Along with new leaves and brilliant blooms, fresh herbs are in abundance in spring.
For culinary purposes, a herb is defined as the leaf and tender stem of a plant that’s used to flavour food. In ancient times herbs were associated with witchcraft and their use frowned upon, even for curing or preventing illness.
Over the centuries, herbs have been used extensively for medicinal and cosmetic purposes, but we’ve also come to appreciate their culinary value – their fragrance, colour and flavour can awaken the palate, turning the most humble dish into a deluxe delight.
Varieties & usage
Chervil: The most delicately flavoured of all the spring herbs, chervil has lacy, fern-like leaves and a mild taste. Although it is mostly used as a garnish in Australia, chervil is also good with eggs and fish.
Chives: A member of the onion family, chives are available in onion and garlic-flavoured varieties. Particularly good with potatoes and in cream sauces.
Dill: Often associated with Scandinavian dishes, such as gravlax (cured salmon), dill has feathery fronds and a mild aniseed flavour. Also used in Greek and Italian cooking, it goes well with cheese and seafood.
Mint: The most common varieties are round and spearmint, but others including peppermint, apple mint and chocolate mint all have their own distinctive flavour. This herb is widely used in Middle Eastern cuisine, where its fresh, cooling flavour complements the many aromatic spices.
Parsley: Due to its unassertive flavour, parsley is the most universally used of all herbs. While flat-leaf and curly parsley are common, there’s also a triple-curled variety with flat leaves that are frilled at the edges.
Salad burnet: This hardy herb is one of the first to rejuvenate in spring. Its pretty saw-edged leaves become bitter when mature, but young specimens have a tangy flavour that’s ideal in salads.
Tarragon: French tarragon is the best type for cooking as the yellow-flowering Russian variety is tougher and less flavoursome. Tarragon is a good match for white meats, particularly chicken.
When cutting herbs use a sharp knife or scissors to avoid bruising. You can also tear herbs – the leaves will rip along the veins and release more flavour during cooking.
For optimum colour and flavour, delicate spring herbs should always be added at the end of cooking.
When storing fresh herbs, wash and dry thoroughly, then pick the leaves and keep in an airtight container in the fridge. This way, the herbs are ready to go when needed and occupy less fridge space.
Some herbs, such as parsley, tarragon and mint, can be dried to preserve them. Hang small bunches of herbs upside down in a warm, dry, well-ventilated place, or in a paper bag with ventilation holes in the sides. Chopped chives can be preserved simply by freezing them. Chervil and dill are not suitable for drying as they will lose their flavour.
Originally published on homelife.com.au.