Citrus, spice, licorice, sweet, sour, pungent. Culinary herbs encompass those and other flavors for which words just don’t exist. The best part about culinary herbs? They taste best fresh and most can be grown in your backyard. Or front yard.
Herbs come in a variety of categories. Some are strictly ornamental, others are used for medicinal purposes, and in personal ads “herb friendly” is code for “I smoke marijuana.” The fresh culinary group contains about a dozen commonly sold varieties but actually reaches over 100 that can be purchased as seed and grown in the Pacific Northwest.
Think of culinary herbs as plants that are not eaten themselves (like spinach) but instead are used as a flavoring agents in other dishes and preparations.
IN THE GARDEN
Herbs fall mostly into two categories: annual and perennial. Annuals, such as basil, only live during the growing season and need to be sown or purchased live each spring or summer. Perennials, such as thyme and lemon balm, will faithfully return each spring (provided there are no killer winters). Some, such as rosemary and sage, are actually shrubs. The California bay laurel is a tree.
At Tacoma’s Metropolitan Market last week a 4 ounce bunch of fresh basil was $3.99 and a bunch of dill was selling for $2.69. Store-bought fresh herbs are great options if you’re unfamiliar with an herb or don’t expect to use it again. But the most economical way to use fresh herbs is to grow your own. It’s also convenient and assures you of the herb’s organic status. And they just look good.
“They’re beautiful plants in the landscape,” says Ann Vandeman, executive director of Olympia’s Left Foot Organics. The nonprofit program grows a variety of herbs and sells starts at the Proctor and Tumwater farmers markets.
Left Foot’s 4-inch pots of herbs sell for $3.50-$4 and range from annuals such as basil to perennials such as sage to biennials like parsley.
Vandeman says that while each herb is unique, almost all of them are easy to grow. Left Foot’s perennial bed, filled with oregano, sage, thyme and lavender, just needs occasional weeding and mulching. The best part of their maintenance? “We never water them,” she says.
Other herbs, particularly annuals, have different growth habits. Dill and cilantro first produce leaves and then flowers followed by seeds. Cilantro seeds are sold in stores as the spice coriander. Cutting off the flowers in an effort to produce more leaves won’t work. “That’s not going to have any effect ... You can’t stop it. That’s nature,” Vandeman said. By planting from seed every two weeks cooks can be assured of a steady supply of cilantro and dill, she said.
IN THE KITCHEN
While some herbs like oregano and bay leaves are best used dried almost all others are more vibrant in their fresh state compared to their pale and desiccated versions. Basil, for example, is a burst of flavor redolent of pesto when fresh. Dried, it has all the appeal of dead lettuce.
“It’s just a different taste. The level of the pure essence of the plant is so much more defined in the fresh plant,” says Lisa Owen, chef-owner of The Mark in Olympia. Though she uses only fresh in her cooking she adds that some dried herbs can be more potent in their concentrated forms.
Primo Grill chef-owner Charlie McManus is not only a big user of fresh herbs he grows them in his Tacoma garden. Mint and tarragon are his favorites. “I find that they are both delicate herbs which give their best flavor when warmed rather than being cooked,” he said.
McManus calls mint, “one of the most underused herbs for culinary purposes. It will give tomato sauce a really bright flavor or is wonderful sprinkled on grilled shrimp or scallops with a little lemon and olive oil.” Mint, as many gardeners know, can quickly spread out of control so he grows three varieties in pots.
“Tarragon’s lovely licorice flavor is a great match for mild seafood such as scallops or halibut but it is also great with grilled chicken.”
At The Mark, Owen uses sage and other varieties of fresh herbs in her food. A favorite is rosemary – yards of the herb grow in containers around the restaurant and the culinary version makes its way into stuffed chickens.
Also bullish on sage is Olympia’s Basilico Ristorante Italiano chef and owner Arlindo Moraes. He uses it in what he calls one of the most classic pasta dishes in Italy: Pasta Burro e Salvia (Pasta with butter, sage and Parmesan cheese). Moraes says that gnocchi, ravioli, agnolotti and tortelli can all be made “that same simple and delicious way ... Any long or short fresh or dry pasta will be a perfection once tossed with those three ingredients.”