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Back to basics: Herbs

Sarah Swain demonstrates how fresh herbs can open up a whole new world of flavour in your cooking.

Herbs are the ideal ingredient for the health-conscious cook, providing a wide variety of fantastic flavours without adding salt or

  • Keep in a plastic bag, and trap as much air as possible when you seal it.
  • Store in the bottom of the fridge in a salad drawer.
  • Be careful the fridge does not ice as temperatures below 3°C can blacken herbs like basil.
  • Herbs with stalks can be placed with the stalks in water if using straight away.
  • A potted herb should be treated like a potted plant; keep in daylight and don't let the soil dry out.
  • Herbs bought from the supermarket will already be washed but bunches bought from vegetable stores and picked from the garden will need washing.
  • The best way to do this is to fill a large bowl with cold water and plunge the herbs in, holding them by the stalks. Shake and drain in a colander. Gently pat dry with a paper towel or clean tea towel.
  • When fresh herbs are chopped they release their flavour more readily than if used whole.
  • Some herbs, like thyme and rosemary, need to have their leaves stripped from the stem. Others such as coriander, parsley and dill have a flavoursome stalk and the whole herb is chopped.
  • Once chopped, herbs deteriorate quickly so try to chop them just before using. If you do need to prepare them a little in advance, keep in a bowl covered with a damp tea towel in the fridge until needed.
  • Many fresh herbs, such as chives and coriander, are best added to hot dishes near the end of cooking as their flavour is destroyed with the heat. Thyme and rosemary can withstand longer cooking periods.
  • If adding basil leaves to salads, always tear their leaves to release their natural oils.
  • Don't be afraid to experiment with different combinations of flavours. Everyone's tastes are different and herbs can make such a difference to the flavour in all sorts of dishes.
  • Many fresh herbs can be frozen. Finely chop the herbs, half-fill each ice cube compartment with the chopped herbs, top up with water and freeze. You can use the cubes from frozen; just pop the cubes straight into hot dishes. Basil, chives and coriander all freeze well.
  • Woody herbs such as rosemary, thyme, sage and bay leaves tend to splinter when frozen, so it's better to dry these ones.
  • Always remember to label foods in the freezer. You can remove the cubes from their trays and place in labelled freezer bags.

Chopping fresh herbs
You will need a large sharp knife that fits comfortably in your hands and a secure chopping board. Place a damp tea towel underneath the board to prevent it slipping.If chopping whole herbs, gather up the herbs in a bunch and hold firmly in place with one hand. Slice across the bunch to cut the herbs into shreds or thin slices (this is called a chiffonnade). Gather the herbs into a pile and then using the knife chop the herbs using a rocking motion, turning the pile halfway through until you have the size you want.

Rosemary leaves
To remove rosemary leaves from the woody stalk, hold the stalk at one end and run the thumb and forefinger of your other hand along the stalk to strip the leaves. Thyme leaves can be removed from their stalk like this or you can use a fork in the same way.

Bouquet garni
To create a bouquet garni – a bundle of herbs – take sprigs of fresh herbs you like and tie the stalks together with cotton thread or string. To give the bundle some body, choose some more sturdy herbs such as bay leaves (traditionally used in bouquet garni) and rosemary, with more delicate herbs. Add the herb bundle to stews, casseroles, soups or in the cavity of a chicken or fish.

Pounding herbs
Herbs can be pounded in a pestle and mortar when making marinades, pestos and sauces. The pounding action forces the flavour of the herbs into other ingredients such as garlic cloves. (This method can be used in the Basil pesto with risoni recipe.)

Flavouring with sage
Sage leaves go very well with chicken, fish and other meats. Take chicken breasts, place a few sage leaves on the surface and secure in place with a smoked ham such as parma or a strip of bacon.

How to stop parsley and coriander clumping together
Parsley and coriander have a high moisture content, so this plus washing them before chopping means they tend to stick together. For this reason it is a good idea to finely chop these herbs before washing. Put chopped herbs in the centre of a clean tea towel, draw up the edges they are in a pocket and run under the tap before wringing it out completely. You will have perfect dry flakes to stir into soups, sprinkle over meats and add to salads.

Fresh herbs can be used to liven up food and create authentic dishes in minutes. Here are some simple summer ideas.

  • Add coriander leaves to a Thai or Indian curry to create a fresh, peppery, sweet fragrance.
  • Add fresh sage leaves to chicken, pork or fish fillets.
  • Soak some peppermint leaves in hot water, add a little honey and treat yourself to a cup of mint tea.
  • Create a summer salad with slices of melon and strawberries, flavoured with fresh mint leaves and freshly ground black pepper.
  • Make a tasty dip by mixing crushed garlic and roughly torn mint leaves into low-fat natural yoghurt. Serve with vegetable sticks and slices of warmed pita bread.
  • Create your own herb-infused oils or vinegars – use less strongly flavoured oils such as sunflower to create a more prominent herb flavour. Use fresh herbs that have been slightly bruised to release their flavour. Place the bruised leaves in a clean glass jar and pour over the oil or a wine or sherry vinegar. Leave to infuse for a week in a dark place. Use as salad dressings.
  • Basil – has a rich peppery flavour and powerful aroma. There are many varieties of basil but sweet green basil is the most common. Basil goes well with tomatoes, pasta and lemon and is frequently used in Mediterranean dishes. To freeze, leaves should be puréed with a little water and put into ice cubes. Basil leaves are better torn than cut when used in salads.
  • Bay leaves – are equally good fresh and dried. They have a strong spicy flavour. They form part of the classic bouquet garni. They go well with meat and poultry dishes.
  • Chives – have a fresh onion flavour and are delicious sprinkled on potato salad, jacket potatoes and with soft cheese. They provide a slightly hot contrast for mild dishes. Chop the whole herb and add at the last minute as long cooking destroys their flavour. Chives can be frozen in ice cubes. Refrigerate in an airtight container.
  • Coriander – is often used to add flavour to exotic dishes like curries, chutneys, salsas and stir-fries. It goes well with garlic, ginger and spring onions. Fresh coriander does not keep well. Fresh leaves produce the best flavour when added to a dish at the last minute. Roots chopped finely add a more intense flavour. Store wrapped in a paper towel in a plastic bag. Coriander can be frozen in ice cubes.
  • Dill – has a delicate flavour, making it a good partner with fish, shellfish and cream cheese or cottage cheese. It is traditionally used when curing salmon in the Scandinavian dish, gravalax. Cooking diminishes the flavour so add at the last minute. Dill can be frozen in ice cubes.
  • Fennel – is similar to dill but with a coarser, stronger flavour. It is often paired with fish, either baked or barbecued. Its leaves are good for garnishing.
  • Marjoram/oregano – these two herbs are different varieties of the same plant. Oregano is used in Mediterranean dishes such as pizzas and tomato sauces, while marjoram has a milder flavour and is often used in chicken dishes. They can be frozen in ice cubes.
  • Mint – is frequently used in the Middle East in yoghurt sauces and dips. It is also popular in drinks. It should be stored only briefly. It can be chopped or roughly torn. It can be frozen in ice cubes and this makes the perfect refreshing way to add flavour to water in the summer.
  • Parsley – there are two types: curly and flat leaf (or Italian). Curly is used more with fish in sauces and potato dishes. Traditional flat leaf is used more in middle-eastern dishes and has more flavour.
  • Sage – the dominant flavour of sage goes well with pork, onions, pasta and chicken and therefore is often used for stuffings. Whole fresh leaves work well over dishes that are to be grilled. Fresh leaves will keep in the fridge for a few days in a plastic bag. Whole sage leaves can be threaded between pieces of meat and vegetables when preparing kebabs.
  • Rosemary – goes well with lamb, chicken and potato dishes, particularly roast dishes. It keeps for several days in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. It is best to chop the leaves very finely once they have been stripped
    from the stem. Rosemary stems stripped of leaves make perfect skewers.
  • Thyme – there are many varieties including lemon thyme. Thyme can be dried without any loss of flavour. It goes well with meat, chicken, casseroles, cheese and mustard. Sprigs of thyme are ideal added to water when steaming vegetables. Use the leaves stripped from the stem. It can be frozen in ice cubes.

Warm herby salsa
Skewered rosemary chicken
Basil peso with risoni