7 Summer Herbs and How to Use Them
“What’s the best way to go about growing herbs for the kitchen, and what are some ways to use the harvest?”
I grew up eating out of a garden, and I don’t think it would have ever occurred to my parents to buy tomatoes, pot greens, or fresh herbs from the store. Fresh herbs, in fact, were rare to nonexistent in many supermarkets until a decade or so ago, which is why I’ve always grown them, even if I’ve only had room for small pots of rosemary, thyme, and chives on a fire escape or a sunny windowsill. When you compare the cost of a modest herb garden with that of harvested fresh (or not-so-fresh, as the case may be) herbs, whether sold in large, impossible-to-use-up bunches or itty-bitty plastic clamshells, you’ll see that they are a big return on a relatively small investment.
Home is where the herbs are, in other words, and that’s because so often their distinctive flavors and aromas are what compel me into the kitchen. Judging by the great response to last week’s column on growing herbs, I am not alone.
So here are seven of my favorite herbs (it was so difficult to choose!) and summery things I like to do with them.
Genovese (aka sweet or Italian) basil and tomatoes go together like, well, basil and tomatoes, but don’t stop there. Tear the leaves into small pieces, then work them into softened butter and use it for corn on the cob, boiled new potatoes, or steamed green beans or fish. Then, of course, there is pesto—reason alone for summer. “Pesto is the sauce the Genoese invented as the vehicle for the fragrance of a basil like no other, their own,” writes Marcella Hazan. “But never mind, as long as you have fresh basil…you can make rather wonderful pesto anywhere.” And in no time flat, if you use Hazan’s food-processor method. Thai basils are wonderful in all manner of Southeast Asian curries, stir-fries, and salads.
Bay thrives in warm climates but can be happy in cooler regions if it’s kept, for instance, on a sheltered, sunny deck. A small bay tree makes a good container plant and adapts well to indoor life once the weather turns chilly. A mainstay flavoring in French and Mediterranean kitchens, bay deepens and brightens soups, stews, and other dishes. Stuff a whole fish with bay, fennel, and lemon before grilling, or add a leaf or two to fish chowder or stew or a shrimp or crab boil. You can also soak the leaves in water, then thread them between the pieces of meat in lamb or chicken kebabs before grilling, or use a leaf to flavor white beans or lentils for a salad. Because the fresh leaves are slightly bitter, they are at their best when picked a day or two ahead and allowed to wilt before using. As the edges are sharp, always remove a bay leaf from a dish before serving.
This herb comes in many cultivars, but my kitchen mint of choice is spearmint; it’s sweeter and more nuanced than, say, peppermint, which is more commonly used as a flavoring for ice cream, candy, and toothpaste. Spearmint makes an excellent simple syrup (see “Herbal Sodas and Tisanes,” below) for iced tea or fruit salad, but it also gives a refreshing boost to a cucumber-and-garlic tzatziki or tabbouleh, as well as vegetables such as peas, carrots, eggplant, summer squash, tomatoes, and zucchini. A salsa made with handfuls of mint, cilantro, dry-toasted cumin and/or coriander seeds, a few fresh green Thai chiles, and salt, all whizzed up in a food processor, then brightened with a bit of fresh lemon juice, adds pizzazz to just about anything. Even though spearmint works just fine in mojitos, if you are a die-hard fan, you may want to grow true Cuban mojito mint for a summer’s worth of parties.
Like sage, rosemary is often thought of as a wintry herb, used in stuffings and hearty stews and other dishes that are cooked long and slow. But this herb’s resinous, resonant flavor and aroma stand up beautifully to summer’s cooking methods. Put whole branches in a marinade for pork or lamb, or place on a charcoal grill for aromatic smoke. Stripped of their leaves, the branches can be soaked in water for about 30 minutes, then used as skewers for kebabs. Fresh rosemary sprigs are sturdy enough to stand in for swizzle sticks in gin and tonics.
Tarragon sprigs don’t keep long—the leaves turn dark and can become moldy—so this herb is a smart choice for the garden. When shopping for seeds or small plants, choose French tarragon, not Russian tarragon, which is inferior in flavor and aroma. With its suave, insinuating, anise-like character, tarragon is best used with a judicious hand. In the U.S., the herb shines, most famously, in green goddess dressing, but try it in infused melted butter for steamed artichokes or lobster; add it to summer vegetable stews and sautés (it has a great affinity for carrots); or use it with lentils, fish, chicken, deviled eggs, or mayonnaise-based salads such as egg, chicken, and lobster.
The gentle, lingering warmth of thyme makes this herb extremely versatile. You’re familiar with it, of course, in long-cooked stews, roasts, and braises, but fresh, it’s stellar in marinades for chicken, pork, or lamb or scattered over steamed or sautéed carrots, zucchini, or summer squash. For one of the fastest, simplest weeknight suppers ever, combine thyme leaves with chopped parsley, basil, mint, and marjoram. Stir in some of your best extra-virgin olive oil, then add to hot cooked pasta and halved cherry tomatoes. Lemon thyme, with its resinous-citrusy aroma, is terrific with seafood, vinaigrettes, and fruit salads.
Young savory plants aren’t as popular as other Mediterranean herbs (thyme, marjoram, and oregano) at nurseries and farmers markets, so when you see them, pounce. You aren’t likely to see cut savory at the supermarket, and its pungency adds depth and, yep, savor to all sorts of dishes. Summer savory has tender leaves and is an annual; winter savory, which has woodier stems and tougher evergreen leaves, is a perennial. In general, the two types may be used interchangeably; winter savory, which is more peppery, should be used in smaller amounts. That said, summer savory is especially good with robust fish like mackerel and bluefish; finely chopped, it’s delicious in potato, bean, lentil, or grain salads. The chopped leaves (and sometimes the flowers) of winter savory are traditionally added to fish stews or soups, pizzas, and white bean dishes. Winter savory is also used to coat the Provençal cheese called Banon, and you can achieve a similar effect by scattering it over plain fresh goat cheese. If you like, up the ante by adding chopped thyme, marjoram, and/or rosemary; the same treatment is a surefire way to elevate the olive mix from the supermarket.
Herbal Sodas and Tisanes
In The New American Herbal, Stephen Orr gives a recipe for chamomile syrup that, he writes, can be used with any herb that works well in tea, including mint, lemon verbena, lemongrass, pineapple sage, lemon basil, and even thyme or rosemary. Orr likes the calming effect of a chamomile-infused syrup with some soda over ice. “If you want to ‘get it up on its feet’ (to borrow a phrase from an old film noir) then add a splash of gin,” he notes.
To make 2 cups of Orr’s chamomile syrup, bring 2 cups water to a boil in a small saucepan. Stir in 2 cups sugar and simmer for a minute or so. Turn off the heat, stir in 1 cup packed fresh or dried chamomile flowers, and let steep 15 minutes. The flowers will release sediment from their fuzzy centers, so strain the mixture through a cheesecloth-lined sieve. Pour the strained syrup into a bottle with a stopper and chill; it will last for a couple of weeks in the refrigerator. To serve, pour a few tablespoons of the syrup over ice and top with soda water.
True teas are brewed from true tea leaves, from the plant Camellia sinensis. Teas made from fresh or dried herbs are more correctly called tisanes. “Some, such as holy basil, anise hyssop, mint, and lemon balm, make excellent tisanes all on their own,” writes Orr. “Most often I grab a little of this leaf or that leaf straight from the garden and add it to ordinary black or green tea, jasmine tea, or yerba mate and pour hot water on top, then let them steep for a few minutes. I add this to several cups of cold water in a pitcher and serve it over ice.” I am so there.