As the days get lighter, longer, and warmer, our tastebuds long for something fresh and light. For me, the best way to add taste and brightness to my diet is to use fresh herbs we can either grow or acquire at most grocery stores.
Here’s a quick primer on herbs to try and ways to use them. Now that you’re humming along, let’s start with the iconic four of the title: Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.
You can always bundle them together—tie them up or make a little cheesecloth bundle—to flavor soups, and meat or fish stews. But on their own, they play starring roles:
If you think parsley is just a garnish, think again. It tastes like spring—the first herb up in the garden and always present throughout the year. It is basil’s partner in classic pesto and is the main character in a bright tabouli salad. Chopped with garlic and lemon peel, it is gremolata—a green sauce—served over osso buco, or other braised meats, and used as a garnish for soup.
No longer relegated to Thanksgiving stuffing, fresh sage has an astringent and haunting flavor. Sage leaves sauteed in browned butter is a classic topping for pasta, especially great on butternut squash ravioli. It can be stuffed in chicken cavities and paired with chopped garlic and infused under the skin of chicken or turkey before roasting.
Easy to grow and available year-round, you might just ask your neighbor for a few sprigs the next time you pass their rosemary bush. Rosemary loves garlic and lemon. The three show up frequently in Greek and Mediterranean food. Chicken, lamb, and pork all benefit from being rubbed with chopped rosemary and garlic, and if you have large branches, you can place atop fish or chicken before grilling.
Think mushrooms when you think of thyme. Fungi of all sorts take well to sprigs of thyme and a shot of sherry. Thyme is essential in French stews and soups. Lately, it has been making its appearance with sweet things. Sprinkle thyme leaves over goat cheese drizzled with dark honey to spread on crackers. You’re in for a treat.
And here’s a sampling of some other superb herbs, readily available, to experiment within your next savory or herbaceous dish:
Most often paired with tomatoes and Italian dishes, basil also complements Thai and other Asian cuisines. It adds a deep, almost licorice tone when used in combination with other herbs.
Fresh dill will surprise you if you are used to using it dried. It shows up in Scandinavian food and is a staple of Eastern European, especially Russian cuisine. It complements eggs, fish, and potatoes. It is delicious with butter over steamed new potatoes, and also mixes with creamy sauces for fish. When mixed with parsley, dill makes a terrific pesto.
Many people don’t know how to use tarragon, but once they see how versatile it is, it can become a staple. It has a lemony, slightly licorice taste, and appears in French cuisine with eggs, fish, and chicken. It is one of the herbs that likes sweetening. Maple syrup and tarragon are a great addition to mashed sweet potatoes.
I always have mint in the refrigerator. It goes with parsley, basil, cilantro, dill, and tarragon. Fresh mint leaves added to salads give an unexpected kick.
People feel strongly about cilantro. If they don’t like it, they say it tastes like soap. If they do, they know it spans the globe from Latin America to Asia and India. (Check out my cilantro salsa recipe from the Winter 2020 issue.)
Pesto Your Way
One good way to use many of these herbs is to make an herb pesto. Most people think of the classic basil-based pesto with pine nuts, garlic, parmesan, and olive oil. But other herbs will enhance or transform traditional pesto that can be used to dress pasta or potatoes or accompany roasted meats or roasted vegetables. Try a twist on the class recipe below and your tastebuds will spring alive!
Mixed Herb Pesto
½ cup nuts (Toasted nuts such as pine nuts, walnuts, hazelnuts)
2 cloves garlic, peeled
½ cup grated Parmesan or other hard cheese (asiago, romano, cheddar)
½ cup fresh cilantro leaves
½ cup fresh parsley leaves
½ cup fresh basil leaves
¼ cup fresh tarragon leaves
¼ cup fresh mint leaves
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
½–1 cup extra virgin olive oil
In a processor, pulse nuts, garlic, and cheese until coarse. Add lemon zest and juice and herbs, and pulse until blended. Add oil slowly until you have the consistency you like.
Makes 1-½ cups pesto
Serve over hot pasta, steamed potatoes, or roasted vegetables. Use as a bruschetta topping. Mix with yogurt for a dip for vegetables.
It also freezes well, so make extra so you’ll have fresh pesto at the ready any time of the year.
Before Rebecca Crichton worked for Boeing, taught leadership development, or became executive director of the Northwest Center for Creative Aging, she was a caterer, recipe developer, and food journalist. She has taught cooking to seniors and others, and she can reel off food ideas and recipes for any part of a meal or event. She believes in easily prepared, healthy, and taste-filled food that delights and satisfies