by Maria Reidelbach
Herb-deprived! That’s what I’ve come to think we Americans have been. Sure, we love oregano on our pizza, a bay leaf in our soup, a mint in our mojitos, but it’s only relatively recently that we’ve begun to savor fresh herbs like rosemary, basil, and thyme in our cuisine. Back in the day, before 20th century nutritionists, abolitionists, and chemists got their hands on our diets, most folks devoured a huge variety of herbs with great abandon and pleasure. What happened?
|Botanical sketch of parsley leaf, courtesy of Maria Reidelbach.
I don’t know about you, but when I was learning to cook I was intimidated by those complicated charts specifying which herb to use for what food, and so I stuck with recipes and measured my herbs from jars by the spoonful. That was before I became herb-enlightened.
What exactly are herbs? The widest definition includes any green plant whose leaves, seeds, or flowers are eaten. This definition applies to greens like spinach and kale, but that’s not my focus. I’m talking about culinary herbs, the aromatic ones.
The signature fragrance of herbs comes from oils in cells on the surface of the leaf. You can release the scent by lightly rubbing a leaf—the oils are so light and volatile they float invisibly through the air, and when we sniff, they are drawn into our nose and sensed by special neurons. The ancients were awed by this invisible, yet potent experience; they used herbs in ceremonies. We continue to do this today, with wreaths, incense, and teas.
Herbs have been popular with humans for eons, but from the plant’s point of view, why would they want to be so smelly? Have you ever tasted the plain leaf of any herb? Strong, hot, bitter, nasty. That’s what most other animals think, too. Fragrant oils telegraph the presence of these icky flavors and protect the plant from even a test bite.
But we humans are not exactly like other animals. We developed agriculture—taming and growing grains, fruit, and vegetables. Early on, farmers bred out the bitterness so prevalent in wild food and selected for plants that produced the most energy: sugar, starch and fat—that’s what we’re hard-wired to hunger for. Energy-dense food is what fueled the development of civilization, for sure, but at the same time, farmed food like millet, corn, and lettuce was bland compared to its wild ancestors. Ancient home cooks began putting zip in their stew pots by adding herbs—putting back some of the interesting aromatic compounds that had been bred out, but in dilute and controlled form. Dilution is the secret to making those volatile oils not only palatable, but scrumptious.
There’s another amazing dimension to this spicy discussion. Ten thousand years ago, when humans were busy breeding the bitterness, heat, and sourness out of wild fruit, vegetables, and grains, we were unknowingly removing nutrition as well, because many phytonutrients are, ironically, not delicious, but, as above, nasty in strong doses. Domesticated produce is big, juicy, and sweet, which is lovely, but not nearly as nourishing as its wild ancestors.
Herbs to the rescue! Because herbs were valued for their wild and smelly virtues, they have avoided domestication and are as potent as they were eons ago—and it turns out that they have huge amounts of nutrients too! We’re talking orders of magnitude here: compare good ol’ parsley and healthy leaf lettuce: parsley’s got three times the iron and folate, eight times the potassium, ten times the calcium and magnesium, and fourteen times the vitamin C! Comparisons of other herbs like cilantro, dill, basil, thyme, and mint show similar profiles.
I’ve begun seeing herbs in a whole new light—as food as well as seasoning. I’ve also been experimenting in the kitchen, using herbs lavishly and randomly. Turns out that those text-heavy tables of matches are just plain unnecessary. In my experience, you can take a bowl of any kind of grain, beans, veggies, plain meat or fish, add a drizzle of oil, a handful of chopped herb of choice, some salt and pepper, and it’s awesomely delicious—I kid you not! Of course there are some combinations made in heaven (basil and tomatoes! white beans and rosemary!), and some herbs require restraint, but most play very well will all kinds of foods.
The icing on the cake is that, because herbs are still basically wild plants (read “weeds”) they are incredibly easy to grow and many are either perennial or self-seed, year after year. There are also plenty of truly wild herbs growing in the Hudson Valley.
This is the time of year to plant herbs in your garden, borders, or even containers (when I lived in the city I had luxuriant drifts of herbs growing in fifth floor window boxes). You can grow herbs from seed, but because I usually only grow a few of each type, I usually buy plants. A great starter garden would include parsley, basil, dill, thyme, fennel, marjoram (oregano’s sweeter cousin), onion chives, garlic chives, and lemon verbena. These plants are great elements of an edible landscape; some of them, like basil and thyme, are even available in decorative versions. You’ll even have enough to share herb bouquets with friends.
There are wonderful wild herbs all season long: spearmint and peppermint, ramps, garlic mustard, anise hyssop, stinging nettles, and more. Get a good guide book, like the locally written Foraging and Feasting by Dina Falconi, and head out with nippers and a basket!
I add whole or torn leaves of herbs to all my mixed green salads. Another great way to enjoy fresh herbs is in a pesto, which can be made with any combination of herbs and is great on toast, white beans or chick peas, steamed vegetables, plain grains, or slathered on meat or fish.
Pesto Master Recipe
Dresses 4-6 servings
(All amounts are suggestions—experiment freely and find your bliss.)
• 1-3 cups of herbs, depending on strength, tough or woody stems removed
• 1 cup of nuts (optional, toasted or not)
• 3 cloves of garlic (unless the herbs used are chives, ramps or garlic scapes)
• 1 cup of oil, olive, nut or other
• Salt and pepper to taste
• Coarsely chop the herbs, nuts and garlic, then pureé using a blender or food processor.
• Add salt and pepper to taste. For a thinner consistency, add water, a teaspoon at a time.
• Experiment with your own combinations of herbs and nuts. For instance, try half fresh oregano and half parsley with hazelnuts, or marjoram and parsley with almonds. When using stronger-flavored herbs, reduce the amount, or mix with milder herbs.
Maria Reidelbach is an author, applied artist and local food activist. Her email is email@example.com.