I probably have the brownest thumb in this town, but I do give myself an A for effort for continuing to try to build an herb garden, even if it is for the bazillionth time. I have always wanted to have a beautiful herb garden, but I can’t seem to get the formula right. Every time I try, I either don’t water it enough or I give it too much sunlight. Let’s be honest, though, the real reason is that I just do not have the time to take care of one more living thing. My pet fish are barely surviving, poor things.
Whenever I visit a location where they are growing fresh herbs, the smell in the air is so aromatic and soothing it instantly has me scrolling the recipe database in my head of how I can put them to good use. Have you ever smelled your fingers after you touch fresh herbs? It brings me back to a time when I enjoyed a delicious meal or a time when I was getting massaged at a spa and the masseuse used an herb-fragranced oil. Either way, it puts a smile on my face. I almost don’t want to wash my hands. I want to keep smelling them, although some people might find that strange.
My love for cooking with fresh herbs is indescribable. Herbs give a dish an aroma and freshness that no other ingredient can. Fresh herbs can finish a dish, be used in a rub, make sauces or even add a different level of flavor to a recipe. You can infuse the herb flavor into any liquid, including olive oil or water, or you can make simple syrups and add them to your favorite cocktails. Here are my favorite herbs and how I like to use them when I’m cooking.
Basil is such a pretty plant — when you aren’t depriving it of water or burning it up in the sun. It has really pretty green leaves that you can easily pick off and add on top of pizza or pasta, include in a salad or pesto, or layer on top of sliced tomatoes with mozzarella and a little salt and pepper. It is one of the herbs that I would always use and then run out of, leaving me waiting for more to grow, but they never did. That is when I would activate plan B and just go buy a starter pot, again.
Thyme is my favorite herb. It has a lemony fragrance, earthy tones and is versatile to a lot of dishes. I absolutely love it in my eggs. I also add thyme in recipes like marinara, wine sauces, stocks, rubs or caramelized onions. You don’t even have to chop it up since the leaves are so small. It’s a time-saving herb! See? How can you not love thyme?
Oregano is used in a lot of my Cuban, Italian and Mediterranean dishes. I actually use it more in its dried form than fresh. It holds a lot of its flavor once dried, compared to other herbs. If it is fresh, it is great in salads or to finish a dish. In dried form, well, the possibilities are endless.
Parsley is very mild in flavor, vibrant in color and can be added to any dish. Everyone should have it in their kitchen. I prefer Italian parsley rather than curly parsley since it has more flavor and can hold up better to heat. I don’t get as excited about parsley as I do the other herbs, but it is reliable in adding freshness to absolutely anything.
What is a salsa without cilantro? Most southwestern or Mexican dishes have cilantro in their recipes, especially delicious salsas. I am one of those people who will sit in front of a chips and salsa platter at a party and eat the whole thing. Once you eat one, you just can’t stop. I actually have my own variation of chimichurri where I use cilantro rather than oregano. Very different than the traditional recipe, but oh-so delicious.
Mint is one of those herbs that I do not use often, but it is great paired with lamb, added to a fruit salad or infused in cocktails. It brightens up anything it is served with. You usually see it garnished on a dessert plate.
Rosemary takes the first-place medal for the strongest flavor of all the herbs. I mostly like to use it on meats by chopping it up with some garlic and smearing it on with Dijon mustard. It’s also great mixed into breads or sauces.
I may not have time to grow herbs, but I sure find a way to incorporate them into my daily menus. After all this talk about herbs and food, I decided to create a recipe that was easy, can be made in under 10 minutes and can go with practically anything. This pesto recipe would be the perfect complement to a pasta dish, zucchini noodles, a flavored mayo for a sandwich or salad, a topping for a flatbread to make a pizza or your favorite vegetable. You can’t go wrong with incorporating a pesto into your meal because it gives such a punch in flavor with very few ingredients. This particular recipe is not your average pesto recipe, however, if you are looking for something new to try, this is a good one.
Check out my Kale Pecan Pesto recipe at http://www.eatlocaltogether.com.
CHEF CHRISTY ANGERHOFER is the CEO/publisher of Eat.Local.Together — Gainesville’s Farm to Table Resource Site — and is currently employed at NFRMC as the assistant director/executive
Photography by John Sloan