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A Cook's Top Five Herbs

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If you are as serious a cook as you are a vegetable gardener, then you know that the true flavors of freshly harvested vegetables can get even more palate power by adding fresh herbs. So can lots of other foods you cook. So forget relying on the salt shaker to liven up your cooking, and plant herbs instead.

Many herb plants are perennials, and depending on what planting zone you live in, they come back year after year, making them a good investment. Unfortunately, that is not the case for those of us living in the Northeast. Each fall I have to dig up my rosemary and bring it indoors or it will not survive; other herbs can come through a harsh winter just fine.

As a chef, I am always thinking of new ways to use fresh herbs. I have infused grilled fruits with them, made interesting spreads and pestos, embedded them whole in lasagne sheets and cannelloni and even tried them in homemade ice creams and granitas. Still my favorite way to utilize them is in everyday simple cooking.

Even with limited or no space for an herb garden, they can be grown in pots on a sunny windowsill or on your deck. Just be sure to water them more frequently.

Here are my top five recommendations for your home herb garden:

  1. Basil: Even though basil is a tender and fickle plant (it hates the cold and does not like to stand in water) I would not be without it for flavoring minestrone soup, grilled pizza, tomato sauce, beef stew, a Caprese salad and for making pesto. There are many varieties of basil; small leaf is best for pesto, large leaf like basilico Napoletano,with its gigantic elephant-like leaves, are good in salads or use them as a wrap for chicken or turkey salad. It will not survive a harsh winter and will need to be replanted every spring in certain parts of the country. To "extend" the season, I preserve the leaves in small plastic bags and freeze to use in soups and stews, but these preserved leaves would not be good in salads.
  2. Flat Leaf Italian Parsley: Parsley is probably one of the most utilized kitchen herbs, but the Italian variety has much better flavor than curly parsley. It is easy to grow, and it is essential in everything from meatballs to egg salad. When it is in full growth, I harvest it and mince it, stems and all, then make small packets of it wrapped in paper towels and freeze in plastic bags to use in sauces, stews and soups. I add it frozen to the rest of the ingredients.
  3. Sage: This woodsy tasting herb does wonders for game-based dishes and as an ingredient for stuffings. A simple butter and sage sauce is perfect for butternut squash ravioli, and the leaves dipped in a tempura batter, then fried and sprinkled with salt makes a great antipasto with a glass of white wine. This plant will survive a cold climate.
  4. Tarragon: This tender herb with grass-like leaves is a natural to pair with fish. I like it best with a fresh lemon and butter sauce for grilled fish. Tarragon is good in chicken and turkey dishes and is great in vinaigrettes and marinades. It too will survive in the cold.
  5. Rosemary: The spicy flavor of rosemary perks up so many kinds of foods. I plant it in a pot directly in the ground. In the fall I pull the pot out of the ground and bring the plant indoors. Pork would be just bland without it; roast potatoes depend on it and roast or grilled lamb is unthinkable without it. I soak the sturdy stems to skewer kabobs.

If you have no interest in planting herbs but love to use them in your cooking, you can always find small pots or packets of them in your grocery store.

One thing is certain: using herbs is a healthier way to cook and add flavor than reaching for the salt shaker.

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