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.
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.
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.
I 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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!