Regardless of whether you are cooking Italian- American cuisine or traditional Italian fare, you can be sure that fresh herbs are always appropriate. While any supermarket will sell packages of imported herbs, purchasing from a local farm or growing your own will make certain they have the best possible flavor.
Basil, parsley, oregano and garlic are already familiar to most Americans, but sage, fennel and rosemary are just as important in Italian cooking. While these fragrant herbs are only available fresh during certain times of the year, it’s worth taking the time to learn some ways to use them.
Basil is one of the primary ingredients in pesto. This paste is made by blending basil, garlic, olive oil and pine nuts, then mixing in grated cheese. You can use this versatile seasoning in many ways including tossing with hot buttered pasta, stirring into an omelet or using instead of plain garlic butter on bread. Basil is also delicious in fruit iced tea and sorbet.
Parsley is often used as a garnish so many people overlook this herb’s importance. It is a classic ingredient in basic broths. Gremolata, a mixture of chopped parsley, garlic and lemon zest, is used as an Italian condiment. It is also delightful as a green vegetable in a chopped salad.
Oregano is a favorite seasoning for pizza, but shouldn’t be limited to this one dish. It is an aromatic herb that works well with roasted or grilled foods. Oregano’s flavor is complemented by hot red peppers and can be used with them in marinades and dressings.
Americans are most familiar with fennel seeds, but both the foliage and bulbs are edible as well. The seed is frequently used to season Italian sausages. The fronds and bulb can be added into a spaghetti seasoning mix, sautéed or used in salads. The flavor is sweet and said to be somewhat reminiscent of licorice. Additionally, chewing on the fennel seeds after a meal will aid with digestion and freshen the breath.
Rosemary is a highly aromatic and slightly bitter herb that resembles pine needles. This herb must be stripped from the long stem and may remain hard to chew, so it should either be chopped finely or care should be taken when eating.
Rosemary is especially delicious when tossed with new red potatoes, olive oil and roasted. It is often used to flavor focaccia dough or minced finely and added to olive oil as a dip for warm bread.
Most Americans are familiar with the flavor of sage from the traditional seasoning used in Thanksgiving dressing. However, sage is used in many lesser known Italian dishes. In saltimbocca, veal and prosciutto are rolled up around sage leaves and baked in Marsala wine and butter. If you are unable to find ethically raised veal, chicken breast would also work in this recipe.
The difference in taste between fresh garlic and powdered garlic is so extreme that it’s hard to believe that they come from the same plant. Garlic bulbs, the most frequently eaten part of the plant, are eaten many different ways in Italian cooking. It can be used to infuse oil and eaten with bread, as a flavoring in place of butter, or for cooking.
They can be eaten raw, though cooking makes them sweeter and less harsh tasting. Aioli, or homemade garlic mayonnaise, can be used in any dish that calls for American mayonnaise. Traditionally, though, it’s served with Italian seafood soup.
Pick up some fresh herbs when you do your shopping this week. Crush a few leaves between your fingers, smelling and tasting them as you do. Experiment with them in your cooking and you won’t regret it. They will add a new depth to your favorite recipes.