A few weeks ago, I got an anonymous request from someone on Twitter asking me to write about herbs. I had also been thinking about sharing my new favourite tabbouleh based on quinoa so it seemed like the perfect time to combine the two.
Actually I quite enjoyed outsourcing the inspiration for a story. If there’s something in the world of minimalist home cooking that you’d like to learn about, please feel free to put a request in the comments.
what is an herb?
Herbs are plants that are valued for their flavour and aroma, not just their nutritional properties. We tend to use the term herb to refer to the green and leafy parts of these plants. Spices refer to the non-leafy parts and can be the seeds, bark, or fruit of plants.
which herbs are essential in a minimalist kitchen?
This is one that comes down to personal preference, like when I wrote about stocking a minimalist pantry. These are just the essentials for my style of cooking and won’t be for everyone.
I love the freshness of parsley and pretty much exclusively use continential, or flat leaf parsley because I prefer its milder flavour to that of curly parsley. Parsley is versatile and used in a variety of cuisines from the Mediterranean to the Middle East. It is commonly finely chopped and used as a garnish to add freshness at the last minute. The leaves can also be used like a salad leaf.
It’s hard to imagine life without basil with it’s wonderfully unique, pungent fragrance. The Italians know how to get the most out of basil with their pesto. The leaves can be used almost anywhere tomato appears but it also goes well with things like lemon and fresh cheese.
Basil is also used widely in Thai food. While Thai basil does have a slightly different flavour profile, I’ve happily substituted Italian basil in my green curry with good results.
A tricky herb because the seeds are also used in cooking as a spice. I love coriander but know plenty of people who find the intense fragrance offensive. If I am cooking for someone who doesn’t like coriander I usually substitute fresh mint.
Coriander is commonly associated with Asian cooking but is also an integral part of Mexican cuisine. While the leaves are the most frequently used part, the stalks are also delicious and the roots can be used in curry pastes.
A good trick to telling the difference between flat leaf parsley and coriander is that the latter is usually sold with the roots attached.
Chives look like tall, cylindrical blades of grass that have become one of my favourite herbs since I’ve been getting into more minimalist 10 minute cooking. I used to start a lot of recipes by cooking down an onion which takes time. These days I’m more likely to add some chopped chives just before serving to give some fresh, oniony complexity in an instant. While you can cook chives, I think they’re best added fresh at the last minute.
There’s something about the delicate floral aroma of thyme that I just adore. If you were to make me choose my favourite herb, it would probably be thyme. The small leaves can be used both fresh or cooked. I love thyme in stews to add fragrance as things slowly simmer away. It can also be lovely to scatter the leaves over some fresh cheese or a salad. I find thyme to be super versatile, adding fragrance to everything from roast potatoes, to chicken, to tomatoes, to lamb.
I love the piney fragrance of rosemary and the fact that it is pretty low maintenance to grow. The thick, needle-like leaves are best when they are cooked. One of my all-time favourite minimalist pizza toppings is just rosemary with thinly sliced potatoes and garlic. Rosemary can pretty much be used anywhere you would use thyme and they even taste lovely together. You can also use thicker stalks as skewers for kebabs.
which herbs are the nice-to-haves in a minimalist kitchen?
Again, a matter of personal taste, these are the herbs I use from time to time, but could make do without.
I love the fresh aniseedy flavour of dill. And that it looks a little like mini pine trees. The leaves are commonly finely chopped and used with smoked fish, eggs or potatoes. For me it’s more of a Northern European / Scandanavian herb and something that works best on its own.
Chervil isn’t that commonly sold. The leaves look like a very delicate version of flat leaf parsley and the flavour is a mild aniseed, kind of how you’d imagine a cross between dill and parsley to taste. It is used in French cooking and tends to work best with delicate flavours like eggs, fish and soft cheese.
Of the three common types of tarragon, French is considered to have the best flavour over Mexican or Russian. Another of the aniseed family, tarragon is best teamed with delicate foods. I like to make my own tarragon vinegar by shoving a bunch in a bottle of white wine vinegar and allowing it to infuse. The classic use of tarragon is with roast chicken, either in the stuffing or as a flavouring for butter or a creamy sauce. It also tastes good with fish.
Very similar to chives, but with a more garlicky flavour than an oniony one.
As much as I’m tempted to include sage in the essentials, a [minimalist] girl has to draw the line somewhere. Sage is best when it is cooked. I find the raw leaves too thick and furry. Great pan fried in butter until crisp and served with ravioli or gnocchi. It makes a great contrast to the sweetness of roast pumpkin and I love it roasted with chicken or pork as an alternative to thyme.
oregano & marjoram
I’m including these together because my Mum used to grow both and I could never tell which was which. So sometimes I’d use marjoram and at others it would be oregano and I don’t remember any culinary catastrophes. I rarely use these herbs now my Mum’s garden isn’t around any more. Both tend to be more Mediterranean. The Greeks are probably the most prolific users of oregano, although the Italians do like to pair it with tomato.
how to store herbs
Herbs seems to deteriorate faster when they come in contact with water. I’ve tried putting them in a glass of water like a bunch of flowers but it doesn’t work very well, apart from rosemary. Best to wrap in paper towel and a plastic bag and pop them in the fridge.
The more woody herbs like rosemary, thyme and sage are fine if you pop them in the freezer in a plastic bag. Leafy herbs can be frozen as well but remember they’ll be wilted when you defrost them which can be fine for some dishes but not great for things like the tabbouleh below.
If I have a glut of leafy herbs like basil or parsley, I tend to make some pesto or a herb oil to preserve them.
how to prepare & use herbs
Best to prepare herbs in the same way that you would salad leaves: wash and use as salad spinner to dry. Although if they are going to be added to something saucey like a soup or a stew, you can skip the drying step.
For most herbs, only the leaves are used. Although the softer stems of things like parsley and coriander can be finely chopped and added in as well.
I’ve often read that one should tear basil and other herbs rather than chopping them because it ‘bruises’ the flavour. After testing this out, I’ve decided that I can’t detect any difference in flavour so tend to base my chopping v’s tearing decision on how I want the herbs to look. If I’m feeling rustic and chunky, I tear but if I want something finer and more delicate, I chop.
when you can use substitutes
In my mind there are a few different ‘pairings’ of herbs where one or the other can be used almost interchangeably. The end result will taste different but not any better or worse.
parsley & mint
Both these herbs give leafy freshness so I tend to think of them as interchangeable. You could easily use a bunch of mint in the tabbouleh below instead of the parsley.
basil & coriander
This is a little more risky, but it can work well. I’d happily use a handful of either to add fragrance to a Thai green curry or for leafiness in a salad. Coriander pesto can be lovely, although it is a completely different beast to regular basil. For dishes that are more Mediterranean, this swap is less likely to work, so be careful. Some thyme or rosemary may be a better substitute for basil in pastas or on pizza.
thyme & rosemary
I can’t think of a dish where you wouldn’t be able to swap thyme and rosemary. The flavour will be different but equally lovely.
sage & rosemary
As per the thyme and rosemary compatibility, sage is in a similar spectrum.
fresh oregano & basil
For tomato based dishes, both would work well. I can’t imagine oregano pesto would be great.
dried oregano & rosemary or thyme
Dried oregano is much more pungent than fresh and it’s has a similiar range to rosemary or thyme.
chives & garlic chives
chives & parsley
When chives and parsley are being used for colour and freshness, they can be interchanged. But when you are using parsley as a substantial leaf, like in the tabbouleh below, the chives wouldn’t be the best idea unless you are a fan of onion breath.
how to use dried herbs
In a word, don’t.
Although I have used dried oregano occasionally with tomato or lamb with good results, I have found that most other dried herbs are poor imitations of their fresh self.
The only other exception is dried mint in Middle Eastern cooking, but this is a completely different ingredient to fresh mint. Like the difference between fresh tuna and canned.
grow your own
While I can’t claim to have green thumbs, I do have dreams of one day tending a vegetable patch and an orchard. In the mean time, I make do with a few pots of herbs. These days my rosemary and bay leaf tree are the only survivors but am planning to plant some leafy herbs in the spring.
The good news is that most herbs like growing in pots so no matter how minimalist your space, you should be able to grow something.
[5 ingredients | 10 minutes]
I’ve been having a heap of fun exploring the mulit-coloured world of quinoa. I’d be hard pressed to pick my favourite between red, black and good old white. Today I’ve used red for the photo but any quinoa would work well.
If you haven’t cooked with quinoa before, have a look at the post I wrote on 12 things you should know about quinoa.
To fit into my self-imposed 10 minute time limit the quinoa is cooked until al dente, which I quite like. If you prefer a softer texture, by all means cook it for a few more minutes.
This makes a great vegan lunch for 2 or you can use it as a side salad anywhere that you’d use normal tabbouleh. We used it in falaffel rolls recently with hummus – seriously good.
1/2 cup quinoa
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 bunch flat leaf parsley
3 green onions (scallions), finely sliced
1/2 cup almonds
Bring a medium saucepan of salted water to the boil. Cook quinoa for 9 minutes or until cooked to your liking. Drain.
Meanwhile for the dressing, combine lemon juice with 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil. Season.
Finely chop the parsley stalks and coarsley chop the leaves.
Toss together the cooked quinoa, dressing, parsley, green onions and almonds. Season with a little extra pepper.
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