Cilantro, mint, basil and thyme stir up nostalgic childhood memories for some, but they simply taste good in any dish
If one were to walk into my kitchen, besides inhaling the seemingly constant aroma of freshly prepared cooking, one would find my “can’t do withouts” — garlic, onions and four of my favourite herbs: fresh coriander (cilantro), mint, basil and thyme.
These herbs are always on hand. I plant them in my small garden and they supply my kitchen year-round, except in winter when the fresh produce section of the supermarket provides me with what I need.
Coriander leaves, also known as cilantro, is my first preference — in my view the all-round tastiest of all herbs. The problem is, either you love it or you hate it. There is no in-between.
However, with the influx of immigrants who have introduced their many cilantro-infused dishes, North Americans have taken to this most widely consumed fresh herb and one of the oldest condiments known to humankind. In most instances, coriander refers to the plant seeds and cilantro to the leaves.
My first experience with fresh cilantro remains vivid in my mind. I had never tasted the herb until years after I left our southwestern Saskatchewan farm and was in Toronto. A family friend who had recently arrived from Lebanon prepared a stew cooked with fresh cilantro leaves. My world changed.
The flavour of this herb combined with garlic made for a heavenly dish.
From that day on, the soups and stews, casseroles and a multitude of other dishes I would come to create would be revolutionized with the addition of this herb.
During the summer, when cilantro is plentiful, the fresh leaves, along with their stems, can be washed, then frozen in plastic bags. I do this to prepare for winter when my kitchen teems with a number of hearty warming soups and stews, made only tastier with cilantro leaves.
When ready to use, as much as is needed should be chopped, then the remainder re-bagged and returned to the freezer. One should remember that the taste of the frozen leaves will be less potent than those of leaves that are fresh.
Second on the list is mint — a herb my mother much used in her cooking on our Saskatchewan farm. Her salads and soups, her stews and vegetable stuffings always seemed to have a touch of mint. This is because our little hand-watered garden produced enough mint to last year-round.
Indeed, one of the enjoyable chores on the farm was when we children were asked, toward the end of summer, to pick all the mint.
Mother would then wash it and dry it out in the hot sun.
She would then remove the leaves and rub them together until a near powder and then store it for winter use.
I have followed in my mother’s footsteps, using mint in a number of my dishes and picking the fresh mint from my own garden and drying it for the winter.
It’s one of the most popular garden herbs cultivated worldwide, with some 2,000 varieties, but only peppermint and spearmint are usually retailed.
The leaves reach peak flavour when picked fresh. If wrapped with a damp towel and refrigerated, they will keep for about a week. However, if using dried crushed mint leaves, one teaspoon is a good substitute for four tablespoons of fresh mint.
The third favourite is basil, a sweet highly aromatic herb, easily grown from seed both indoors and outdoors. Besides its pleasant scent, it gives an ornamental touch to any setting. There are about 60 varieties of it worldwide.
Our homestead supply of basil was always enough for Mother to include it whenever she prepared kibbeh, Syria’s national meat and burghul dish. Christmas and Easter’s kibbeh was our special holiday meal with Mother’s special secret ingredient of basil infused in the ingredients. That was my mother’s signature.
Easily grown in gardening pots indoors, or in any type of garden, I have an almost never-ending supply of fresh basil available in my home.
An important culinary herb, basil has a strong, overpowering aroma that enhances the lure of a good number of foods. Cabbage, eggplant, onions, potatoes, spinach, zucchini and especially tomatoes all blend well with it. Fresh basil, with a taste somewhat like cloves, gives a mild zest to pastas, salads, sauces (such as the ever-popular pesto), soups, stews, ratatouilles and vegetables. It also adds a gentle somewhat peppery taste to scrambled eggs, meat loaves and other meat, chicken and fish dishes.
Fresh basil when harvested is perishable. The leaves bruise easily, and the herb only keeps for a short period in the refrigerator. Yet, it will last for weeks in a deep freeze.
Wash, dry and then finely chop the basil leaves and place in a plastic ice cube tray. Cover leaves with water and freeze; then store the frozen cubes in a plastic bag. When ready to use, place a cube directly into any simmering dish as soon as it is removed from the heat.
To be effective, basil should not be added while the food is cooking, and instead should be stirred in a few seconds before the food is removed from the heat. If added too soon it will lose its delicate heady aroma.
Of course, the fragrance of the fresh herb is more superior than when it is dried. When dried, the leaves tend to turn dark and develop a noticeably stronger taste than when fresh, but they can always be used as a substitute. In all recipes that call for fresh basil, one teaspoon dried can be substituted for two tablespoons fresh.
My final favourite is thyme — the woody perennial that comes in several varieties: a herb with a subtle, pleasant aroma and a slightly minty flavour.
If you have your own garden, I recommend that you put aside a small patch in the corner and plant a few thyme plants. Their bounty will be enough for the year — fresh in the summer and dried during the winter.
The leaves can be picked fresh and used throughout the summer, but they are at their best in flavour and aroma just before flowering. In autumn cut the stems with the leaves and hang in small bunches to dry for winter use.
Although it has a great reputation as a healthy herb, thyme reaches its peak in the kitchen. It goes well in seasoning blends for chowders, fish sauces, poultry and stuffing as well as pizzas, soups, stews and spaghetti. It enhances the taste of tomatoes, cheese and yogurt dishes, custards, croquettes, eggs, lamb, poultry, and veal. A mixture of garlic and thyme rubbed over meat roasts gives them a special mouth-watering quality.
As for the reasons why these four herbs are my favourites, one could be that they stir up nostalgic childhood memories of mother’s tasty dishes. But then again, it could be because my own garden provides me with a plentiful amount of them each year.
However, over the test of time, cilantro leaves, mint, basil and thyme simply taste good in any type of dish I make.
Fresh cilantro leaves with yogurt
Serves six to eight.
- 4 c. plain yogurt
- 2 c. very finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves
- 4 cloves garlic crushed
- 1 tsp. salt
Thoroughly combine all ingredients. Cover and chill for at least one hour before serving.
Minty meatballs in tomato sauce – Dawoud Basha
- 1 pound lean ground lamb or beef
- 1 tsp. salt, divided
- 1/2 tsp. black pepper
- 1 tsp. crushed dried mint
- 3/4 tsp. allspice
- 1/4 tsp. cinnamon
- 2 tbsp. butter
- 1/3 c. pine nuts
- 4 tbsp. olive oil
- 2 medium onions, julienned
- 1/2 c. flour
- 3 1/2 c. stewed tomatoes, pureed
- 1 tbsp. tomato paste
- 1 tsp.n pomegranate molasses
- 1/4 tsp. sugar
- 2 tbsp. chopped parsley
- 2 tbsp. chopped fresh mint
In a bowl, combine meat, 3/4 teaspoon salt, pepper, dried mint, allspice, and cinnamon. Form into 30 to 35 small meatballs about the size of a hazelnut. Refrigerate.
In a large frying pan on medium-low heat, melt butter and toast pine nuts until golden, three to four minutes, stirring constantly. Remove pine nuts with a slotted spoon and set aside.
In the same frying pan on medium, heat oil and saute onions until they’re soft and begin to turn golden, about eight minutes. Remove onions and set aside.
Dredge meatballs lightly in flour and fry them in the same frying pan on medium-low heat, carefully turning to brown evenly. Remove meatballs with a slotted spoon and set aside.
In the same frying pan, combine tomatoes, tomato paste, pomegranate molasses, sugar, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Stir well, then add cooked onions. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes, then gently stir in meatballs.
Cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
Sprinkle pine nuts on top, along with parsley and mint.
Cover and simmer for five minutes.
Pumpkin and basil soup
Serves eight to 10.
- 4 tbsp. cooking oil
- 1/2-pound beef or lamb, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1 hot pepper, seeded and finely chopped
- 2 c. stewed tomatoes
- 2 tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. black pepper
- 1 tsp. cumin
- 7 c. water
- 3 c. pumpkin, peeled then diced into 1/2-inch cubes
- 4 tbsp. finely chopped fresh basil or 2 tsp. dried
In a saucepan, heat oil over medium, then saute meat until it begins to brown. Add onion, garlic and hot pepper, then saute for eight more minutes. Add remaining ingredients, except the pumpkin and basil and then bring to a boil. Cover and cook over medium heat for 50 minutes, and then add pumpkin and cook for a further 20 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in basil; serve hot.
Chicken with thyme
Serves four to six.
- 1 chicken, 3 to 4 pounds, cut into large pieces
- 3 tsp. salt
- 1 1/2 tsp. black pepper
- 1 c. packed chopped fresh thyme
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 1/2 c. white grape juice
- 1/4 c. white vinegar
- 6 tbsp. butter
- 1/2 c. finely chopped green onions
Sprinkle the chicken pieces with 2 1/2 teaspoons of the salt and one teaspoon of the pepper, then place in top part of a couscousiére or double boiler and set aside.
Fill bottom part of couscousiére with water and bring to boil.
Fit the top part of couscousiére over bottom, spread thyme over chicken and cover. If there is steam escaping, seal upper and lower together with a flour-impregnated piece of cloth. Steam over medium-high heat for about 1 1/2 hours or until chicken is done.
In the meantime, place onion, grape juice, vinegar and remaining salt and pepper in a small saucepan, and simmer uncovered over medium heat until liquid has been reduced to less than half.
Add butter and green onions, and stir for two minutes to make sauce.
Place chicken pieces on a serving platter, spread piping hot sauce evenly over top and serve with fried or mashed potatoes.