As I ready my herb garden for planting, I think about the hardiness of the varieties I want to introduce to the earth. (Hello, thyme. Are you ready to meet dirt?) I take a good long at my rosemary starts as I shower them with water, and I begin to appreciate their evergreen leaves. Have you ever considered that rosemary had “leaves”? I must confess, I never really thought much about it, although now it seems unfathomable that I would not consider those slender, deep green spikes to be leaves.
Some of my favorite herbs are of Mediterranean origin, such as basil, which leaps to mind as Italy’s signature herb. And for good reason. You will not find a tomato dish in Italy without at least a few basil leaves. Indeed, basil was an essential ingredient in the Neapolitan re-creation of the Italian flag in the familiar form of, you guessed it, pizza. How's that for the definition of a national standard? But while basil may take center stage as the classic Italian herb, there are many other unique herbs that add flavor and depth to cuisine.
I love the variety of my kitchen herb garden, with its sage, parsley, mint, thyme and many other superstars. But why is it so appealing to me? Why use herbs at all? Are they just an attractive garnish, or do they really make a difference in cooking? In my opinion, they make a significant impact on the flavor of a dish and I could not imagine cooking without them. Used in the right proportions, herbs can truly enhance a dish. Whenever you feel like there is something missing, consider changing direction by adding fresh herbs.
Herbs can define. Each possesses its own distinct and imposing personality. Take rosemary again. She is commanding, with her woody structure and strong aromatic presence. Sage, on the other hand, is a lover, with her soft, understated yet alluring leaves, lilting with invitation. And I was surprised to recently discover that parsley, which has always struck me as a pest, grows like a weed in Italy, so much so that Italians refer to an annoying person by saying “sei come prezzemolo,” literally, you are like parsley, meaning, ‘you are always in the way.’ Those Italians! Always defining their reality with food. Genius.
For me, herbs most definitely invite imagination and deepen my sense of ground, because they almost always bring me back to my senses. Perhaps you’ve had the same experience. Have you ever had the aroma of the basil you brush with your fingers wake you up, stay with you and send you deep into your senses? Every time it happens to me, I remember that I can’t imagine a world without herbs.