Ten Top Herbs for the Kitchen

INCOOKING, dry herbs are a poor substitute for fresh. Many herbs lend themselves to window-box culture, and most thrive in patios close to the kitchen door. Here are 10 of the most useful in the kitchen, with Dr Stuart's observations.

TARRAGON: The Latin name, Artemisia dracunculus, meaning little dragon, refers to its coiled, serpent-like root. Its essential oil is identical to anise, and the chopped leaves are intrinsic to French classic cooking, in creamy chicken and shellfish dishes. Chop into salads, herb omelettes, and use whole stems to flavour vinegar. Do not by mistake grow Russian tarragon: it is a poor, tasteless relation.

CORIANDER: Valued for its seed (powdered in Indian curries), it stimulates the gastric juices. Although it has been cultivated for 3,000 years, the leaves have only recently become accepted in British cooking, thanks to the fashion for Thai and other oriental cuisines where it is a basic flavouring. It can be sown outdoors in early summer, and germinates slowly.

PARSLEY: The most used herb in the British kitchen although these days relegated to the role of a garnish. It stimulates the appetite and is an anti-flatulent. It also masks the odour of garlic on the breath. French flat-leafed parsley has a better flavour than the English curly leaf. Likes a good, moist soil.

THYME: Contains many oils, of which thymol is a powerful antiseptic that works in the gastro-intestinal tract, thus medicating your food as you eat it. Much used in medicine as an antiseptic. Used in stews and omelettes it confers the instant taste of the Mediterranean. An old trick is to marinate pork chops with thyme, garlic, bayleaf and wine for several days in the fridge to reproduce the gamey flavour of wild boar. There many varieties of thyme, the culinary one is Thymus vulgaris and it can be grown easily in a sunny spot.

ROSEMARY: From the Latin Ros Maris, dew of the sea. The flowers are dew-like and the plant likes a seaside habitat. The oil is highly aromatic with tonic, diuretic and antiseptic properties. Externally, the oil is an effective insect repellent. It makes a good gargle and soothing embrocation. In cooking, it is pervasively strong, but wonderful with grilled meat or stuck into lamb with garlic slivers. Stick a cutting in well-drained soil in a sheltered position and it will easily take.

SAGE: There are some 750 species of sage (Salvia, from salvere, to be in good health) but the common one is Salvia officinalis. Its powerful aroma is useful in cooking to mask other smells, especially liver. Its strong antiseptic properties combined with onion make it a useful ingredient for stuffing a bird, inhibiting the growth of bacteria inside. Very pungent and a little goes a long way. Grows easily in this country.

SWEET MARJORAM: Aromatic herb used forcenturies in northern Europe to flavour meat dishes; the Germans call it Wurstkraut (sausage herb). It is the tamer cousin of the wild marjoram, otherwise known as oregano, which perfumes Mediterranean hillsides. Both forms have an affinity with tomato sauce. It has both antiseptic and digestive properties.

MINT: Needs no introduction. Spearmint is the common or garden variety; its beneficial volatile oils have stimulant, anti-spasmodic, antiseptic, anti-flatulent, appetite-promoting properties. Much prized in mint jellies, mint tea and mint sauce (borrowed from the Infidels by the Crusaders). Mint leaves are essential to Middle Eastern salads, and are mixed with other herbs with bulgar grain to make tabbouleh.

BAY: Sweet laurel - many are the errata slips in cookery books translated from European languages where laurier has been rendered as laurel, a leaf poisonous in cooking. Bay is antiseptic and stimulates the digestion. It is an essential ingredient in a bouquet garni along with parsley, thyme and leek. Bay has a sweet smell which masks less pleasant odours, and is therefore useful in making fish and other stocks. It grows freely in the garden and needs cutting back.

BASIL: Basilikon phuton, the kingly herb of the Greeks. The spicy, peppery scent of basil is due to the essential oil, estragol, which indicates a relationship with tarragon (estragon in French). Medicinal properties are as a comforter and sedative. It flourishes best in hot climates; in Italy it is used in salads, tomato sauces and in pesto. Grown under glass in Britain, it develops aroma but has only a passing flavour of the Mediterranean herb.

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