Culinary Flowers (AKA Herbs)

Cooking with fresh herbs is a game-changer for home cooks.

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Not only can a garnish of fresh herbs improve the aesthetic of a dish, the flavor of using fresh herbs instead of dried ones is worth the effort. Their leaves, stems and flowers also impart a wonderful aroma to foods. If you don’t currently cook with fresh herbs, you’re missing out on a great opportunity to take your cooking to the next level. Dried herbs work well in certain instances but they don’t have the same amazing flavor that fresh herbs do and, contrary to popular belief, they will eventually go stale if kept in the pantry too long. 

Generally, it’s a good idea to wait until near the end of the cooking process to add herbs, since they can easily overpower the flavors in a dish if added too early.

It can be as simple as incorporating fresh thyme into a chicken recipe or throwing fresh basil on a frozen pizza you’ve cooked. Most herbs are generally inexpensive and easily found at grocery stores or farmers markets. Alternatively, you can grow your own herb garden. In most cases, a window sill will suffice, but now, thanks to science, LED-lit smart gardens make it easy for people living without outdoor space to grow herbs indoors. These smart gardens do not require soil and use a computer to alert the user to add nutrients as well as an advanced light system to promote growth. 

Some herbs pair better with certain foods than others. Thyme is a great herb to have on hand since it goes well with pork and poultry, while rosemary is quite robust and needs a stronger flavor to stand up to it, like lamb. More on that in a bit! Generally, it’s a good idea to wait until near the end of the cooking process to add herbs, since they can easily overpower the flavors in a dish if added too early. Sadly, fresh herbs don’t have a long lifespan but you can certainly trim the tips of their stems and submerge them in a jar with fresh water. Just like with flowers, this will breathe life back into them.   

Bouquet garni is French for "garnished bouquet," and is an herb mixture used in stocks, soups, meats, and vegetables.

BOUQUET GARNI

Let’s take a closer look at three of the herbs included in this week’s menu, starting with parsley. Apart from giving the inside of falafel its green color, parsley is one of the most commonly used herbs in cooking, particularly in Italian cuisine, and pairs particularly well with basil and rosemary. Parsley has a vibrant, clean flavor and is typically present in seafood and vegetable sauces, as well as a variety of pasta dishes, sauces, and soups. It is often used to compliment spicy dishes, and it is found in bouquet garni. Bouquet garni is French for “garnished bouquet,” and is an herb mixture used in stocks, soups, meats, and vegetables. The traditional combination is parsley, thyme, and bay leaf, but you may also find recipes that include rosemary, basil, and tarragon.

There are two main varieties of parsley; curly and flat-leaf parsley. In general, flat-leaf has a stronger flavor and is used more in cooking, while the curly variety is commonly used as a garnish on potato and rice dishes. The health benefits of parsley include vitamins A and C, as well as copper, iron, and magnesium. Parsley also acts as a great breath freshener – which is why it is commonly paired with garlic!

Although commonly associated with Italian cooking, basil actually came from India to Europe by way of the spice trade.

BASIL

Although commonly associated with Italian cooking, basil actually came from India to Europe by way of the spice trade. This herb brings a peppery freshness to food and pairs particularly well with tomatoes, garlic, and lemon. It is used in countless Italian recipes, perhaps most famously in pesto, which you will be making from scratch this week. Basil’s antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties are amongst its many health benefits.

ROSEMARY

Rosemary is a member of the mint family. A hardy plant, it has a peppery, woody flavor and is often tossed with pasta or used in meat and vegetable preparations. A common flavor agent for stocks and stews, it has a long history, as a symbol of friendship, an object to ward off bad dreams and as a medicinal agent. Its health properties include iron, calcium, dietary fiber, and antioxidants.

This article merely scratches the surface of the vast herb world. Like any ingredient, the best way to get acquainted with herbs is to start using them in your everyday cooking and you’ll soon get a sense for what you like. It helps to think of herbs like the flowers of the culinary world!