The Italian Herbs

The Italian Herbs:

Rosemary, Oregano, Basil and Garlic

Four Italian Herbs that are utilized in many Italian recipes

You can’t create great Italian cuisine without fresh herbs.   What you get is just a collection of very bland food.  The Italian taste is linked to a group of herbs that originally were native to the region.  Most of the herbs are not a big challenge to grow in your own garden.

herb garden basilBASIL: Probably the most widely used of the Italian herbs used in Italian culinary efforts.  If you look at Italian cooking basics, a large percentage of the dishes start with the tomato sauce which Italians refer to as gravy.  Basil is the perfect compliment to the flavor of tomato sauce, soups and marinades. There is nothing to compare to a fresh pesto made with Genovese basil leaves, oil, garlic and pine nuts or walnuts. I have several pesto recipes on this website.  This pesto mixture can be placed into small heavy-duty freezer bags and stored in your freezer for use at a later time.

I grow sweet large leaf Italian basil in my herb garden and I find it is quite easy to cultivate.  The trick with basil is to snip the flower buds below the growing node and that will encourage it to become “bushy” and grow out rather than up. The leaves are at their peak of flavor just before the plants start the flowering process.  At this time you can cut stalks of the basil plants and tie them into bundles and hang them in a cool dry location to obtain dried basil for use over the winter.  I usually plant fresh basil plants in late summer in pots that I can move indoors for use over the winter.  I prefer the fresh basil leaves to the dried variety in my Italian dishes.  Basil will keep fresh if you place the stalks in room temperature water for up to about 10 days. Basil has another side benefit in that it is a natural repellant for flies and mosquitoes.  I have a pot of fresh basil just outside my door out back for this very reason.  Additionally it will improve the taste of tomatoes and peppers if you plant it next to those plants in your garden.

herb garden garlicGARLIC: Garlic and Italian cooking go together as a perfect compliment. I plant cloves in the corner of my garden in the fall and just ignore them till the next summer.  What could be easier?  You can dig them up when the vegetation above the soil starts to turn a golden brown.  Harvest them on a sunny day in the early morning and let them dry out in the sunlight, bringing them inside before the evening.  I store mine in a ceramic garlic pot that I purchased at a local gourmet store. These pots are perfect as the ceramic material will breathe and allow air circulation.  Like my pesto, I store fresh garlic cloves in plastic bags with most of the air removed in my freezer. Garlic is one element of Italian cooking that does not have any substitute. Garlic is actually a member of the onion family.

herb garden oreganoOREGANO: Oregano, the second Italian herb, is the “ying” and Basil is the “yang” of Italian cooking. The basil-oregano combination is used in a wide variety of Italian tomato-based dishes, with meat or fish recipes and as a flavor enhancer in many salads. Like basil the oregano herb leaves are at their most flavorful at the time the plant send out flowers.

Oregano is actually a member of the mint family and it is quite hardy.  It will reach two feet in height and originally was native to the Mediterranean region.  You will find oregano in many of the world’s finest cuisine.  Origanum Marjoram is the most common species of oregano used for cooking.  Oregano has many health benefits including the fact that it is a powerful anti-oxidant, it is rich in fiber, and has been shown to maintain respiratory health.  But the main benefit of this Italian herb is its ability to add a subtle flavor to the Italian dishes it compliments.

herb garden rosemaryROSEMARY: Rosemary is actually a shrub.  In Florida you will find it used as a boarder and its unique aroma will attract bees to your garden, essential for pollination of some vegetables.  It is sensitive to frost so be sure to bring it inside in the winter if you live in the northern part of the country.
Rosemary is the perfect compliment to roasted lamb, chicken and turkey and potato dishes. The dried leaves will make a wonderful tea.  Clip the leaves, which resemble pine needles, and dice them for use in a wide variety of Italian dishes.
These are just the top four Italian herbs used in Italian dishes.  Although, these are the major Italian herbs used in Italian cooking, Italian chefs are not limited to just these four.  You can learn more about each of these herbs in greater depth on the individual pages elsewhere on this site.

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