Herbs are like people: each has its own personality and style. Think about that when you're playing matchmaker with herbs and food. There's nothing wrong with experimenting to discover what these natural marriages are, but since almost every traditional cuisine has done the work before you, why reinvent the wheel? Before you start experimenting, get to know the particular flavor nuances of herbs by first using them in time-honored ways. Then be guided by your own creativity and taste. Here are a few of my favorite herb and food combinations to get you started.
Thai basil (left) and regular (sweet) basil
- Make a salsa cruda with diced ripe yellow and red tomatoes, red onions, fresh or smoked mozzarella, shredded basil leaves, and fruity olive oil to serve over capellini.
- Chop citrus fruits, shallots, and basil leaves for a relish to serve on grilled fish such as tuna and mahi-mahi.
- Make a basil butter and smear it under the husk before grilling or roasting corn.
Thai basil has a strong anise flavor and purplish stems.
- Try combining Thai basil with coconut milk and lemongrass for chicken or shellfish sauces.
I prefer Mediterranean over California bay; remove bay leaves from the dish before serving
- Add bay leaves to slow-cooked sauces, stocks, seafood poaching liquid, or cream- and cheese-based sauces.
- Thread fresh bay leaves (soak them in cold water to soften) on beef, chicken, or tuna brochettes before grilling.
- Poach pears in red- or white-wine syrup flavored with bay leaves and a strip of orange zest or lemon zest.