Mint, Basil, Parsley, Cilantro, And Tarragon
Mint: More than Just Juleps
The word mint has its origins in Greek mythology. It is said that when Pluto's wife discovered that he was in love with the beautiful nymph Minthe, she was overcome by jealous rage and transformed the nymph into a plant. Pluto, unable to reverse his wife's actions, was at least able to transform the plant into one of fragrant beauty. Mint is commonly found in warmer regions including Europe, Asia, South Africa, the Americas, and Australia.
There are at least 25 species of mint including peppermint, spearmint, apple, chocolate, pineapple, and ginger mint. All mint has similar cooling, menthol undertones but each type also has a subtle, unique flavor that distinguishes it from other types. Mint, as most people recognize it, has pairs of leaves that sit opposite each other on the plant's uniquely square shaped stems. The leaves are usually bright to deep green in color and often have jagged, serrated leaves.
The culinary uses for mint are infinite and it has both sweet and savory applications. It is often used in sweetened beverages such as Moroccan mint tea or mint juleps and as a popular flavoring for candy, gum, and desserts. In savory cooking, two of the more classical parings for mint are with lamb and with fresh peas. It is also frequently used in Middle Eastern cookery in dishes like tabouli. Medicinally, mint is used for intestinal issues, to clear the sinuses, and to help soothe headaches, toothaches, and sore mouths and throats.
Basil: The King of Herbs
Basil is native to India, Africa, and Asia, but is cultivated the world around. It is characterized by long stems with large, soft leaves that range in color from lime green to deep purple and range in shape from long and thin to tall and rotund. Although there are numerous varieties of basil, the most common are Italian or sweet, Thai, lemon, cinnamon, and opal. Most basil has a deep, slightly peppery flavor with a hint of sweetness and traces of mint and clove. The names of many types of basil reveal what its underlying flavors are, for example lemon and cinnamon.
Pesto is probably the first food that comes to mind when basil is mentioned because it is an extremely popular pasta sauce made from basil, garlic, olive oil, pine nuts, and Parmesan cheese. Tomatoes are a perfect flavor match for basil and many classic Italian dishes, such as the Margherita pizza and the soup pappa al pomodoro, are made with tomatoes, basil, and just a few other ingredients, each of which greatly highlights the other. Basil is wonderful eaten raw in salads and sandwiches and equally delicious when added to cooked dishes like soups, roasts, and vegetables. It is often used to aid in digestion and some believe that it helps reduce headaches and calm the nerves.
Parsley is indigenous to the Mediterranean regions as well as parts of the Middle East, South America and Africa. It flourishes in moderate climates and does not respond well to high amounts of humidity. Parsley has often received the unfair distinction of being a flavorless culinary afterthought good only for adding color to food. On the contrary, parsley actually has a bright, vibrant flavor that can surprisingly enhance any dish to which it is added. The two most popular types of parsley are curly parsley and Italian, or flat leaf parsley. Curly parsley is recognized by its tightly bunched, bright green leaves and a milder taste and crisper texture. The Italian variety is more fragrant and bold in taste with less bitterness than its curly counterpart and is recognized by its flat leaves with a saw-toothed pattern.
Parsley leaves are often used in a Middle Eastern and North African food, particularly salads and cold dishes. It can also be used to season more delicately flavored dishes like eggs, simple pastas, and fish. Parsley is often used in combination with other herbs. Two of the better known examples are the French blend of fines herbes and gremolata, an Italian mixture of lemon zest, garlic, and parsley. It is one of the most nutritious of all the herbs with large amounts of antioxidants and vitamins. It is also a natural breath freshener and is sometimes used to help with bladder and urinary tract problems.
Cilantro and Coriander
Like many of the herbs discussed, cilantro (or coriander) has its origins in the Mediterranean regions, even though it is more commonly associated with Mexican and Asian cuisines. Cilantro is one of the most powerful and distinctive tasting herbs and the one that elicits more emotion in people (particularly among those who dislike it) than any other. For those who like it, the flavor of cilantro is often described as aromatic and zesty with flavors of sage and citrus. Those who don't like it typically abhor its taste, describing it as soapy, medicinal, and bitter. It has been suggested that there is actually some type of enzymatic change happening in their bodies that affects how the taste of cilantro is perceived.
Cilantro is used freely in Mexican and Southeast Asian food and because the flavor profiles from these distant regions of the world are so different, the flavor of cilantro actually tastes different depending on which foods you are eating it with. When added to salsas in Mexican cuisine, cilantro blends with the other ingredients brightening the flavors while at the same time helping to cool and tone down some of the heat from the chilies. In many Southeast Asian dishes, such as the traditional Thai coconut soup tom kah gai, cilantro is added to what starts out as a fairly neutral flavored broth and along with other aromatic flavorings such as kaffir lime and galangal root, helps to perfume the broth, adding more fragrance than actual flavor to the dish.
Cilantro is similar to Italian parsley in appearance having jagged edged, bright green, flat leaves attached to a long stem, but cilantro's leaves are more rounded than those of Italian parsley. If there is ever any doubt as to which is which, just smell them and you can immediately distinguish one from the other. Cilantro is sometimes used to aid in digestion, but otherwise does not have many medicinal uses.
How to Use Tarragon
Tarragon is native to Siberia and the Caspian Sea area and is now widely cultivated in Europe, the United States, and Asia. Characterized by its anise-like flavor, it can be a delicate enhancer in small amounts and completely overpowering in larger quantities or if it has been cooked for too long. It grows on slim, tender stems and has long, narrow dark green leaves. Tarragon is often used in combination with other herbs so that is does not overpower a dish. It is a nice accompaniment to fish, meat, and poultry as well as hearty vegetables. Tarragon is the primary ingredient in the well-known sauces bernaise and remoulade that have a rich foundation that can hold up to the intense flavor of the herb. Tarragon also lends itself well to acidic ingredients such as vinegars and citrus, which help to mellow some of its intensity. Tarragon doesn't have any real medicinal uses, but it does have a numbing affect on the tongue and inside of the mouth if you chew on a leaf or two.
About the Author
After receiving degrees from the University of Wisconsin and the Culinary Institute of America, Andrea Rappaport moved into a full-time career in the restaurant business. For over 12 years, she worked in various culinary jobs, including as a cook for Wolfgang Puck at Spago, and ultimately as the executive chef and partner of the highly revered San Francisco restaurant Zinzino. For the past seven years, Andrea has worked as the private chef for one family in the San Francisco area, and continues to expand her culinary portfolio by catering, teaching, and consulting.