There is an enormous selection of culinary herbs that add so much to any cuisine. I keep discovering new herbs that I have not tried yet. I grow herbs in my backyard in summer and before it gets too cold I harvest them; some are frozen and some are dried. I plant a small selection in my kitchen window sill over the cold months. The quantity is nothing more than a couple of sprigs at a time, but nothing takes the place of fresh snipped herbs on soups, salads or sauces for me. I grew up in a culture that herbs are grown and consumed in large quantities. Raw (Sabzi Khordan) or cooked, Persian culture has a love affair with herbs. Fresh or dried herbs are used in Persian Cuisine. Herbs are grown in special farms from late spring to early fall. These farms stretch for several acres. Fresh herbs are harvested and hauled to the produce bazaars on a daily basis. These farms also act as farmers market that eager patrons go to and shop directly from them. There is nothing like an herb farm, and you will know it the minute you step out of your car. The shops are simple stands that house a small temporary living quarters and are built right at the edge of the farm. Fresh herb bundles are everywhere, the air is fragrant, the shopkeepers are tired from a hard day’s work that usually starts right before the crack of dawn but that doesn’t keep them from being pleasant and helpful.
I have put a list of my favorite herbs together that I use in my cooking regularly. I will be adding more herbs to the list as the time goes by.
SWEET BASIL: This is an aromatic tender herb that is well known to Mediterranean cooks. The fresh basil leaves are used in most recipes when in season during summer months. Basil may also be used in dried form during the rest of the year. Sweet basil is an annual plant which may be grown indoors from seed in late spring and depending on the geographical zone transferred to a sunny location outdoors when the danger of frost is well passed. Basil plant is very sensitive to temperatures below 40 F; they wilt and turn black overnight. The basil seeds become very gelatinous when soaked in hot water and have medicinal values in alleviating persistent cough due to colds. Fresh basil leaves is the main ingredient in the classic basil pesto sauce and Borani Reyhan. Basil leaves don’t freeze well, but the good news is that they dry very well with a nice flavor and can be added to different sauces and soups.
TO DRY BASIL, remove the tough stems. Wash, then pat dry the leaves with a clean kitchen towel. Spread the leaves in a single layer over a paper towel- covered rack. This will allow air circulation under the rack and speeds up the drying process. In a few days when the leaves are totally dry they will crumble very easily and that is the sign that they are dry enough to be stored. Any moisture left in the dried herbs promotes molding. Store the dried leaves whole in an airtight container in a cool dry place for several months. If you can spare the space, the refrigerator is a very good place to store dried herbs. When ready to use simply crush the leaves and add it to your recipe. Keep in mind that, like all herbs, for every one tablespoon of fresh basil you will use one teaspoon of the dried leaves in your recipes.
CINNAMON BASIL (reyhan) : This variety is the closest relative of the ‘reyhan’ that is grown in Iran. The leaves are narrow and much smaller than the sweet basil and the color is an almost sage green. The stems are purple and the flowers start out in clusters of very dark purple leaves (top photo) at the tip and then produce light pink or white flowers. This basil is a hardier container herb, more heat/sun tolerant than sweet basil and less susceptible to pests.
THAI BASIL Has a spicy flavor and is very aromatic. The dark shiny leaves are larger than the cinnamon basil and are pointed with deep veins. The color can vary from dark green to almost purple. The stems are dark purple. The flowers start out as purple clusters that proceed to produce white flowers. This basil is also hardier than the sweet basil and may be stored in the refrigerator for a few days when it is securely wrapped in plastic. This type of basil is used in Asian, as well as Persian and Italian cooking. The pesto sauce made with this type of basil has a slightly darker color with a more intense flavor. The leaves may be dried and stored for months.
CHIVES: This is an herb with slender hollow tubular leaves that are much thinner than green onions and have a milder flavor. Chive is a perennial plant that grows well in home herb gardens from late May until frost time in fall. The chive plant has edible pale purple flowers that can be tossed into salads. The leaves may be cut back several times during the growing season. Chives can be sliced and frozen to preserve their full flavor and vibrant green color for use in winter months.
TO FREEZE CHIVES, wash and thinly slice the leaves. Allow the sliced leaves to air dry on a tea towel for 2-3 hours then store in freezer bags in the freezer for several months. No need to defrost before use! The fresh or frozen sliced chives may be used in sauces or sprinkled over baked potatoes. The sliced chives can also be dried but they lose their nice green color and also some of the flavor.
CILANTRO (geshneez): Cilantro has delicate flat leaves. The seed or fruit of cilantro is called coriander and has very different use and taste than the leaves. The shape of the leaves can easily be mistaken for flat leaf Italian parsley but in closer examination you will find the leaves to be more delicate, lighter in color, and with a distinct aroma when crushed between your fingertips. Unlike parsley where only the thinner stems and leaves are used, even the long stems of cilantro are tender and can be chopped and used in the recipes. Fresh cilantro is available year round in most grocery stores and the optimum flavor is achieved by using the fresh herb. Cilantro may also be chopped and stored in the freezer for 3-4 months and used in soups and in Persian Herb Stew (Ghormeh Sabzi). Chopped fresh cilantro adds a wonderful flavor to Salsa, Guacamole, Rice, Persian Kuku Sabzi, salads, sauces or soups.
DILLWEED (shevid): This is a feathery herb that looks very much like fennel but the aroma and taste is quite different. It may be used dried, fresh, or frozen. Fresh dill is used in Persian Kuku Sabzi & Sabzi Polo, also eaten fresh in Sabzi Khordan.
TO DRY DILL WEED, wash the whole sprigs under cold water. While holding the stems, take a bunch in your hand and shake off the water over the sink. Spread the sprigs on a tea towel set on a drying rack for a few days until very dry. Crumble the dried springs, then separate and discard the dried hard stems. Dried dill weed may be stored in an airtight container for months without losing much of its flavor. To use dill weed fresh or frozen, wash and shake off the water as above and then allow the whole sprigs to air dry for couple of hours over a paper towel before chopping. This will result in a better looking chopped dill that will not stick together and will be easily sprinkled on dips, sauces and dressings, fresh or frozen. Store chopped dill weed in freezer bags in the freezer for several months.
MINT (nana): The mint used in cooking is of the spearmint variety with delicate, dark green leaves. It could be used fresh or dried, sprinkled into salads, soups or dips. The fresh mint leaves make a very attractive garnish for savory dishes and are the garnish of choice for many desserts. Fresh mint leaves dropped in a pitcher of cold water or my Ginger Water recipe with slices of lemon and lime make very refreshing drinking water. Spearmint is a perennial herb that grows very well in home herb gardens and at times maybe too well. It is best if the mint plant is contained in a container to prevent the roots from spreading too much.
TO DRY MINT LEAVES, wash the whole mint sprigs and drain in a colander. Arrange the springs in single layer over a tea towel and allow to air dry for several days. Once completely dried, crumble the leaves and discard the stems. Crushed dried mint leaves is used in sauces, stews and soups; it is a must in my Aash Reshteh and Kashk Bademjan. Dried mint may be stored in an airtight container for months without losing much of its flavor.
NIRA, also known as garlic chives, Chinese chives and green nira grass (there is a yellow nira grass also) has very thin, narrow flat leaves and tastes more like garlic than chives. Nira resembles Persian tareh, which also has narrow green flat leaves. Both these herbs are perennial plants that die down to the ground in winter and grow back from roots in spring. Both plants can be sprouted from seeds in spring and grow throughout summer and should be cut down to about an inch from the ground when harvesting, which is done several times during summer. Nira is a very good substitute for Persian tareh in the recipes such as Ghormeh Sabzi or Kuku Sabzi. Nira is sold in Asian supermarkets.
TO CLEAN NIRA, cut off and discard about an inch from the top to get rid of the tightly layered tip. This is the part that collects most of the dirt that the plant grows in, and short of peeling and separating the layers one by one, there is no easy way to get rid of it. Hold several bundles of the plant together and slice them about 1/2 inch long. Add the sliced herb to a large bowl and cover with cold water. Use a slotted spoon to move the herbs around in the water several times, then let it sit for 5-10 minutes. Transfer the sliced herb with the slotted spoon to a colander. Get rid of the water in the bowl, rinse it and add the herbs to the bowl and once again cover with cold water. Repeat this process as many times as you have to, until there is no more dirt at the bottom of the bowl. Rinse with cold water and drain all the water.
TO FREEZE NIRA, spread the sliced herb on a tea towel for 3-4 hours. Store in a freezer bag in the freezer and use frozen in soups and stews.
OREGANO: There are several different species of oregano but the most flavorful and aromatic variety is the Greek Oregano with dark green hairy leaves. When shopping for any herb, in order to make certain you are getting the species that you are looking for, pinch one leaf off and crush it between your fingers to release the fragrance. Oregano may be used fresh or dried in salad dressings, dips, sauces, or sprinkled over fish. Oregano combined with basil make up the classic Italian flavor in Marinara sauce, spaghetti and pizza sauce, and many other Italian dishes. The Greek Oregano is also the flavoring in olive oil and lemon juice dressing for the Greek salad. Oregano is a self propagating perennial herb that grows successfully in home herb gardens.
TO DRY OREGANO, wash the whole sprigs under cold water and drain in a colander. If you notice a lot of soil attached to the leaves soak them in cold water and then rinse them. Drain all the water and arrange in a single layer over a tea towel and allow to dry for several days. When the leaves are dry they will crumble very easily. Remove and discard the tough stems and store the dried leaves in an airtight container for many months.
PARSLEY (jafari): There are two main varieties of parsley, curly leaf and flat leaf, also known as Italian Parsley. The flavor is pretty much the same and both could be used in recipes that call for parsley. Parsley is used widely in the Middle Eastern cooking. It is also used as garnish when finely chopped and sprinkled over salads, soups, and main dishes.
TO CLEAN PARSLEY, remove the long stems and discard. Wash by putting the sprigs it in a bowl of cold water and move them around with your fingertips to get rid of any dirt. Let it sit in the cold water for 5-10 minutes. Remove the sprigs with a slotted spoon into a colander. Repeat this step several times with fresh cold water until there is no dirt in the bottom of the bowl. Pat dry clean parsley with a kitchen towel before chopping it with a very sharp knife. Parsley is best used fresh; however chopped parsley can be frozen in freezer bags for 2-3 months, to be used later in stews or soups.
ROSEMARY: This is an aromatic herb that is native to the Mediterranean region and is used in Italian cuisine. It is also used in breads, marinades, roasts and many other recipes. It is a beautiful plant with shiny dark green needle-like leaves that are very fragrant and will leave their scent on your fingers if you barely brush against it. It is a perennial plant in more moderate climates but annual in colder climates. It is pretty hardy and survives for most of the cold season under the snow, then it freezes when the frigid winds of January and February blow. It is one of easiest herbs to grow in a home garden and if you pot and bring it indoors for winter you will enjoy it fresh in your recipes.
TO DRY ROSEMARY, rinse the whole sprigs under cold water and make sure you get rid of all the dirt. Let all the water drain in a colander then spread the sprigs in a single layer on a tea towel for several days until completely dry. Carefully grab the stems and pull on the needles without poking your fingers. Discard the stems. Store dried leaves in an airtight container for several months.
SCALLIONS (piaz che): Also called green onions or spring onions, grows green hollow leaves very similar to onion but with much smaller roots. Scallions are used fresh or cooked in recipes all around the world. Fresh scallions are sliced thin and sprinkled on salads, soups, salsas and sauces. In Mexican cooking the roots are removed and whole scallions are grilled and served with grilled thin steaks in Carne Asada dishes. Scallions are available year round in the supermarkets but if you end up with more scallions that you had intended, slice them into 1/2-inch pieces and freeze them in freezer proof bags. The frozen slices come apart easily and should be used without thawing in soups and sauces.
SUMMER SAVORY (marzeh): The narrow delicate leaves of this herb are very spicy with a distinct flavor that is not similar to any other herb except for its hardy, perennial cousin winter savory. It is more suitable for cooking than the winter savory. This herb is used both fresh and dried in Persian cooking such as my Koofteh Tabrizi, Dolmeh Barg and Abdoogh Khiar. It is an annual herb in most climates but in milder weather conditions the seeds from the previous season sprout back in spring. It usually needs very specific conditions to thrive in home herb gardens.
TARRAGON (tarkhun): There are three different tarragon species, French, Spanish and Russian. My first experience buying a tarragon plant went from joyful at finding this hard to come by herb to sheer disappointment at the total lack of flavor and aroma when I bit into a leaf. That is when I learned that you need to look for French tarragon when purchasing this herb. The test is crushing a leaf between your fingers to release the aroma of this fabulous culinary herb. French tarragon is a perennial herb that does not produce flowers and no seeds could be purchased to grow it. Root division is the only way to propagate this herb. Once established in good soil and enough sun it is a fairly easy and hardy herb to grow in the home gardens. It does not like too many hours of direct hot sun, so it is best planted in a location that will get enough of morning sun and not too much hot afternoon sun. The plant goes into dormancy and looks completely dried up over winter but new tender leaves grow back every year as soon as the ground warms up a bit in early spring. Tarragon is used both fresh and dried in fish and chicken recipes such as Creamy Chicken Tarragon. It is also added to sauces and soups.
TO DRY TARRAGON, rinse the whole sprigs under cold water. Drain all the water, then pat dry the leaves with paper towel. Spread on a tea towel and air dry for several days. When the leaves are completely dry, holding the stems pull on the leaves, discard the stems. Do not crush the leaves until you are ready to use them. Store the dried leaves in an airtight container.
GERMAN THYME (avishan): This is an herb from mint family with aromatic tiny pointed leaves and light pink flowers. The leaves are very spicy and flavorful and are picked and used in sauces. Stems tend to be tough but they work well for flavoring bouquet garni and pickles. This is an easy herb to grow and it is perennial in zones 5-9 with evergreen leaves in these zones; the plant does not die down over cold months. Thyme is suitable for growing in containers. Thyme may be stored for a few days in the refrigerator. For a longer storage, dry the leaves on the stem for optimum flavor, then separate them and store in an airtight container.
WINTER SAVORY: A beautiful hardy, perennial herb that grows very well in home herb gardens with dark green leaves and light pink flowers. The plant becomes dormant in winter, but new leaves grow back in spring from the dried up stems. The leaves have a very strong spicy flavor, very similar to summer savory but with more of a kick. The leaves are smaller and tougher than summer savory leaves with sharp borders which makes them unsuitable for fresh culinary use. Winter savory dries very well and could be grounded into powder and used in recipes that call for summer savory, which does not readily thrive in most climates.
Last but not least, CATNIP: A perennial herb with fuzzy leaves and light pink flowers that resemble those of the mint plant. Plant one small container of this herb in your garden and watch it come back faithfully year after year in all parts of your yard and provide hours of enjoyment for your cats and your neighbors’ cats. And yes you can dry this one too!
Have I told you how much I love herbs?