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A Fresh Look at Herbs

Martha Stewart Living, April 2011

Call them the sensational six: Bringing verve to recipes by the sprig or by the bunch, they are the herbs we couldn't do without, and they go far beyond garnishes. Here are 12 new ways to let the flavorful leaves loose.

Few foods bring as much vivid color to the palate as fresh herbs. Their floral, spicy, and zippy flavors and aromas reach deep into our sensory receptors and soar above the basic elements -- proteins, fats, and starches -- of a well-made dish. These sprigs and leaves may be an embellishment, but they are hardly optional. We simply can't imagine cooking without them.

Here are six global stars of the herb garden -- basil, cilantro, mint, parsley, rosemary, and thyme -- in roles both traditional and new. Whether they're serving as a finishing flourish or the chief ingredient, certain herbs truly define the classic cuisines of the world. Who can imagine cooking Italian without rosemary and basil, or Thai or Vietnamese without mint and cilantro?

Each herb has a unique personality and its own degree of sweetness or spice that suggests specific uses. But all herbs generally fall into one of two categories: woody or leafy. The woody herbs here, rosemary and thyme, have stout textures and intense savory personalities that thrive in cooking. Heat mellows and transmits their flavors beautifully during a long braise with beef, for example, or a high-temperature roast with shrimp. We would almost never use rosemary or thyme leaves raw as a garnish.

Leafy herbs, on the other hand, including parsley, cilantro, mint, and basil, are tender enough to be tossed raw into a salad. (And the stems of cilantro and parsley are typically delicate enough for good eating.) Although welcome in a hot dish, they lose some of their oils and a little of their color and fortitude in the cooking process. So when we do use leafy herbs in, say, pasta or soup, we add them at the end for maximum preservation.

Be sure to taste the herbs you're using before you commit them to a dish, since they can vary in intensity by season and variety. You may find that a particularly strong winter rosemary, for example, needs to be dialed back in your soup recipe. Or you may decide after tasting a mild and crisp parsley that your pasta deserves the entire bunch.

The Freshest Herbs Are Homegrown

Indoors or Out
Herbs thrive with plenty of sunshine, regular watering, fast-draining soil, and good air circulation. In short, they do best outdoors. That said, it is possible to grow them indoors (on, say, a windowsill), but keep expectations reasonable. Site herbs in the sunniest spot in the house, and keep a close eye on the moisture level.

Seeds or Plants
Annual herbs, such as basil, parsley, and cilantro, are very easily grown from seed and may establish quicker in the garden when started that way. One packet should provide you with a steady supply all season. Perennial herbs, such as rosemary, thyme, and mint, on the other hand, benefit from the head start they get when purchased as established plants. Also good to know: Rosemary and thyme are sold as both edible plants and landscape ornamentals. The latter aren't inedible, but for the best flavor, ask for a culinary variety at the nursery.

Watering
Leafy herbs wilt when they need a drink. Woody herbs are harder to read since you can't always trust the appearance of the soil's surface -- what matters is how wet it is below. Lift the pot to check its weight; if it's very light, the plant needs more water.

Feeding
In general, herbs shouldn't be fertilized. Doing so results in flavorless growth.

Harvesting
Careful harvesting, especially from larger plants grown in six- to eight-inch pots, will give you enough leaves for cooking. For the best plant health, just be sure not to snip too much of the herb (more than one-third of the plant) at a time. Basil does best when cut frequently; take out the central stem first, which will encourage bushy growth from the side shoots. Parsley is a biennial: It grows leaves one year, spends the winter as a dormant root, and then flowers the second year. To encourage consistent regrowth after each harvest, cut near the base of the plant, rather than snipping off single leaves.

Recipes to Try