Do you know the difference between an herb and a spice? Essentially, herbs are the leaves and stems of a plant, while the rest of a plant would be a spice. Also, most spices are dried before use, while almost all herbs can be used fresh as well as dried. Seeds, bark, nuts, buds, stems, roots, stigmas (think saffron), and flowers all constitute spices. The leaves, and the fleshy stems attached, equal herbs. There is a little bit of play with this definition, as most chefs would view lavender (which is a flower) as an herb rather than a spice. Lemongrass fresh? Herb. Dried? Spice. Also, some herbs have different names for different parts. In Europe, cilantro is called coriander — leaf or seed. Here, coriander is the seed, and sometimes the leaf, but cilantro is always the leaf.
If you are looking for fresh herbs, whether to grow or to use in cooking right away, the farmers market is the place to start. The current count has 55 herbs in plant form, not including herbs strictly for medicinal usage or spices, and around 35 types in bunches rotating in and out of the stalls for immediate usage. Many of these herbs are variants of a type, such as the 8 or 9 types of basil, but each one of these variants will have something different to offer from the next. Often you can substitute one for another, but you may find certain herbs will add something that simply perfects a dish. The only way to know for certain is to use the herb in a dish and taste it. However, with practice, you can build up a taste memory that you can rely on to vary the herbs in any given dish.
Smelling, tasting, and reading recipes will give you a good idea of what to expect from various herbs, and then playing with herbs in the kitchen will give you solid information to rely on later. In this way, you will also learn which herbs complement each other, and also which herbs go best with a particular item, whether it is a meat, grain, vegetable, or whatever.
You will also find certain herbs are unique to certain cuisines. In addition to a geographical culinary affinity, certain blends are what define some dishes. A classic example is Herbes de Provence, which typically is a blend of basil, rosemary, thyme, marjoram, savory, and bay. Additions are fennel seed and/or lavender. Although this is a dry blend, using these herbs (all or some) in their fresh form will certainly lend a Provençal Southern French flavor to a dish.
Buying Fresh Herbs
When choosing fresh herbs, always look for bunches where the leaves are not drooping or shriveling. The colors should be lively, and when you run a hand over the bunch the leaves should stay attached rather than raining down. Although some flowering buds are okay, a bunch of herbs with nothing but flowers is not the best to buy as the flowers of some herbs can be quite pungent with bitter notes. Most importantly, when you gently brush a bunch of herbs, you should be able to smell the herbs, both in the air from the leaves themselves, and there should be a trace of the scent on your hands as well. The smell of the herbs should be pure and clean, without any musty, or funky/moldy smell to it. The musty smell can mean the herbs are drying out, and the funky smell results from the herbs being damp when bundled or stored in a wet environment too long.
How to Store Fresh Herbs
When you get your herbs home, remove the twist-tie, and then roll the herbs in a clean towel or paper towels, and store them in a bag or a box with a tight fitting lid in the refrigerator where you keep lettuces. Although some folks like to keep basil in a jar of water on the counter, rolling basil loosely in paper towels and bagging it in the refrigerator works quite well. You don’t have to worry about wilting from the sun, and it will last a week or more. You may need to experiment to find the optimum place to store herbs in the refrigerator, but once you do you can keep a varied supply of fresh herbs at the ready.
How to Dry Herbs
If you find yourself with a surfeit of fresh herbs, try drying them. Tie the stems tightly with kitchen twine, and then spread the bunch out so air can circulate amongst the branches and leaves, and hang from the ceiling where the bunch will get good air circulation away from sunlight. Hang until the herbs are dry — they should feel brittle and come away from the stems without too much pressure. When herbs are dry, hold by the stems and put them into a paper bag and shake as much of the leaves off as you can, then use your fingers to strip the rest of the leaves off. Transfer to an airtight jar and enjoy. This method works fine for fleshy herbs such as thyme, savory, oregano and even mint, but it is chancy with basils, dill, and cilantro.
Here is a partial list of what you can find in bunches (as well as plants) — Basil (including curly basil, sweet basil, Genovese, cinnamon, bush, lemon, holy basil, opal, bai kraphao or Thai holy basil), summer and winter savory, thyme (including lemon, English, silver thyme), French and winter tarragon, marjoram, oregano, Mexican oregano, zata’ar (a middle-eastern oregano), sage (Bergaarten sage, variegated sage), Provençal and Grosso lavenders, bay leaf, curly and Italian parsley, cilantro (coriander leaf), salad burnet, dill, spearmint, peppermint, orange mint, lemon balm, and lemongrass. If you see an herb you have never tried, you should pick up a bunch and take it home and play with it. It could prove to be the start of a beautiful relationship.
Look for cut herbs at these stalls (in no particular order): T & L Coke Farms, Nagamine Nursery, Route 1, Borba Farms, Blue Heron, Pinnacle Farms, Windmill Farms, Mello-Dy Ranch, Cabrillo College, Valencia Creek (culinary lavender), and KT Farms (offers several varieties of basils including Asian types for Thai and Indian cuisine, plus lemongrass in season.) For growing herbs, check out Cole Canyon and Upstarts for a stunning variety of organic herbs, both culinary and medicinal, as well as food producing plants.
RECIPES: Herbal Cheese Spread, Marinated Greek Olives, Olive Oil Herb Dip, Mint Pistachio Pesto, Cilantro Pesto, Classic Basil Pesto, Minted Meyer Lemon Relish, Pesto Di Pistacchio (Pistachio Pesto), Cilantro Chili Sauté Juice, Cilantro Oil, Dill Compound Butter, Pesto Farro, Creamy Cilantro Lime Dressing, Creamy Mint Dressing, Creamy Pesto Dressing, Cumin Coriander Vinaigrette, Green Goddess Dressing, Lemon Chervil Cream Dressing, Mint Vinaigrette, Pineapple-Sesame Vinaigrette, Tarragon Vinaigrette, Green Bean Salad with Feta, Mint and Red Onions, Balsamic Grilled Strawberries and Little Gem Salad with Creamy Mint Dressing, Cilantro Lime Chickpea Salad, Learning to Cook with Fresh Herbs