Today is ‘More Herbs, Less Salt Day’. While Salt is a wonderful all-purpose seasoning that would be hard to do without, Herbs play another role in our culinary efforts. Herbs impart wonderful flavor, each one distinctive from another. Even the different herbs in the same family have different distinctive flavors and aromas.
My favorite all-around Herb is Basil. There are dozens of varieties of Basil, but of all the ones that I have encountered, Sweet Italian Basil is my favorite. Here are just some varieties of Basil that are available in local nurseries in Southern California. Varieties will vary throughout the country and throughout the world.
African Blue Basil – blue hue to the leaves and has purple flowers
Greek Basil – small green leaves – lasts long into the Fall
Italian Sweet Basil – large green leaves (probably the most popular)
Lemon Basil – small leaves with slight lemon scent
Thai Basil – smaller leaves with some purple hue to them – purple flowers, slightly spicy
The Varieties of Basil above are listed in alphabetical order. The Greek and Sweet Italian are probably the most popular and used most frequently in Italian and Greek Cuisine.
The Thai Basil is used in South Eastern Cuisine and does have a distinctive taste, somewhat sharper than the sweet varieties.
I prefer to use the Sweet Italian most of the time just because it is easier to clean and mince because of the size of the leaves. I also use the African Blue, but usually just use the whole leave as they are small.
I use Thai Basil in all my Asian Cooking. I really love the Thai Basil and if you don’t grow it you can easily find it in Asian markets.
Oregano –The second most popular Herb is probably Oregano. I planted Oregano when we first moved into this house and the same plant is still growing. It sometimes freezes in the Winter but always comes back in the spring. It is an essential in Italian and Greek Cuisine and is of course used in other types of cooking as well.
Pineapple Sage – normally I don’t like Sage, but the Pineapple variety is another story. It actually smells like Pineapple when you tear a leave or water and does impart the flavor of Pineapple to your dishes. I planted a tiny plant several years ago. This plant is now huge in spite of being constantly cut back. I have also endowed many of my friends with a shoot from this plant. All you have to do is stick a piece in water and let it root, then plant it. The result eventually will be as pictured here in this blog. One of the assets of this Sage plant is the Red Flowers which attract Humming Birds to our yard.
Mint – is popular in mixed drinks, desserts and in South East Asian Cuisine. This too grows like crazy and is easy to root. We have mint that comes over from our neighbors yard and I constantly have to pull it out. I sometimes will wash it and then steep it in hot water and make a mint fusion which can be used for drinks or mint jelly. Mint also comes in several varieties, such as Spearmint, Peppermint and my favorite, Chocolate Mint.
Lemon Grass – an essential in South East Asian Cuisine, especially Thai and Vietnamese. In fact, there is a restaurant named after this Herb on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai. This too grows like crazy. I just planted a small plant and this is the result.
Chives – part of the Onion Family – frequently served as a topping for Baked Potatoes – but beware! those Chives in the Restaurants are more frequently Green Onions or Scallions which are thicker and less flavorful (but stronger) than the Chives. Chives are very thin and it is best to cut them with scissors. Chives make a nice flavorful addition to many vegetable and meat dishes.
Try some Herbs today and you will find that you don’t need to use too much salt in your food!
Even though we tend to think of mint as spearmint or peppermint, there are actually over 600 varities mint in the world. This is one plant that grows like a weed and if it is in your yard, you will never get rid of it. For this reason, many gardeners, never actually plant mint in their gardens. Instead they plant them in boxes where they will be contained. If you do have mint growing, be happy, because there are so many uses for it that you will be glad that you have it. The mint that I have right now that is often a pain, is spearmint which creeps under the fence from my neighbor’s yard and keeps surrounding my tomato plants. Not good for the tomatoes unless I keep it pulled out, which I do. The reason that you can’t get rid of mint, even when you pull it out is that the plant puts down deep roots and even when you think you have pulled it all out, there is still enough left in there for it to grow again. Just like the mythical phoenix bird, mint keeps coming back and rejuvenating itself.
The two main types of mint are Peppermint and Spearmint. Spearmint is the preferred mint for using fresh as the Peppermint Variety has a high menthol content and tends to taste medicinal when not dried before use. There are many varieties within the Spearmint category which can be used freely for cold drinks or hot tea. My favorite is Chocolate Mint. One of the nice things about Chocolate Mint is that it does not grow as rapidly as the other varities and when you water it gives off a delicious Chocolate Mint fragrance which smells just like an old fashioned Chocolate Mint Patty, something I used to love when a child. In fact, I still do. A few of the other varities of mint which are available are Lemon Mint, Banana Mint, Lavender Mint, Orange Mint and Pineapple Mint. If you do find yourself fighting the mint battle, just take advantage of its presence and use it whenever youcan. Following are some of the things that I do with Mint and that you can do too, if you like.
I just pulled out a large quantity of mint that was surrounding my tomato plants. I pulled the mint out, roots and all but like I mentioned earlier, there will probably still be roots left in the ground and I will find myself pulling the mint out again in a few weeks. Since the mint roots where still attached, there was some dirt clinging to the plants. I first rinsed them off with the hose before taking them in the house. Once in the kitchen I filled the sink up with cold water and plop in the mint stems and swish them around to get rid of any loose dirt, bugs or other debris. Then I pull the leaves off the stems and put them in a colander. The easiest way to remove the leaves from the stems, is to run your fingers down the stem in the opposite direction of growth. When you do this, the leaves come off easily. Once you have the leaves off and in the colander, then run cold water over them, shaking the colander well to distribute the water and get rid of the unwanted material.
Once your mint is clean, you can then use it for a variety of things. I find that the best way is to make a mint infusion. The infusion can be used for making tea or jelly or can be stored in the refrigerator until you are ready to use it. The infusion itself can be use for mint tea (no tea leaves needed). Not only is mint tea refreshing, it is also a great digestive aid. You can also make mint lemon or limeade or use it for cooking. One of the advantages of making the infusion is that when it is simmering it gives off a wonderful fragrance that will permeate your home and act as a natural air freshener.
To make an infusion, place the mint leaves in a pot where they will have ample room and then cover them with cold water. Bring to a boil, turn down the flame and simmer for about 10 minutes, then shut off the heat, cover the pot and let it sit until the infusion is cool. Pour the infusion through a strainer into a clean container and discard the leaves. Again, the infusion can be used for tea either hot or cold. For iced tea, place some ice cubes in a pitcher, pour the infusion over it and then serve. For added flavor, add lemon or lime juice or orange, lemon and lime slices. The infusion can be stored in the refrigerator for a day or two or can be frozen until you are ready to use it.
To make mint jelly, recipes can be found on line just by typing in ‘Recipes for Mint Jelly’ into your browser search area. Mint leaves can also be used to cook lamb and can be used in salads. Remember that if you have mint growing in your yard, don’t let it go to waste. Use it and don’t be afraid to pick it. It will grow back!