Do you feel like you’re not making the most of the herbs growing in your garden? Maybe you buy bunches of fresh basil, parsley, dill or cilantro only to watch them go limp in your fridge or on your kitchen counter? Herbs add flavor, aroma and color to all kinds of dishes, and they’re also good for you. So why let them go to waste?
People have used herbs for both culinary and medical reasons for centuries. Although many studies on herbs’ health benefits have used concentrated solutions of the leaves’ active components — such as polyphenols, plant compounds with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects — there is evidence that they also have benefits when eaten in everyday meals. That’s delicious good news.
I’m a big fan of growing perennial herbs — oregano, sage, rosemary, mint, thymes — as ornamental plants in sunny garden spots or in pots on a sun-drenched patio or deck. It’s great to be able to go outside and cut exactly what you need, exactly when you need it. I also grow tender basil, dill, cilantro and parsley in my vegetable garden.
When buying most cut herbs at the grocery store, make sure the leaves are green and perky. When you get them home, gently rinse them, pat them dry — or spin them in a salad spinner — then wrap in a damp paper towel and place in a plastic bag or an airtight container in the refrigerator. One exception is fresh basil, which is susceptible to cold damage. I’ve had luck with the bouquet method: trim the bottom of the basil stems and place them in a quart jar with a little water in the bottom (make sure no leaves are below the waterline) and leaving it on the counter. I change the water every day or two and use any loose or trimmed leaves first.
Here’s some ideas and inspiration for creatively using the herbs you buy or grow:
Caprese salad — basil, tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, salt, olive oil — is a summer staple, but you can also enliven a deli meat sandwich (or a burger on a bun) by tucking in a few basil leaves. Toss leaves of fresh basil (or cilantro, mint or parsley) into a green salad for a special taste sensation. And of course, if you come into possession of a lot of fresh basil, make a batch of Italian pesto and freeze the extras in meal-size portions.
If you love cilantro, you’ll love that it is featured in a handful of seemingly very different cuisines, including Mexican, Indian, Thai and Vietnamese. Add it to guacamole and salsas. Use it as a topping for any Mexican or Tex-Mex dish, or as a flavorful and cooling note to spicy curries. I often add it to coleslaw, and it also makes a tasty burger topping.
When I buy a gorgeous bunch of fresh “baby dill” (in other words, not the bouquet dill used in pickling), I immediately want to make the Russian Egg and Mushroom Salad from Seattle writer Molly Wizenberg’s blog Orangette. And then I use the rest of the bunch to make a Turkish dish with chicken, dried apricots, cinnamon and orzo. Dill is super versatile, showing up in Russian, Turkish, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, German, Greek, Scandinavian and North American cuisines. Think of the Greek dip tzatziki. Or potato salad. Or deviled eggs. Or salmon. And pickles, of course.
The main reason I grow mint is to make juleps, mojitos and tabbouleh, the Mediterranean bulgur wheat-based salad. I also love to throw a handful of mint in a pitcher of water, stow it in the refrigerator overnight, and sip on it the next day. You could also freeze mint leaves into ice cubes to use in future drinks.
I’ve been on a chimichurri kick lately, but the abundant fresh oregano in my garden gets regular use in tomato-based pasta sauces, on pizza and in chili. Mediterranean oregano — which includes a number of varieties, such as the spicier Greek and the milder Italian — is a member of the mint family, while Mexican oregano is related to lemon verbena, and so has a hint of citrus to it.
What doesn’t parsley go with? It’s a part of cuisines across the Mediterranean and Western Europe, and a key ingredient in tabbouleh salad, salsa verde, fines herbes blend, and bouquets garnis. You can use it in all your summer grain, bean, pasta and potato salads, sprinkled on grilled fish, chicken and vegetables. In the cooler months, I use it liberally on shrimp dishes, especially when they also involve lemon and garlic, and on French lentils dressed with walnut or hazelnut oil. Mix chopped parsley into mashed potatoes or scrambled eggs just before serving for pleasing color and bright flavor.
A key ingredient in herbes de Provence, rosemary is important in French, Italian and Mediterranean cuisine. Use it when making focaccia, when grilling salmon, chicken, pork or lamb (you can bundle some together with kitchen twine and use it as a basting brush), make rosemary lemonade or cocktails (using a rosemary-infused simple syrup).
If you mostly associate sage with Thanksgiving stuffing, you’re not alone. But sage is much more than that. Snip some leaves from your beautiful sage plant, cut them into thin strips, sauté them in olive oil, toss some cooked pasta in the pan along with, shredded Parmesan, lightly toasted chopped walnuts, and freshly ground black pepper, then plate and sprinkle a little more cheese on top. Or add the sautéed strips to pasta or potato salads.
Lemon thyme is pretty to grow and adds a nice note to green salads and fruit salads. Add some “regular” thyme to an olive oil-based vinaigrette, toss some with your salad greens and top with crumbled goat cheese. Both types pair well with grilled or roasted fish, chicken and meats.