How to Cook With Herbs

I was supposed to have a really great recipe for you today, combining beef and prunes. But it wasn’t good. I mean, it was edible, but nothing I would post here. So I decided to do a tutorial I’ve been meaning to do for a long time on how to cook with herbs.

You all know I’m an amateur chef, but I have been cooking for over twenty years, and that includes inspiration from recipes, things I’ve tried myself through imitation or imagination, and things I’ve learned from living in different countries. There are many recipes I make from habit, and I have my standby herbs that I use for different foods. This is what I am sharing with you.

BASIL. This herb is probably the most common. I would grow it, except that I am too lazy to repot it and bring it indoors each year. We can also buy basil frozen here, which is just as good. Basil tastes a little sweet (to me) and therefore I use it in soups, as well as in flavouring rice, pasta sauce, and quinoa. It seems to go better with starches, and I rarely use it on meat.

THYME. This is my go-to herb for meat. I use it on lamb. When I roast leg of lamb, I cut holes everyone in the meat and stick slivers of garlic in the holes. Then I salt and pepper the entire thing, and sprinkle with thyme. Like I did here. I use thyme on chicken with Dijon mustard, and it also marries well with lemon and garlic. Thyme grows really well and is a perennial plant, so no digging it up for the winter.

herbs5

OREGANO. I like to put oregano on beef. I’ll heat oil in a pan until it’s sizzling hot. I put the steaks on the pan, then salt, pepper and sprinkle oregano. And I turn the steaks over just once to sear the outsides but keep the insides rare. We’re a big fan of Dijon mustard here so we often dip the steak in the mustard as we eat it. I also use oregano to doctor up regular spaghetti (tomato-basil) sauce to use for pizza. To me, pizza should have oregano. But my Italian friend – from Italy – says only basil on pizza. That’s for you to decide.

BAY LEAVES. These go in soups and stews. When you buy them dried, you can’t imagine that they will make any difference in the flavour, but they really do. If you take a fresh bay leaf right off the tree and rub it between your fingers, you’ll see how fragrant it is.

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If I’m going to make a plain chicken soup or vegetable soup, I will always put basil and bay leaves. Except . . . the traditional French purée soup seems to be okay without any herb whatsoever. One last word about bay leaves. Don’t chop them up because you they’re too sharp and tough to chew. You have to keep them whole and remove them at the end of cooking.

herbs2I really need to trim this bay laurel tree.

BOUQUET GARNI. This is a bundle that is tied together for pot au feu or other stews and it comprises thyme, bay leaves and parsley. I don’t usually tie it together because I don’t have the right string. I just fish the stems and leaves out when I’m done cooking the stew.

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PARSLEY. I have to be honest. I don’t use this often. I forget to buy fresh, and the dried seems to be no good at all because there’s no flavour or sent left. This is another herb I would have to bring in for the winter if I grew it. When I do use it, however, it’s for potatoes or salad dressing.

ROSEMARY. This is a gorgeous herb. It grows quite big into a bush that can come up to your waist. It’s got a distinct flavour, however, and I don’t use it often because the kids would not likely eat it. When I do cook with it, I put it on potatoes or chicken.

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TARRAGON. This has a sweet sort of anise flavour. You can’t imagine using it for meat, simply from its smell. But I use it for my chicken recipe that has a sauce made of tarragon, Dijon mustard and sour cream. It’s easy, it’s delicious, and it’s unusual.

herb1

CHIVES. I buy these frozen, although I will use dried too since I rarely grow them. I use chives on fish, and in vinaigrette salad dressing. For a sauce to go over white fish, I melt sour cream in the microwave for a minute, along with cut chives and salt. It’s a quick sauce to prepare that even children will eat. I mean, who doesn’t love sour cream and chives?

SAGE. Sage also has a distinct flavour and blends well with garlic, lemon and parmesan. I don’t often use it, but when I do, it’s on chicken or turkey breast, or lamb chops.

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I didn’t really pick the best season to catch all these herbs in their glory, did I? But sage blooms purple in the springtime, and boy is it magnificent.

HERBES DE PROVENCE. This is a mix of thyme, oregano, rosemary – and the less familiar marjoram and savoury. I also find this to be distinctive in flavour that doesn’t go with everything. I only use it when I roast an entire chicken. And sometimes I’ll use it on beef.

So, in a nutshell, on:

Beef, I prefer to use oregano, and sometimes Herbes de Provence.

Chicken or Turkey, I use rosemary or sage on the poultry breast, and thyme or Herbes de Provence on the entire bird.

Lamb, I use thyme or sage.

Pork, I use just salt and pepper. Nothing else, unless I’m making a vanilla-honey sauce to go with it.

And in:

Rice – I use basil.

Quinoa – basil as well.

Tomato sauce – basil for spaghetti & basil and oregano for pizza.

Ratatouille – basil.

Soups – for many of them I put basil and bay leaves.

Meat Stews – for many of them I put thyme and bay leaves.

Tell me what kind of herbs you use in cooking? What are your go-to herbs? I would love to hear your tips in the comments.

* * * * * *

I want to tell you about Angela Amman’s review of my memoir A Lady in France. Angela is an author, and I read and loved her book of short stories, called “Nothing Goes Away.” I’ve also downloaded, but have not yet read, the anthology for which she is editor and contributor, called “Precipice.” I know a few of the other authors in the book and I know it’s going to be great. You can find the links to these books on her website.

Angela also writes fiction on her blog, but I identify it mostly with her book reviews. You’d think book reviews would be boring to read after the first one or two, right? Especially if you know you’ll never read the book (because you hate to read or because you live really far away and avoid buying English books – ahem). But it’s not boring at all! She doesn’t just summarise the book, she relates them back to her life in a way that brings it all together.

In the case of my review, she told of her time as a tourist in Europe, which happened years ago. But many of her posts bring the books she reads to life by making sense of them through what Angela is living now. This is a perfect example of that. Her reviews are always good, always interesting in and of themselves. There is literary maturity to how she analyses and summarises the books she reads. You can see that she has a long habit of devouring one book after another of all genres, then reflecting on each one.  I usually want to read every book she reviews.

Her review of my book was just such a joy to read. Thank you Angela!

I am the daughter of a symphony musician who was raised in upstate New York, and I simply breathe all things classical, be it music or 19th century literature (English and Russian). I married Sir Renaissance in New York City, and before I knew it, he had swept me up and brought me back home to his own country. So here we are. Three children, a rather ordinary life in a rather exceptional place. I am now ‘A Lady in France.’

Posted in Food, Tutorials
7 comments on “How to Cook With Herbs
  1. angela says:

    Your words make me happy :) Thank you!

    (And your photos make me almost think I should grow herbs this summer. Almost.)
    angela recently posted…A Lady in France – A reviewMy Profile

  2. Jennifer says:

    I’m not as much of an herb cooker as I am of a seasoning cooker. Which probably doesn’t make a lot of sense. We use a lot of dried seasonings. Probably because that’s the way my mom and grandmother did it. Except for garlic and onions. We use a lot of those too.
    Jennifer recently posted…Random Acts of KindnessMy Profile

  3. Alison says:

    How interesting, I love this!

    I’ll be honest, I don’t use nearly as many herbs as I should. I only ever cook chicken and beef, and usually it’s part of a dish (like pasta with chicken + olives + sundried tomatoes), so I find using salt and pepper more than sufficient.

    I do like throwing in some thyme and oregano into minced beef when I’m making burger patties. And I use a bunch of herbs and spices when making curries.
    Alison recently posted…FullMy Profile

  4. Julie says:

    I have been using herbs de provence on my tiny new potatoes that I coat in olive oil, then liberally sprinkle/mix with the herbs de provence, bake until potatoes are done! Marvelous! even my sons love this. I also use herbs de provence on thick cut pork chops that I fry in olive oil/butter. I know that my sons will remember me cooking this for them, as I do not see it cooked this way anywhere else…

  5. Mama D says:

    Oh, another post after my own heart! I grow herbs every year in the little fenced-in plot in the back yard and in pots on my deck, along with some vegetables. Sweet and Thai basil and oregano for chicken and pasta dishes, chives for everything (it is not possible to kill these in my garden–they come back every year), rosemary and thyme for chicken or beef stew, sage for stuffing. I grow both flat-leaf and regular parsley for pesto, mint for juleps and Pimm’s cups and iced tea, bay for soups and stews, and cilantro for salsas. I went on a herbal tea-making kick a few years ago and planted lemon balm (again, good luck trying to kill that stuff once it takes root in sunshine!), lemon verbena, bee balm, and lavender–the bees love my garden. I also have feverfew because I like the flowers (have not actually tried the herbal remedy) and marigolds as a pest repellent. Now I want to go outside and plant something and it is snowing here! :(
    Mama D recently posted…Stick A Fork In MeMy Profile

  6. I love using herbs when I cook. I often use dried because I don’t have a garden space – but I do grow chives in a pot on my deck. It is on my wish list to have a space for an herb garden one day.
    I love all the suggestions on where you use them, too!
    Kim@Co-Pilot Mom recently posted…Wookie on a MotorbikeMy Profile

  7. I value the traditional Laurel (Bay leaves) tea that my Mexican family does. Especially during the winter time, we drink it like 6 times a day.
    Nadia @ Mama and the City recently posted…#WhyFakeItJustMakeIt : Papitas And PuterosMy Profile

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