To people of the
past—200 years ago or 2,000 years ago—herbs were little green gods. According
to the old Greeks, if you used herbs correctly, they would do wonders for you,
but if you used any one of them on the wrong occasion or otherwise irked it,
the herb would loose demons. Parsley is commonly used today to adorn blue-plate
specials, but 19 centuries ago the Roman naturalist Pliny, a living
fountainhead of facts—and fancies—insisted that the spirit of parsley would be
offended if it were served anywhere but at funeral feasts. Pliny believed that
snakes and vipers eat fennel (they do not), and he advised men to do likewise
to improve their eyesight. The Greeks, and the Romans after them, planted green
bay to ward off lightning, and long after the Roman Empire had gone to pieces,
medieval physicians prescribed thyme to cheer up the sick.
Today we are
ruled by the heavy hand of scientific fact. We do not sprinkle funerals with
parsley or use shrubbery against lightning. In this day of powerful synthetic
potions we rarely even use herbal medicines to ward off chills or fevers. Herbs
have been relegated to the kitchen, but in this limited realm their magic
prevails. If used correctly, a single herb still can perform a variety of
wonders; it can make bad English cooking palatable and make very good Italian
food taste even better.
All herbs, sweet
or sour, bland or piquant, are best when picked fresh from the garden. Any
small patch of soil can be turned into an herb garden if there is a fair share
of light and air—too much sun is not necessarily an advantage. The city dweller
can keep a few pots on the windowsill: parsley, chives, basil, tarragon and
chervil flourish in pots. Don't be afraid to keep cutting the leaves: chives,
in particular, grow again very quickly.
From the long
list of little green gods that has come down to us from the ancients, I submit
here a select 14 that are worth growing, if possible, and worth using, in any
case, to add character to a variety of dishes.
common herb is the universal improver, used fresh in sauces, salads, with
vegetables, and in parsley butter. It is very rich in vitamin C. With a sprig
of thyme and a bay leaf it forms the bouquet garni the French use in soups,
stews and marinades.
GARLIC. As good
from the shop as the garden, since only the hard cloves are used. A purist may
well say that, by definition, garlic is not an herb, since it is the clove,
rather than the stem or leaf, that is used for flavor. Regardless, for Greeks,
Romans and our ancestors garlic was a drugstore in itself, a source of strength
and courage, even an aphrodisiac. It has too many uses to list, of course.
Those who like it in salads should press it right into the dressing rather than
rub the bowl with it.
THYME. No English
rabbit pie is complete without the strong yet delicate pungency of thyme
leaves. This so-called "cheerful" herb has a wide range of uses—on
grilled chops and roasts, in heavy soups like minestrone, in stuffings for fowl
and in beef stews with red wine.
MINT. This common
plant has been used as a refresher and a digestive for more than 2,000 years.
In addition to its association with lamb, it gives a tang to many vegetables
and, finely chopped, it goes well with fish, soups, stews and braised duck.
Cold roast duck resting on freshly picked mint is an excellent summer dish.
digestive, it is good with chicken, duck or goose, and also in lentil soup.
Cheeses with layer on layer of sage leaves are still made in England—another
sage cheese is made in Vermont. The Italians use sage for the famous veal dish
of Rome, saltimbocca, and also in spaghetti sauces.
SWEET BASIL. The
name comes from the Greek word for king. This herb, originating in India (where
another species of basil is sacred to Vishnu), is not much to look at but
exerts a most kingly pungency. It is essential to clear soups and pesto, a
special sauce for pasta in Ligurian cooking. The Italians apply basil almost
with abandon. They have a saying: "Where salt is good, so is