Herbs are important seasonings of our everyday meals – and you don’t need to be Professor Sprout to know them well. Here is a short description of the most common “green leafy stuff” that goes into your dishes.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare) is a common staple of Italian food. Used especially heavily on pizza, it tastes great in almost any tomato sauce. The leaves are pale, bright green, and are coarsely rubbed in most packagings, and it smells like… well, like pizza. Good quality oregano can have such a strong taste it may even numb your tongue. Oregano is also a main component of Greek salad, mixed with tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, red onions and feta cheese. It’s one of the few green herbs that mix well with spicy food – try it on grilled vegetables or with chicken.
Marjoram (Origanum majorana) is a close relative to oregano – actually, oregano is commonly referred to as “wild marjoram”. In some Middle Eastern countries, the two are synonymous, and to distinguish, they refer to marjoram as “sweet marjoram”. The leaves look very similar to oregano, however, the color is a little darker and somewhat duller. It’s also available in a ground, powder form at most stores. Marjoram tastes less bitter than oregano, and hence it doesn’t mix as well with sharp spiciness as oregano. However, it is an excellent companion to garlic and onion. It tastes great on chicken, pork, or even a beef roast, and marjoram is the most commonly associated spice with liver that helps take away some of the gamy flavor. Known since ancient times, the Greeks and Romans viewed marjoram as a symbol of happiness.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum) got its name from the Greek word “basileus“, meaning “king“. The variety used in Italian foods is called sweet basil (O. b. var. thyrsiflora), having a milder, sweeter flavor than Thai basil, lemon basil or holy basil, all of which is common in Asian cuisines. Dry basil as a very dark green, greyish color, whilst fresh basil leaves are bright green. Fresh basil is used in Italian pesto, and is generally a better choice, as most of basil’s flavor evaporates during the drying process. The dried herb even tastes differently, and usually slightly “dusty”, even when it’s well within its expiration date. Basil makes a great addition to tomato sauces as well as to tomato soup, and it’s an essential ingredient in bruschetta. Basil also has some beneficial health effects, being antimicrobial, antiviral, and according to some studies, it may reduce the risk of thrombosis. It’s also toxic to mosquitoes!
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officialis) is the easiest-to-tell of all green herbs, with it’s pine-needle-like leaves. You can get it in the leaf form or fully ground, the latter being especially helpful for those who like the flavor but not the texture of the leaves. Other than the distinctive look of the leaves, rosemary is also easily pinpointed by its clean, almost soapy smell. Rosemary makes an excellent companion to lamb meat, and it’s commonly used in Greek cuisine. It’s also a delightful addition to roasted potatoes and to sourdough breads. Burning rosemary gives off a distinct mustardy, woody smell – place a branch on the coals of your barbecue for some extra flavor and smoke. In culture, rosemary is often associated with love, memories or remembrance: for a long time, brides wore a rosemary headpiece, as well as it was planted over graves in remembrance of the deceased. Rosemary has a psychoactive component, which may cause people sensitive to it to have odd dreams or daydreams. Whilst the normal consumption of rosemary is safe, people prone to epileptic seizures should watch their intake, as it may set off their seizures.
The mint commonly used in cooking is actually spearmint (Mentha spicata) – the other variety, peppermint (M. piperita) is more commonly used for flavoring candy and tea. Mint has deep dark green leaves, and it smells unmistakably minty, almost like toothpaste. Mint is a great companion to lamb and beef, and can give an interesting twist to chicken. Used together with lemon, it’s a great flavoring for roasted ocean fish, especially tilapia. At the bar, mint is used in mint juleps and in Mojitos. As for alcohol-free beverages, a few leaves of fresh mint can give a refreshing zing to sun tea or lemonade. Tea brewed from mint leaves is also a known remedy for stomach problems.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is a staple of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine. The dried herb looks almost like hay, with a brownish hue, and it smells sweetly medicinal. Generally paired with tomatoes, lamb and eggs, I also like to add some thyme to chicken and turkey dishes. It’s also used in herbes de Provence mixes, along with basil, fennel and savory, as well as lavender in certain mixes. Folk medicine uses thyme for the ease of bronchitis: fresh thyme leaves contain about 30% of thymol, the active ingredient, which can be infused in a tea to be consumed, or released by steam, in a hot bath or a vaporizer, to be inhaled.
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum), in America mainly used for its leaves, is an extremely versatile plant. Its root is also commonly used, especially in Eastern Europe. Parsley leaves are bright green, and available both as dried flakes as well as most grocery stores carry them in fresh bunches, usually for less than a dollar. Fresh parsley can be kept alive at home by standing it in a glass of fresh water and putting it out at a well-lit area – just like a bouquet. Make sure you change the water regularly. Parsley has a harsh, bitter-ish taste, hence it’s usually used in small amounts in stews, fish or soups – or in this potato side. Curly-leaf or Italian parsley is also a great way to decorate plates or serving platters, whilst finely chopped parsley may be sprinkled over rice, on top of thicker soups, on the rim of plates or over just about any dish as a decoration for a little added color.
One word on dried herbs:
If you add dried herbs during cooking, rub the leaves with your fingers as you sprinkle them into the dish. Most of the flavor agents in these herbs are oil-soluble, and the natural oils in your skin along with the warmth help release the flavors better. In most cases, dried herbs are more concentrated in flavor, hence you need less dried herb than you would need fresh, but for basil it’s just the opposite. Always taste whilst spicing, and allow the herbs a few minutes to steep before you decide on adding more.