A sprinkle of herbs is an easy way to add a sophisticated taste to the most basic of meals (a good thing, given oily ragger culinary artists tend to work with simple low-cost ingredients). Much can be said about herbs but here is a quick guide to easy-to-grow herbs and how and when to use them with food.
Parsley: Parsley is rich in nutrients and a great way to sneak "greens" into the family diet. It is commonly used as a garnish or finely chopped in soups, sauces, meat dishes, mashed potatoes and carrots, in stuffing and in salads - you can sprinkle it on virtually anything (okay, maybe not icecream!). It is easy to grow from seedlings. Nipping out the tops will encourage growth.
Mint: Mint grows so rampantly that it should be contained in pot or its own confined spot in the garden. It is best known as the main ingredient of mint sauce used with roast lamb.
It also adds a fresh flavour to boiled potatoes and peas.
A reader suggests that if you add fresh mint and a slice of lemon to a cool jug of water, you can delete fizzy drink from your weekly shopping list.
Thyme: The most popular varieties are common and lemon. It is used in soups, stuffing, meat loaves, roasted meats, casseroles, stews, egg dishes, salads, breads, sauces, spreads and vegetables. Cut your thyme bush back in winter to encourage new growth Basil: An ideal pot plant for the patio garden or a warm sunny spot on the kitchen windowsill as they need warmth and regular watering. The most common variety is sweet basil. When cooking, think basil and tomato - it is ideal for tomato soups, tomato salads, tomato sauce and tomato paste
Rosemary: A strong-smelling evergreen shrub, the upright varieties are best for cooking. Picking out the tips will keep young plants bushy and new growth can be encouraged by cutting older bushes back to half that year's growth at the end of summer. It is commonly used with roast meats, especially lamb but also chicken or game. Impress your friends by using rosemary spikes as skewers for meat and vegetable kebabs, or throw some sprigs on the hot coals to add aroma to barbecue meat. A few sprigs of rosemary placed in the roasting dish with a medley of vegetables and garlic will bring out wonderful flavours and turn a simple serving of roast vege into fine oily rag cuisine.
Oregano: There are several varieties of oregano but Greek oregano is the one generally preferred for cooking. Like rosemary and thyme, it needs full sun and soil that's not too fertile. It is also suited to growing in pots. The plant will last for many years, but does need to be nipped back to encourage new growth.
It is frequently used in Italian cooking and combined with basil in tomato dishes to create a distinctive Italian taste.
A reader from Auckland says: "If you have a glut of herbs in your garden such as parsley, mint, basil and thyme, don't leave them to get past their best but pick, wash, dry and put in plastic bags in the freezer. They become crisp when frozen, so crush up, ready to use."
Here's a quick checklist to see if you have the right herb for the dish.
- Egg and chicken dishes - tarragon, chervil, basil, or chives.
- Fish: marjoram, thyme, basil, sage.
- Ground beef: basil, marjoram, thyme, parsley.
- Lamb: marjoram, rosemary, mint.
- Pork: sage, basil.
- Poultry stuffing: marjoram, thyme, basil, sage.
- Vegetables: marjoram, basil, chervil, rosemary.