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Herb and food pairings: some click, some clash

Fine Cooking Issue 33
Photos: Martha Holmberg
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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.


  • 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.
Thai basil (left) and regular (sweet) basil


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.
Mediterranean bay
California bay


  • Try chervil with its relative, the carrot, in a cream of carrot soup or with sautéed carrots and shallots.
  • Make a sauce for red snapper with chopped tomatoes, shallots, olive oil, and chervil.


  • Add chopped cilantro to tomato-, chile-, and fruit-based salsas to accompany grilled meats, fish, and poultry.
  • Make a curried chicken salad with celery, apples, and chopped cilantro leaves.
  • Stir-fry vegetables and beef and make a sauce with soy sauce, sesame oil, fresh ginger, and chopped cilantro.


  • Make a sauce of mustard, oil, sugar, salt, dill, and a dash of cider vinegar to serve with gravlax, cold-smoked salmon, or shrimp.
  • Add chopped dill to mayonnaise-based salads like potato salad, egg salad, or salade russe (cooked vegetables dressed first in vinaigrette, drained, and tossed with dill mayonnaise).


  • Add epazote to a Mexican dish like black beans; you’ll find its turpentine-like flavor (trust me, it grows on you) cuts the heaviness of the beans and helps counteract flatulence.

Lemon verbena

  • Make a lemon verbena butter to top broiled shrimp, scallops, or mild-tasting fish like red snapper, sea bass, or grouper.
  • Flavor iced tea with lemon verbena and lime.
  • Crush a few leaves and put them in a steamer basket with chicken or fish for a lightly perfumed dish.
Lemon verbena


  • Toss steamed green beans with gently heated crème fraîche, lemon zest, and marjoram.
  • Use marjoram in mustard sauces or tomato sauces for stewed rabbit dishes or to season chicken or pork sausages.


  • Cook ground lamb with tomato, red wine, and oregano, top with a cheese-laced creamy custard sauce, and then bake for Greek moussaka.
  • Make a vinaigrette of olive oil, red-wine vinegar, lemon juice, and chopped oregano; toss with greens, feta, tomato, kalamata olives, and egg wedges for a classic Greek salad.


  • Make a chicken salad with lemon zest, toasted pine nuts, currants, chopped parsley, and mayonnaise.
  • Make gremolata, a mixture of finely chopped flat-leaf parsley, garlic, lemon zest, and orange zest, and serve over braised veal shanks or clams steamed in white wine.
  • Make a persillade, a combination of finely chopped parsley and garlic, and toss with pan-fried potatoes to accompany grilled steak.
Curly parsley (left) and flat parsley


  • Brush toasted bread with olive oil and finely chopped rosemary before topping with fresh goat cheese, white bean spread, or eggplant caponata.
  • Rub chopped rosemary on aged beef or game birds before grilling or roasting.
  • Stuff a chicken with a few rosemary sprigs, a quartered lemon, and a handful of peeled garlic cloves, roast, and squeeze the lemon over the chicken before serving.


  • For a fettuccine sauce, combine and gently heat heavy cream, peas, sage, nutmeg, grated Parmesan, and thin strips of prosciutto. Or add sage leaves to a creamy béchamel sauce and bake with penne and prosciutto.
  • Rub a mixture of chopped sage leaves, crushed black peppercorns, olive oil, and sea salt on pork or veal before roasting or grilling.
Pineapple sage


  • Make a Lebanese toasted pita salad with tomatoes, cucumber, and chopped mint.
  • Add lots of spearmint to tea generously sweetened with sugar, as the Moroccans do.
  • Combine mint with chocolate for a cool note in desserts like mint chocolate chip ice cream, flourless chocolate cake with mint-infused custard sauce (crush the mint leaves and steep in the hot milk before making the custard), or mint-frosted brownies.

Summer savory

  • Make a gratin of flageolet beans, sautéed onions or shallots, carrots, sprigs of summer savory, and chicken stock. Top with breadcrumbs and more summer savory and bake in a slow oven.
Summer savory


  • Make a julienne of carrot salad and dress with tarragon leaves, fresh lemon juice, Dijon mustard, chopped shallots, and a light-tasting olive oil.
  • Toss tarragon leaves with fresh sliced white mushrooms, snipped chives, sherry vinegar, and a mild oil like canola.
  • Flavor hollandaise sauce with a reduction of wine vinegar, tarragon, and shallots (basically a béarnaise), and serve with pan-seared steak.


  • Mash chopped thyme with Roquefort cheese and chopped walnuts and serve with grilled steak.
  • Cook sprigs of thyme with French green lentils and use as a bed for sautéed or grilled salmon.


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