocks, sauces, and soups. It is a mix of a few sprigs of parsley, thyme, and a bay leaf. These may be bundled with a strip of leek or a stalk of celery, or tied in a muslin bag or a simple string, to keep them together during the cooking process allowing the chef to easily fish it out before serving.
Amongst its other uses herbs often top salads, stirred in soups, layered in sandwiches, and mixed in cakes. They are added to drinks both medicinal and the more fun variety of popular cocktails like mojitos, sweet wines, mineral water, teas, and sodas. The Europeans are well known for their varieties of herb stuffed sausages, unique ice creams, salad dressings, and traditional pestos. Used both cosmetically and medicinally as air fresheners, oils, and perfume they are also placed between linen to keep it fresh through long cold winters and damp monsoons.
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” ― Hippocrates
Herbs, vegetables, and other kitchen ingredients are often easily trashed. So what can we do to increase its shelf life especially on this topic of herbs?
Preservation of produce has been an age-old tradition in many cultures worldwide and such a beautiful one too. Families and communities would get together sing, dance, and celebrate the change in the seasons while passing on the traditional preservation, dehydration, pickling recipes, and methods. I really do hope we keep these practices alive for future generations.
So what can one do to prolong the use of herbs?
Firstly make sure the herbs you do purchase or harvest are bright, fresh, and have a strong aroma. It is then good to give them a nice wash in some cool water and air dry them for a while. You can then store it in an airtight box with a paper towel in the fridge and is best used as soon as possible.
But often when we take a peek into our vegetable draw and we are sure to find a few wilted herbs. Somehow the week passes and it is eventually binned.So here are a few things one can do to enjoy the use of herbs all year long.
1. Freeze them. I must be honest though and mention that in this state the herbs are not as fragrant. However, I do use this method when I want to preserve curry leaves and other varieties for a longer period stalk and all.
2. Drying. This is a quick method that I use often. You can either tie up bunches or bundles of individual herbs and let them air dry either hung from a line near a fire or a warm space in your kitchen. Often I just let them dry on the kitchen counter especially in summer. Once dried store them in an airtight container or a jar with the stems for the smaller hardier herbs like thyme and without for the larger softer varieties like basil.
3. Olive oil.
This method not only tastes good but looks gorgeous both when the fragrance of herbs is infused through long gentle heating of olive oil which is then cooled and stored in a bottle or when freshly chopped herbs are mixed with olive oil and frozen in ice trays. Once frozen just pop the cube onto a pan and prepare to be intoxicated by the beautiful aroma that fills your kitchen and brings real oomph to your dish.
Herbs are used to make flavoured butter. This butter can then be used to brush over steaks or roasts or just a slice of toast. You can even stir it through freshly cooked rice or mixed with crumble toppings.
Just like flavoured butter, flavoured salt is not only easy to make but also easy to store. Chop your herb of choice and mix it in the salt. All you have to do then is let it sit for a few days and it is ready to use throughout the year.
Use the same method as with salt but make sure that whenever you notice the sugar clumping take a dry spoon and break up those clumps as the sugar tends to clump especially in winter and during the monsoons.
I grow herbs near the back door, and you can grow a wonderful selection of herbs and window boxes… My idea is that you should grow what you eat. There’s no point in growing something like celeriac – which is very difficult to grow – if you hate it. – Mary Berry
Wouldn’t it be great to have a herb garden?
If you don’t have the luxury of a garden or a deck you could even grow some on your window sill, box, pots, a railing or even hanging off your roof.
So besides looking into how much space you have and it’s the location( closest to your kitchen is best) also look into what you tend to use in your kitchen while cooking and ask yourself a few important questions.
Do you cook a lot of Italian or Indian food? Perhaps you could then grow a themed herb garden. What herbs do you buy at a grocery store? Are you really going to use sage? Does sage grow in your environment?
Whatever you do decide to grow make sure that the soil is rich, loose, fast-draining, and the plants have enough sunlight neither too strong nor too shady. Most importantly grow only those varieties that are suited to your climate. When planting herbs in your garden also do keep in mind that containers are also easier to move, unlike a garden bed. This is especially handy when the weather changes or the herbs need a bit of shade or more sunlight and you could just move the container to a better spot.
I adore herb gardens and even if I can’t have a whole container even a pot of thyme my favourite herb is enough to keep me happy. So try growing some and let me know how it goes.
Chimichurri is a fresh and delicious Argentinian oil-based condiment used to accompany barbecued meats.
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
1-2 finely chopped red chill
4 garlic cloves finely chopped
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1 tsp dried oregano
A handful of chopped parsley
Mix all of the above ingredients in a bowl. If you need to use it on the same day let it sit for an hour or two. This helps the ingredients to release all the flavours. However, if you have the time you can even prepare it a day ahead and let it sit refrigerated overnight. Use it to brush liberally over meats that are barbecued or just grilled.
Tip: Don’t waste the stems!
It is the stem that holds amazing flavour. Chop them finely and add them during the cooking process rather than at the end.