Plentiful in its many varieties and orginating in the far eastern countries of India, Pakistan and Thailand, basil may best be known for flavoring Italian food. Versatile in its use, basil has a clove-like fragrance and flavor and grows equally well in hanging baskets, windowstill pots and herb and flower gardens. Used primarily as a finely chopped garnish, basil works well with tomatoes, mayonnaise, fish and chicken.
Used in leaf and seed form (known as coriander), cilantro is sometimes called Chinese parsley. Well-known in Texas for its use in Mexican foods and salsa, cilantro is pungent in taste and smell. Delicate in its composition, cilantro is best used fresh as opposed to frozen or otherwise stored.
Also known as Texas Tarragon, the leaves and flowers of this herb also can be used for a variety of flavorings. Use leaves in egg and fish dishes. Leaves or flowers work well with chicken, fish, vegetables and turkey stuffing. Use fresh for best results.
Characterized by dark green leaves, pink or purple flowers and wooden stems, oregano requires plenty of sun for ideal growth. Oregano’s dried leaves add zest to poultry, salads, soups, casseroles, rice and vegetables such as tomatoes and beans. The herb also is a mainstay on Italian dishes such as pizza and pasta.
An evergreen shrub that produces blue flowers in the spring and summer, rosemary adds a slight hint of pine flavor when finely chopped and added sparingly to soups, stews, and teas. In larger sprig quantities, rosemary can be grilled over pork chops or tucked inside slits of roasted lamb.
A decorative gray-green shrub with occasional purple leaves and blue-tinted summertime flowers, sage is a versatile herb used to season foods as varied as pork, duck, ham, veal and fish. In MIddle Eastern cultures, sage has been known to spice up salads.
A gray-green herb with pale pink summertime flowers, thyme is used to enhance the flavors of fish, poultry and beef. It also makes a great addition to chicken and fish marinades when mixed with olive oil or red-wine vinegar. Thyme also may be found in tea, cottage cheese and butter.
Growing Herbs at Home
Growing herbs at home takes little space and ensures freshness. Liven up your culinary creations by following these herb-growing guidelines:
- Place herbs where they can recieve six hours of sunshine daily.
- Plant in window boxes, clay pots, wooden containers or raised beds.
- Keep in mind how large the plant will grow and accommodate as needed.
- Raise beds to allow for drainage and root development.
- Water in the morning and keep soil moist, especially in the summer.
- Keep at least two inches of mulch around plants for protection of tender vegetation. As the mulch breaks down, it will add additional humus to the soil.
- Know what you grow. Some herbs grow well from seeds while others grow best from transplants.
Overcooking fresh herbs causes them to lose their fragrance and delicate flavors. For best results, add fresh herbs to food during the final stages of cooking. To flavor the water used to cook vegetables, chop and stir herbs into the mix or place them in a cheesecloth bag.
Basil does not retain its flavor when dried. Instead, layer basil between sheets of waxed paper and freeze. The leaves will darken when frozen this way, but you will be pleasantly surprised at how well they retain aroma and flavor. You also can fill ice cube trays with chopped basil. Cover with water and then freeze.
Rosemary leaves can be harvested any time. Harvest no more than you can use fresh, as they lose most of their flavor when dried. Thyme has a strong piquant or lemony flavor. For fresh use, the flavor is best just before flowering. For the best flavor, add oregano in the last few minutes of cooking. The flavor can become bitter if cooked more than 30 minutes.
Storage and Handling
To fully appreciate the taste of Texas herbs, store and handle with care according to the following guidelines.
- Storage Temperatures
- Oregano – 48° to 50° F
- Basil – 50° to 55° F
- All others 38° to 42° F
A note about basil: Temperatures lower than 48° F, will cause basil to turn black.
Basil doesn’t keep well in the refrigerator. Instead, place the cut stems in water and keep them on the windowsill. Sprigs stored this way will remain fresh a week or more.
Typical shelf life: bag, 5+ days; tub, 7+ days when stored at the proper temperature.
Mist: Packaged herbs retain moisture so do not mist them. Watering herbs creates condensation in the bags, causing premature deterioration.However, if you must remove herbs from bags for display purposes, it is important to keep them damp. If herbs become dry from air exposure, leaf damage will occur.
Put herbs, except basil, in tightly sealed bags, then place in a cooler as soon as they arrive. Mint, basil, parsley, cilantro, epazote and Mexican mint marigold can be stored in a jar of water at room temperature.