I’m not an herb and spice expert, but I know some. I especially love Monica Bhide - check out her spice-of-the-month and spice-capades for excellent information and wonderful recipes using herbs and spices.
My primary credential is a long history of loving to use herbs and spices, closely followed by a collection that provides at least a modicum of “cred” if you’re looking for someone who has tried a few herbs and spices in her time. I admit that some of my dried herbs and spices should be rotated more frequently – but hey, no one’s perfect.
And if you believe in bloodlines:
- My dad’s middle name was Basil - seriously.
- My last name is pronounced “cumin”; and
- My dad used to be in the spice grinding business in Brooklyn, back in the day when that borough was not chic.
Trying to decide which herbs and spices are my favorites was a bit like trying to decide which kid I love the best. (Favorite spices to follow next week.) On second thought, I’ve come up with my lists, so don’t tell my kids that I will figure out a preference between them if it will make a good blgopost.
Also, I am fickle. These are my current favorites herbs. Change is good and if my opinions and tastes didn't evolve, I'd still be eating Kraft American on my grilled cheese sandwiches.
Difference between Herbs and Spices
Herbs are made from leaves of “herbaceous” plants, those whose stems die back to the ground each growing season. Spices, on the other hand, can be made either from herbaceous plants or those whose stems remain above ground during the winter (called “woody” plants.) Spices come from other parts of the plant (not leaves) – i.e. roots, seeds, flowers, fruits, bark.
(I found this explanation on the Iowa State University Extension Service site. There is no better source for answers to agriculture and related questions than folks at extension services at our public land grant universities. Full disclosure – I’m a proud graduate of another land grant university, UW-Madison.)
My 5 Favorite Herbs
- Basil – I can’t do without the fresh basil in the summer. Whether for basil and tomato spread with goat cheese, pesto, sliced tomatoes with fresh mozzarella and basil, or sprinkled on a salad, I love going onto my deck to snip leaves from my homegrown basil. I started all the plants in this picture from a single batch of the basil with roots (meant for cooking, not planting) that I bought in a local grocery. After separating the stems into 5 separate pots and watering them, all but 1 grew well. Four good plants out of single $5 purchase seemed like a great deal to me. It was much cheaper than buying tiny plants at a nursery or hardware store and a lot quicker than nursing them to this size too. When I'm feeling especially adventurous, I use it in this amazing watermelon/basil mocktail that I made for my Mother's Day brunch this year. Dried basil isn’t nearly as good as fresh, but I do use it in cooked sauces.
- Rosemary – Rosemary on potatoes (roasted or boiled) is divine. It also works well with poultry and meats – I am especially fond of rosemary in lamb dishes. If you live in an area where it grows well, you’ll often find it on huge bushes, both cultivated and wild. I’ve been known to spot a bush in a neighbor’s yard and ask for a cutting. This one has been sitting in a plastic sandwich bag for weeks on my kitchen counter.
- Mint – Like basil, it’s the fresh stuff that really works well. Mint is an essential ingredient in many Greek and Middle Eastern dishes, such as tabouli, and some version of yogurt-based cucumber salad (tzatziki) and cous cous. I grow some, but don't be fooled by this picture, not enough to supply all my cooking needs. So I buy much of what I use, preferably at local farmers' markets.
- Parsley – Although parsley seems rather obvious and pedestrian, it really can add zip to many dishes. I prefer the flat leaf version, sometimes known as Italian parsley, as opposed to the curly leafed version. Sprinkle it on most any cooked dish as a garnish - and it's essential for my favorite chicken shish-kebab. Do not ever use the dried stuff – it is evil.
- Thyme – I’ve been growing several varieties of thyme for several years. Although the plans die back to the dirt each year, they spring back in good form when the weather warms. It is delicious in stews and soups, or on potatoes or roast chicken, especially when paired with garlic. I do use dried thyme during the winter and even experimented with drying my own.
There were many runners-up to the 5 herbs I've named and I’ll get to them in due time. I did notice, that perhaps subconsciously, sage is not on the list. (Cue Simon & Garfunkel's "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme", which I do love.) I feel a bit sad about leaving it out, but rest assured that sage, along with cilantro, fennel, dill, lavender and several others, have a firm hold on my heart and a place in my pantry/garden.
Which herbs do you like best and how do you use them?