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The Permacultivator - Journal of Cool Climate Permaculture
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Culinary Herbs

Virginia Clayton describes some of the best culinary herbs

History of Herbs

Herbs have been used for food and medicinal purposes before records were kept. Trial and error being the method used to discover what properties they contained and which herbs were edible. Hebrews used herbs as healthy flavoursome food. Some were native to the Middle East such as thymes, sages, mints, rosemary, hyssop and marjorams. Coriander and cumin came from Egypt. The first documented record of the use of herbs appeared around 2000 BC in Babylon. Many herbs, spices and aromatic oils were imported from Babylon and India by the ancient Egyptians gaining knowledge and use of the herbs via trading. Common herbs in demand were anise, caraway, fenugreek, opium, thyme and saffron for use in food, medicine, cosmetics, perfumes, dyes and disinfectants for embalming.

Myths and legends carried the knowledge of herbs amongst civilisations and countries. The knowledge, myth and reputation of herbs travelled worldwide via various modes of transport, word of mouth, writings and actual herbs themselves. Use and knowledge of herbs also spread via Kings, Conquerors and great explorers. Romans introduced over 200 varieties to Britain for culinary and medicinal use. Herbs became cultivated by monks in monastery gardens and were used for culinary and medicinal purposes.

Cooking with Herbs

During the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries every manor and monastery had its own herb garden for medicinal and culinary purposes. Many of our vegetables as we know today were once considered ‘pot’ herbs. Over the centuries various cultures and cooks have combined herbs to contrast and compliment the flavours to make a favourite dish. Flowers were also considered as a herb adding flavour and colour to some dishes. Some of the earliest herb gardens included flowers such as lilies, damask, briars roses, marigolds, mallow and gilly-flowers.

The use of herbs in some countries such as England over the last 160 years has decreased dramatically. However other European and Asian countries have maintained their traditional use of herbs as an integral part of their culinary and medicinal use (eg. China, Vietnam, France and Italy). Of recent years with the migration of cultures to other countries and the introduction of nouvelle cuisine, multiculturalism in various countries has brought about a new appreciation of the culinary use of herbs.

Popular Herbs

The following list of herbs is a brief introduction to the culinary use of some herbs which are most commonly grown in gardens and can be easily incorporated into the permaculturalist’s garden. The benefits of these herbs can be enhanced with the added knowledge of companion planting and medicinal properties that these herbs contain. Needless to say preference in culinary taste is individual and the following suggestions are by no means limiting and is certainly not comprehensive. Various cultures have a variety of use for herbs and it is with an open mind, natural curiosity and experimentation that the permaculturalist will be able to benefit and maximise the culinary use of herbs in one’s garden.

Borage

Family: BORAGINACEAE

Use young leaves and flowers chopped finely in green and raw vegetable salads; leaves provide a cucumber flavour to pickles and add to pea or bean soup. Refreshing iced or hot drink on its own with lemon and sugar. Flowers can be candied and used as an edible cake decoration.

Comfrey

Family: BORAGINACEAE

Fresh comfrey leaves can be used as a cooked vegetable like spinach, topped with a white sauce and cheese. Young leaves can be chopped finely and added to salads. Young comfrey leaves can be made into fritters by dipping into batter and frying. [However recent research advises against eating it in quantity. Ed]

Roots and leaves make an excellent poultice or ointment for treating bruises, sprains, swellings and rheumatic pains.

Chamomile

Family: COMPOSITATE

Use flowers as an infusion for tea, relaxing and refreshing; aids upset stomachs and indigestion. Infusion of flowers can also be used as a herbal rinse for fine hair.

Marigold

Family: COMPOSITATE

Fresh or dried marigold petals can be added to rice, cheese and savoury egg dishes. Add to custards or a baked sponge pudding, or add fresh flower petals to a green salad for colour.

Tarragon

Family: COMPOSITATE

Tarragon leaves can be used in a green or raw vegetable salad. Tarragon vinegar can be made by steeping the fresh herb in white vinegar. Add to roast meat, poultry and fish dishes. Also a great addition to light buttery sauces over mild flavoured vegetables.

Basil

Family: LABIATAE

Basil is an extremely versatile herb in cooking. One of its most popular use is with pasta, tomatoes, eggs and mushrooms. Peso is a popular concoction that has enjoyed renewed interest in recent years in cooking. Fresh leaves can be added to a salad, oil dressings or as used as a garnish on many Italian, Vietnamese, Thai and many other cultural dishes.

Bay

Family: LAURACEAE

Bay is another versatile herb that provides flavour to a variety of foods. It is commonly found in bouquet garni often used to flavour stews, meats and vegetable casseroles. Bay leaf can be used as a marinade, poaching fish, meats and vegetables, stews and soups. Some store their rice with a bay leaf enclosed.

Sage

Family: LABIATAE

Sage is commonly used with roast pork, duck and meat stews. Fresh leaves chopped can be added to tomato dishes, cream cheese and salads. Fruit drinks, wine and cider can be flavoured with sage. Beneficial as a mouthwash and tonic.

Chives

Family: LILIACEAE

Chives can be added to almost any savoury dish requiring a subtle onion flavour. Chopped chives can be sprinkled on salads, scrambled eggs, omelettes, soups, vegetable and meat broths. Mixed with cream cheese or sour cream as an accompaniment to potatoes and other baked vegetables. Left over chive bulbs can be pickled in white wine vinegar.

Garlic

Family: LILIACEAE

Garlic was given to Egyptian labourers daily whilst working on the pyramids and was believed to be a strengthening herb. Garlic is a great seasoning to food and is very much an individual choice. Raw crushed garlic is strongest and can be mixed with butter, oil or mayonnaise to use for salads, breads, seasonings on vegetables or whatever else you like. When cooking garlic the longer it is cooked the softer and sweeter it becomes. Some recipes may require up to 30 whole cloves of garlic without adverse taste or effect.

Dill

Family: UMBELLIFERAE

Dill is a very subtle flavoured herb that is an excellent accompaniment to fish. Scandinavian countries use dill commonly with fish and for pickling cucumbers. Chopped leaves can be added to salads and used on sandwiches. It mixes well with cream or cottage cheese. Whole or ground dill seeds can be used with lamb stews, herb butters, bean soups and pickled cucumbers. Dill water is an excellent carminative and can be given to infants suffering from colic.

Thyme

Family: LABIATAE

Thyme has a very strong flavour in comparison to its leaf size! It is another of the herbs commonly used in bouquet garni. Can be added to meat, fish, stews, soups and herb sauces. Freshly chopped leaves on vegetables, glazed carrots or tomato puree.

Summer Savoury

Family: LABIATAE

Commonly used as a seasoning herb with meats, fish and eggs. Garnish vegetable soup and meat broths with chopped summer savoury. Fresh sprigs can be steeped in white wine vinegar. The vinegar can be used for dressings.

Rosemary

Family: LABIATAE

Rosemary is a herb that grows wild around the Mediterranean coastlines and was used by the Greeks and Romans for traditional ceremonies. Culinary use is most commonly associated with lamb dishes but can also be used with poultry and fish (halibut). Shortbread biscuits, jams, jellies can also be enhanced by the use of Rosemary.

Marjoram

Family: LABIATAE

Three varieties of marjoram are commonly known however the best one for culinary purposes is sweet marjoram (knotted form).

It is mostly used in meat dishes however adds a pleasant flavour to vegetables such as zucchini and marrow. Add to rice dishes, salads and many Italian dishes such as spaghetti and pizzas.

Parsley

Family: LABIATAE

Parsley is a great herb that can be added to almost any hot or cold dish and as a garnish to many plates. It is often chewed after a meal to sweeten the breath. Parsley can be added to salads (tabouleh), soups, sauces, over cooked vegetables, sprinkled on poached or scrambled eggs whatever you desire. It is often served with fish and can be deep fried as an accompaniment to a fish meal. Hot parsley tea is a diuretic and tonic.

Nasturtium

Family: TROPAEOLACAE

Nasturtium leaves and flowers should be eaten when fresh and young and add great colour to green salads. Can also be used with cream cheese if prepared just before use. Chopped leaves can also be used on sandwiches.

Seeds can be pickled when they are green and young and used as a substitute for capers to flavour sauces, relishes and as a garnish.

Salad Burnet

Family: ROSACEAE

Used as a salad herb, collect fresh leaves and add to green salads and raw vegetables. Chopped young leaves and blend with cream cheese in dips and can be used as a garnish in place of parsley.

Mint

Family: LABIATAE

Mint adds a pleasant flavour to water, fruit salads, yoghurt drinks and curries (lasse). Steamed vegetables can also be flavoured with mint such as peas or beans. Mint can also be used in vinegars, jellies, mint sauce with lamb, duck dressing and wines.

Growing Kitchen Garden Herbs

Growth of culinary herbs should ideally be as close as possible to the kitchen door. Space need not be a limiting factor as herbs grow well in pots, tubs, on balconies, courtyards, hanging baskets, windowsills or outside window boxes. A good sunny position is ideal for most herbs. Mints will tolerate a shady position.

Multifunctioning Herb Garden

The following 12 herbs can be easily grown in a small area or window boxes and provide a good start for the beginning herbalist and cook, for home use. Not only are the 12 herbs used for culinary purposes, but they also have at least two other functions.

J26 Winter 99