Your Favorite Fresh Herb and Why

A fairly wet spring here in the nation's capital has done wonders for my backyard herb collection which barely made it through last summer's drought. My erstwhile-pathetic pot of oregano has morphed into a lush carpet of tender green leaves, popping with a woody perfume. And because it's doing such a number on my olfactory receptors, I'm using oregano in the kitchen whenever I have a chance - with feta cheese, in vinaigrettes, pizza sauce, omelettes, a pot of beans, to name a few.


My very happy oregano. (Kim O'Donnel)

Admittedly, my current crush on oregano has blinded me from the bounty of summer herbs currently on parade, and really, I must snap out of it before snow begins to fall. But it got me thinking: With such herby riches within my reach, how do I choose? I asked a handful of herb aficionados around the country the following question: What's your favorite fresh herb - and why?

Below, their scented sentiments.

Heidi, of Grand Rapids, Minn., writes: "Mint, mint, mint, mint, mint, mint, MINT! My husband and I have a chocolate mint plant that has gone crazy in our garden and we add it to our water bottles with ice and also make a great carrot mint salad with shredded carrots, olive oil and honey."

I'm crazy about mint, too. Growing up, I liked to chew mint leaves from the garden of our neighbor Mrs. Karl; I'd walk across the street, check out her zinnias and pick a few mint leaves to freshen up my breath, but what I liked most was the ruffly feel in my mouth.

Reston, Va.-based blogger Erin Doland of Unclutterer.com has two favorites: "My favorite herbs are basil and tarragon. Basil is my 'I will use it whenever I damn well please' herb, and tarragon is my 'Look! I made Bearnaise sauce! On my own! And it isn't awful!' herb."

But she acknowledges that basil is moody - and "it is the hardest for me to grow. It doesn't like my north sun beating on it 15 hours a day. Nor does it enjoy going without water for eight days."

Diane from Philadelphia, Pa., gives a big shout out to "ROSEMARY! We love it because we have a rosemary bush that we tend to all year long. It is glorious! We use it on everything from Tuscan bread, to garlic and rosemary pork rub, to putting it on the coals of the grill when we do steak. We also keep fresh cut rosemary all around the kitchen as a decoration and an aromatic."

I like how Bettina Stern of Washington, D.C.-based cooking Web site Loulies.com, is thinking: "I love the combo of garden-fresh mint and cilantro in this twist on gremolata (usually parsley is used). Combined with the zesty flavor of lemon and the sharp, assertiveness of garlic, it works perfectly with summer zucchini making headway in the backyard."

Gremolata, by the way, is a superb salt-free seasoning (are you listening, high blood pressure people?) that pairs beautifully with potatoes, corn, grilled chicken and fish -- and yes, white beans!

Celebritologist and avid herb grower Liz Kelly reveals her leafy love: "Cilantro -- on everything from Latin American to Asian-inspired cooking -- it just works with practically anything heavy on veggies and in need of a little light, fresh note. A pot of heirloom beans with a little fresh cilantro and lime juice spritzed on top is fab. And almost any curry is given a little jolt with a few leaves of cilantro."

Although she's not gardening herbs these days, Jo from Waukesha, Wis. shared a link for a recipe for homemade herbed mayonnaise from Milwaukee chef Sandy D'Amato -- that even a non-mayo gal like myself might warm up to.

For deeper background, growing tips and recipes, you must have a look at "Mediterranean Herb Cookbook" by Georgeanne Brennan. It's a goodie.

This post would be incomplete without a request for your herby contributions. Which leaves rock your world? Scratch and sniff in the comments area.


By Kim ODonnel |  June 12, 2008; 10:00 AM ET Herbs , Summer
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Comments

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Dill - I love grilled seafood in the summer and a little fresh dill and lemon makes it perfect. I also mix dill in with salad greens and add it liberally to chicken and tuna salads. tastes like summer!

Posted by: kate | June 12, 2008 10:17 AM

My favorite by far is cilantro. It's good in Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese, etc cuisines. But people either love or hate it: the girls in my family love it; my dad hates it :)
http://cooking-shopping-crafts-etc.blogspot.com/

Posted by: Olga | June 12, 2008 10:22 AM

A few late-arriving e-mailed responses:
Express Features editor Jennifer Barger shows her love for sage. "Fried and put on top of chicken. Chopped up in sauce for beef. Or maybe stuffed in a ravioli..."

Cookbook author John Martin Taylor, who writes the Hoppin' John blog, says he hasn't been the same since he "lived in Genoa, Italy, back in the 80s and, needless to say, became quite a fan of basil:

http://hoppinjohns.net/september2007.aspx

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | June 12, 2008 10:35 AM

Thai basil - Soup of course! And also in sandwiches, mixed into mayo or straight. And salads - great with roasted eggplant.

Posted by: Alexandria | June 12, 2008 10:51 AM

I mever met a fresh herb I didn't like.

Rosemary and Dill are currently my favorites. I love these new fresh rosemary corn cakes from La Brea Bakery here in LA. Also, there is nothing like tuna salad with fresh dill. The best!

John
http://www.organizingla.com

Posted by: John Trosko | June 12, 2008 10:53 AM

Such a toughie. It's like asking which of my children do I like best. My top three are definitely basil, cilantro, and flat leaf (or Italian) parsely. Basil is wonderful, but the other two are less expensive and I always need to have one of the two around.

I'm going to have to go with cilantro. It's useful on its own in a wide variety of dishes and adds an interesting kick when subbed for parsely.

Incidentally, if anyone out there wants to try a new twist on cilantro, look for culantro. It's kind of a country cousin of cilantro. Similar flavor, but broad, flat leaves.

BB

Posted by: Fairlington Blade | June 12, 2008 11:05 AM

Oh gosh... dill is special, in part because it's so hard to grow in the mid-Atlantic and parts south. Basil is so addictive in summertime, but maybe mint... and I guess basil is in the mint family, too, so...

There are very few herbs I don't like, though I don't like to overdo it on thyme and rosemary.

How about my usual answer: variety!

Posted by: Reine de Saba | June 12, 2008 11:48 AM

It's gotta be cilantro!

Posted by: Average Betty | June 12, 2008 12:57 PM

Basil! I grow some in a pot outside my house, and it responds so well to the southern exposure. In the past, I'd have more than I could possibly use by the end of the growing season. I love basil because it has such a fresh summery taste and it goes well with nearly everything. Toss some in a salad. Mix with pasta. Mix with eggs. Top any sandwich. Perk up a soup. It's even good with fruit.

But I also have to give it up for catnip. That stuff is not only crack for cats but also tastes pretty good on fish. It tastes like both lemon and mint.

Posted by: DC Cubefarm | June 12, 2008 2:15 PM

I'm crazy for dill, although I can't grow it to save my soul. It's great with fish, especially salmon; it's fabulous with cucumbers or with carrots, and it's the not-so-secret ingredient in my family's version of classic Jewish Penicillin (chicken soup). And it's pretty, to boot!

Posted by: Mel | June 12, 2008 3:07 PM

my new fave is tarragon. I just re-discovered my love of it. roast chicken with lemon and tarragon. Ahhh...heaven. I made it last night. It scented the whole house and made my mouth water.
Last week I made this CBLT salad up: roast tarragon chicken,crispy bacon,lettuce, cherry toms, croutons and a caesar dressing with extra tarragon. A taste explosion!

Posted by: teepee | June 12, 2008 4:20 PM

Basil and cilantro are my two faves. I am learning how to experiment and cook with other herbs. Having an herb garden must be nice! How well do herbs freeze?

Posted by: MHadding | June 12, 2008 5:17 PM

I go through phases with my herbs, especially in the summer when they get growing so beautifully! It's great how herbs give more the more you take away! I'd have to say that mint, which is so versatile and such a pleasant flavor in savory dishes is my preferred herb for its versatility with basil, parsley, cilantro, lavender, etc.

But my go to herb lately has been Greek oregano which came back beautifully through no effort on my part. It's not that I prefer it to the other variety, but more than a few times I've made a Cuban chicken marinade and sauce from Jeremy Traunfeld's The Herbal Kitchen: Cooking with Fragrance and Flavor. The marinade has Greek oregano, sage, cumin and lemon juice. A cuban friend of mine said that is the authentic combo and I've been making grilled chicken this way more than any other lately. But alas my sage plant has gotten woody and leggy and I may have to pull it up and replace it after three years of benign neglect.

Jeremy's cookbook is fab-o for herbalicious explorations and for us city dwellers who grow herbs in pots at this time of the year it's a wonderful go to source for all seasons and occasions!

Posted by: Sean | June 12, 2008 6:18 PM

I really don't have a favorite but i would like to try some of these in some old fashion recipes.

Posted by: namder | June 13, 2008 1:12 AM

Dill for fish and basil for tomatoes and just about anything else.

I mostly love them all.

Cilantro tastes like dirty soap.

Posted by: Judi | June 13, 2008 6:19 AM

i have to vote for basil. pesto, panzanella, grilled squash & eggplant. to me the smell of basil immediately means summer

another vote for the cilantro tastes like soap.

i read that to a certain segment of the population cilantro does taste like soap. julia childs being one of those people. didn't the post do an article on this. does anybody else remember it?

Posted by: quark | June 13, 2008 1:55 PM

Judi - you just have to rinse it first! :-)

Posted by: Fairlington Blade | June 13, 2008 3:13 PM

Basil, basil, basil, no matter what color! But I am with Judi about cilantro. It must be one of those things where you can taste the horrible flavor or not, and I can. I remember doing a test in chemistry class where everyone put a piece of paper in their mouth and some people in the class promptly spit it out and were furious at being given something so horrible to taste. The rest of the class looked at us as if we were crazy because they could taste nothing. Apparently some people have receptors for the chemical we were given, and others didn't.

Posted by: Tres Amie | June 15, 2008 2:57 AM

Lovely picture...but is that really oregano? It looks like thyme to me, but then, maybe it's a variety I'm not familiar with?

Posted by: Heffalump | June 15, 2008 5:00 PM

What a great blog! My favorite is basil. It makes any boring dish amazing!

www.carrotsncake.com

Posted by: Tina | June 15, 2008 9:08 PM

Wow, such a great variety of responses -- thanks to all.
Heffalump -- there is an errant stem of thyme getting in the way, and I'm only seeing it now that you mention it, but this is oregano.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | June 16, 2008 8:04 AM

Tres - the ability to appreciate cilantro is not the lack of an ability to discren how horrible it tastes. My love affair started with my first trip to Costa Rica, with cerviche to be precise. I am a big fan of basil and it nearly topped my list. It's simply not as flexible and is much more delicate. Still, it's in the regular rotation and I've got some in the fridge at the moment.

Thanks to Kim for a great topic!

BB

Posted by: Fairlington Blade | June 18, 2008 11:30 PM

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