Using Fresh Herbs to Add the Spice Back Into Life

by Guest Chef Katie Eckerdt

If your household is anything like ours, you are cooking way more meals at home than before. Since the start of the pandemic in the US, our family has been making most things from scratch. Being home more often than not has also allowed us to start on a few items on our home ‘wish list’, such as putting in a dedicated herb garden, along with a larger (nearly double in size!) vegetable garden.

As a chef, I believe herbs are one of the little key ingredients that can take meals from average and make them special. Fresh herbs, specifically, are so versatile and very easy to use once you learn a couple of key points about their cooking and care. From stirring a bit of chopped Basil or Oregano into spaghetti sauce right before dishing up, or throwing a sprig or two of Rosemary into a crockpot of stew when you start it, it doesn’t take much to take your meals to the next level. Adding in different herbs to the same dish each time adds variety to your go-to meals without a ton of extra work.

The main point to learn is the difference between the more delicate or fine herbs and robust herbs. The difference isn’t in how pungent or strong they are in taste, but in how much cooking abuse they can take. Fine herbs, such as Basil, Cilantro, Parsley, Tarragon, Dill, etc. are best if not heated to heavily. Using these herbs as a garnish, stirring in at the end of cooking, or in fresh applications, such as the Basil in a Caprese salad. Robust herbs tend to be more woody and hearty, are the ones you are going to want to let cook with your dish for a while, such as Rosemary, Bay Leaf, Sage, Thyme, etc.

While you can use robust herbs like you do fine herbs for different dishes, like adding a few chopped leaves of Sage to a bowl of chicken noodle soup right before enjoying, it’s best to stay away from using fine herbs as you would the more robust herbs. Adding fine herbs to a dish that needs to cook for a while will obliterate the flavor of the herb, either losing flavor entirely or making the herb taste bitter and unpleasant. As an example, you can add Rosemary, Sage, and Thyme to your chicken and dumplings when you start the dish, then add chopped Parsley at the end.

Now, don’t think that you have to go out and start a big herb garden to make this work. While growing your herbs to have on hand all of the time is great, it’s not necessary. Many of the fresh herbs to start with are easily found in stores and markets and are usually great quality. At our home, we have space and the inclination to have a large herb garden and enjoy taking care of the plants.  However, a few plants in pots on a windowsill, or the patio, is a great way to get started.

If you are going to go with fresh herb plants, take a minute to read about how to care for them. It’s not hard, but some herb plants like more sun than others, or need to be harvested in a certain way to keep your plant healthy and happy. For instance, most herb plants want to grow long branches that just keep growing up and up and up without ever filling out into a more bushy plant. By trimming off the tops of those long branches when you harvest the leaves for use, it makes the plant put more energy into the small shoots coming off of the main branches, allowing the plant to fill out more.

Learning how to store cut herbs is another idea that will take your herb game to the next level, and save you from waste in the long run. For most herbs, I wash the herbs in cold water, drain well and allow to dry/drain for a while. Excess water one your cut herbs will make them degrade much more quickly. After the herbs are more dry than wet, place in a plastic bag with a very slightly dampened paper towel. Close bag, keeping some air in it, and store in the warmest part of your fridge.  Some herbs, such as Basil, are a bit more persnickety with how they like to be stored. Basil does not like to be cold and dry. For the longest shelf life, store in a glass on the counter with the cut ends in a little bit of water and a plastic bag draped loosely over the leaves. This will keep the happy, room temperature leaves humid.

The real fun begins when you start experimenting with which herbs you like in what dishes. I love making a big batch of something, like stew, soup, curry, etc. then adding different herbs when I reheat some for a meal. Some herbs will go better with certain styles of food better than others (nobody wants Cilantro mixed into their lasagna), and some herbs go surprisingly well with a huge variety of dishes. Take Basil, which of course tastes great with Italian dishes, but is also great with Asian cuisines, and fresh New American dishes. Learning your tastes and trying different combinations can be very enjoyable and satisfying, and not just for your full tummy. Once you get the hang of it, try out some different varieties of herbs, like Thai Basil (which has a stronger Anise flavor and can be heated more than sweet Basil), Pineapple Sage, Greek Oregano, or Lemon Thyme. There are more herbs out there than you could imagine, and all of them have their delicious place in the kitchen.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Sprinkle chopped Cilantro, Basil, and/or Green Onion on top of your Pad Thai or Chicken Teriyaki
  • Mix fine herb leaves to your salad greens, like Basil or Parsley. Fresh cilantro leaves make a great addition to a taco salad!
  • Add Mint leaves to your iced tea, either while steeping and strain out with the tea leaves, or into the glass with the already chilled tea
  • Sprinkle chopped Oregano on top of pizza
  • Add a bit of minced Oregano, garlic and black pepper to softened butter and use for Garlic bread with your next Italian dinner
  • Mix fresh Thyme leaves into Mac n Cheese
  • Blend chopped Rosemary into your raw meatloaf mixture
  • Toss a Bay Leaf or two into soups, stews, gravy, etc. at the beginning

Hopefully, we got you thinking about how to bring the flavors of your home cooking up a notch!  Let us know what you try and how you like it!

And if you are struggling to get delicious, healthful meals on the table, we can help!  Let us do the menu planning, shopping, and cooking for you.  Serving the Greater Portland area, we have spent 17 years helping families and individuals eat healthier, more delicious food on a regular basis.  And we can help you too!  Just reach out and ask.

We hope that you are staying safe, sane, and healthy.  Our team wishes you and your family the best.

Shana Larsen
James Eckerdt
Brian Potts-Cattrall
(and guest writer Katie Eckerdt!)