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The Legendary Flavors of Herbs Await You

on Wednesday, 05 October 2011. Posted in Eat This! Fall 2011, Follow This!

The Legendary Flavors of Herbs Await You

The magical lore and mystical legends about herbs are almost as compelling as their unique flavors and scents. You’ll notice a collection of herbs growing among the feathery ferns and bright flowers in window boxes along just about every street in downtown Charleston.  

At least some of these herbs are used in the kitchens of the buildings they adorn. If you have the good fortune to dine at Fulton Five in downtown Charleston and wonder aloud why the pasta dishes all but make you sing, a server will point you toward the pots of fresh herbs thriving on the steps by the entrance.

And though it would be nice to believe you could add fresh herbs to an otherwise bland dish and instantly elevate it from plain to perfect, you really need to learn about the personalities of each herb and the most suitable ways to introduce them to your recipes. Unlike spices, which come from roots, bark, seeds or fruit, herbs are the green, leafy parts of the plant. Getting to know just a few herbs well will take your culinary prowess to the next level.

Both the curly and flat varieties of parsley, whose name comes from the Greek word for rock celery, provide a refreshing kick to salads, adding a just-picked flavor that greens might not possess on their own.

Basil has an almost holy reputation because it was found growing near what was thought to be the base of Christ’s cross. A member of the mint family, the name of this aromatic herb is derived from the Greek word for king. Sweet basil is the most common variety grown in Charleston and the type most popular in Italian food, but basil has appeal throughout the world. Thai and lemon basil are staples in Asian cuisine.

Sage is a cousin of mint with a centuries-long reputation of not only adding a savory flavor to food but also serving as an esteemed healing plant. A medieval pearl of wisdom translates to “Why should a man die when sage grows in his garden?” Sage has been used to cure everything from a loose tooth to stomach distress.

Rosemary, probably Charleston’s most abundant herb, thrives in heat and humidity and can be found growing as hedges in many parts of the city. When roasted with rosemary, tomatoes, onions, carrots and squash blossom into hearty fare. The woody stems of the bush can be used to infuse grilled food with a smoky rosemary scent.

The best way to develop a talent for adding herbs to your culinary creations is to first become an expert on just one. Read about its history; taste it by itself; smell its fragrance; steep it into a tea; really get to know its characteristics and qualities.

Eventually, you’ll sense when a specific herb will lend its magic to the food you’re preparing, and you’ll realize that herbs, which have endured throughout the history of humankind, are far more than just ordinary plants.

by Chris Saxon Koelker

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